There can be beauty in sorrow. Casandra is a young woman learning this the hard way. This strong-willed, twenty-six-year-old filly weighs in at ninety-five pounds and runs on pure adrenaline and the occasional use of cuss words. For Casandra, life has never been about avoiding the bumps and bruises – and she has the battle scars to prove it!
Only a year ago, this dynamic dame was riding thoroughbred horses around the track for notable trainers. She also selflessly risked her life to help save dozens of panicked horses and two frightened goats that were trapped during the devastating Lilac Fire that killed forty-six horses at San Luis Rey Downs in San Diego. Today, she is fighting for her own life.
Cas, as she is known to her inner circle, was recently diagnosed with Lyme disease. Confined to a sterile hospital bed several states away from her family and facing astronomical medical bills, she is taking life one day at time. The severity of her illness has forced her to abandon her career and the company of the horses that she loves.
I remember my very first conversation with Cas. She ordered a glass of French rosé and heirloom beet salad – I never would have guessed that this gritty, outspoken barn manager and exercise rider was soft at the edges! I was captivated by her and felt compelled to help her when I learned the seriousness of Cas’s current situation.
Cas is complex and seldom lets others in. I am thankful she entrusted me with her story, and I hope that through the S.H.E. Foundation together we can raise money for her medical treatments and get Cas back in barn and up in the saddle again.
This is the very first time I have ever had to be taken care of. I hate it.
Five short years ago I was enjoying the pinnacle of my career as an exercise rider turned jockey. It was goddamn amazing being a female jockey, even if it was just for a few races. I worked hard to prove myself, and it is uncommon to be a girl in the industry. Walking through the tunnel to the paddock, swimming in my jockey silks, hearing my name announced – I felt like I was in a video game. My oversized red-checkered sleeves were rolled and ready as the 6th race was about to go off at Santa Anita Race Track. Post time 3:10 PM. This was my dream and it was actually happening!
Beside me was my identical twin sister Amanda as well as French horse trainer Patrick Biacone. It felt great having them there for moral support. My mother could not afford the trip and had to work. I remember clearly Amanda saying, “Twin power activated!”, and at that moment I felt unstoppable. I was so in tune with every horse I rode. I never won, but out of four starts, three were second place finishes for me.
How drastically different I feel now. I am like an alien occupying some host’s body. These spaghetti arms and puffy legs are not mine, nor is the bloated stomach and swollen chin. I am a thoroughbred horse jockey with arms of steel to stronghold those majestic animals and legs of iron to keep me standing in my stirrups. Who am I now? I just want to wake up from this hospital nightmare and get back to working twelve-hour days in the barn.
My entire identity has been lost.
Horses bring meaning into my life. They are genetically programmed to please, which I can relate to. But my four-legged friends have continually pushed me to achieve all that I can, whether through riding, training, or simply having fun together. It has been over six months since I have been around horses. Sometimes the emotional pain from not being near them is far worse than the miserable symptoms of this disease.
I believe my love of horses came from my mom, who I call Mummy. She was a western rider and rode the show circuit in her late teens. Family has always been my world. I grew up in a rural area of northern New Jersey, the youngest of four children. My identical twin sister is technically two minutes older than me, a fact that she will never let me forget! Horses have always been a part of our lives, an interest our whole household shares.
I was three years old when Mummy put me on Barbara, a quarter horse who must have been at least twenty at the time. When a random helicopter flew over and spooked the mare, I slid out of the brown, English saddle. Barbara sidestepped and I fell to the ground. My mom was instantly hysterical! She ran inside with me, set me down in front of the television, poured herself a glass of wine, and sat there horrified thinking about how close I had come to being hurt by the horse’s hooves. That was my very first ride.
Fast-forward sixteen years and numerous injuries (broken hands, nose, ribs, feet) and you could find Mummy standing proudly at the rail as I trained. I adore my mother. She always supported me and I know she felt proud watching those young thoroughbreds fly by with her daughter on their backs.
Equines are pure, filled with trust and loyalty. I think the unspoken bond between humans and horses is similar to the bond I share with my twin sister. It is simple; no words are necessary. A glance, a nudge, an exchange of breaths – that is all it takes to reinforce the trust we place in each other. Anytime a horse in my life has been in danger, I’ve never stopped to think. I merely react. Last December was one of those times.
I could see signs of the fire on the hilltops coming towards us. In a matter of moments, the entire scene was pure pandemonium. The barn I worked at was completely engulfed in flames within a matter of minutes. I had to act quickly. I began tranquilizing the horses to make their evacuation easier.
It was a team effort. Everyone in the barn worked together watering down bales of hay and loading terrified horses onto vans. Along with my buddy, Callie the goat, I was frantically gathering paperwork and ulcer medication. And finding a van which I ended up driving through police barricades! I completely understood how those animals felt; I can be a smidgen high-strung myself. I could have used a shot of ulcer meds and a tranquilizer that day as well.
All this happened in the blink of an eye. I still remember scrambling to find that damn yellow peanut M&M bag to entice a stakes-winning filly named Barleysugar to load into the frickin’ van. Me and the rest of the staff did what was natural: safeguard the horses.
The survivors were vanned to the Del Mar Racetrack and others were taken to Moody Creek Stables, a horse property neighboring San Luis Rey Downs. All seventeen horses in the barn I was in charge of made it to safety, but, try as we did, we couldn’t save them all. The horses were released from their stalls so they would have a chance to stay alive. But between the news helicopters flying over and the blazing barns, it was chaos. The horses, like us, were freaked out and frightened. People were running everywhere, trying to direct the horses away from the barns. The mayhem forced several horses to run towards the mountains, into fence lines, or even straight into the fire.
That experience taught me to face fear with courage and strength. After the fact, the news reports called it selfless heroism. For me, it was just an expression of who I am. I have always taken care of everyone else first – my family, my friends, my horses. The worst part about being stuck here in this hospital bed is that I don’t know how to help the ones I love. I realize I am the one who needs help now, but it is not natural for me to ask for it. Being in this position makes me so uncomfortable.
At twenty-six, I am fighting for my life and trying to tame the advanced Lyme Borreliosis Complex that has invaded my entire body. It all started with an insect that was barely the size of a poppy seed. This damn tick found me, and now its life cycle has taken over mine. Once they land on you, they spread antihistamines and other numbing chemicals into your blood. Apparently, they utilize a sort of glue called cementum which helps them stick. Then they needle their jaws into the skin, sometimes hanging out for several days while spreading toxic pathogens. I never even noticed the bite.
The illness is aggressive, creating a large-scale war against my immune system. The infection is driving deeper into my tissues and nervous system, while at the same time my organs are slowly being attacked and killed. I am being treated with a comprehensive course of antibiotics and medications that are not covered by my insurance. My medical bills are enormous, but without these extensive treatments I will die.
I am a fighter, but there are days that I want to give up. My doctor, an infectious disease specialist, says I’m his worst case yet. I think he is effing brilliant and he also looks and reminds me of Patrick, the French trainer who gave me the chance to be a jockey just a few years ago. My doctor tells me I am on a journey toward recovery, but it will take time to heal my debilitated body.
At the same time, Amanda is suffering from renal cell cancer. I worry we will both leave this life together, too early. I try not to think negatively, but it is hard to be optimistic when I feel so sick. Mummy is, as always, my backbone. With her unconditional love and countless prayers, I can almost believe that even the worst circumstances can turn around. Since my mom and Amanda are several states away from me, it is tough and lonely. I keep family pictures close by and a handwritten note from Amanda “Twin One,” as I am “Twin Two.”
All I can do is take each day as it comes – central port line, IV pole and all. For now, it brings a short-lived smile thinking of Amanda and me at five years old, wearing our matching red dresses that Mummy sewed for us and maybe, eventually, I will be back doing the work I love. In the interim, I can still dream about being with my horses, braiding their hair and doing handstands in front of them as they whinny and shake their heads.
You can make your generous contribution to this incredible young woman online through the S.H.E. Foundation (just identify your donation as “Cash for Cas”).
Clicking this link below and we will forward the funds directly to her:
Or send a check to:
“Cash for Cas” in the Memo Line
1155 Camino Del Mar, Suite 116
Del Mar, CA 92014
The S.H.E. Foundation is a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation. Our vision is to transform the lives of women. We are dedicated to the empowerment of women through education, support and sponsorship. To learn more visit us at www.sharehealempower.com