Fairytale endings can be bittersweet sometimes—even downright sad. Yet, even after his death earlier this week, the story of young Cody Dorman, a boy with a rare genetic disorder who formed a connection to a special racehorse, continues to inspire.
The following is adapted from the obituary that appeared on the website of the Stotts-Phelps-McQueary Funeral Home in Columbia, Kentucky:
Cody Layne Dorman, 17, of Richmond, Kentucky, passed away Sunday, November 5, 2023, in Atlanta, Georgia, after suffering a medical event on a flight home from Los Angeles. He had just come from supporting his best friend, Cody’s Wish, in the Godolphin horse’s final race in the Breeder’s Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita Park.
Cody was a 70-pound boy whose inexplicable yet undeniable bond with a champion Thoroughbred racehorse named for him had captured hearts within and outside of horse racing.
His passing drew reaction from racing personalities around the world, as well as the governor of Kentucky. “As a dad, my heart breaks for the Dorman family as they mourn the loss of their remarkably strong and kind son Cody,” Gov. Andy Beshear wrote in a social media post. “He was an inspiration to many, and I was always left smiling when I saw him. His legacy will live on through the impact he made on many, including me.”
Cody’s parents, Kelly and Leslie, said their son, who had met the governor at Keeneland Race Course in 2022 and at Churchill Downs this year, would be pleased with those comments. “I know if Cody could say one thing, he would want to let everyone know not to cry for him, but to smile for him,” Kelly said, acknowledging that may be easier said than done at this time.
Cody was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on Dec. 18, 2005. He was eventually diagnosed with Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome, a genetic defect that results when someone is missing a small piece of chromosome No. 4. It can cause a litany of serious medical issues—heart defects, kidney failure, developmental disability, difficulty swallowing, seizures—and can be deadly. That is what was predicted by one doctor, who told the Dormans their son would not live to see his second birthday.
Yet, there was Cody last Saturday, a month shy of his 18th birthday, in the Santa Anita paddock, making sure the horse he considered his best friend could see that he was there to watch the final race of his career. Two days earlier, Cody had visited Cody’s Wish on the backstretch, and once again the horse who has a reputation of being a bad actor in the starting gate meekly walked over to his friend’s wheelchair and lowered his head.
That interaction came five years after the pair first met at Gainsborough Farm in Lexington, when Cody was visiting as a Make-A-Wish ambassador as part of Make-A-Wish Day at Keeneland. Godolphin’s Danny Mulvihill, the farm manager, brought out a broodmare named Dance Card and her 5-month old weanling, a son of leading stallion Curlin.
The chemistry was so evident that Godolphin named the horse after Cody and the organization that is dedicated to creating life-changing wishes for critically ill children.
Their second meeting occurred two years later, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Cody’s parents thought a visit to see “his” horse would snap him out of the deep depression into which he had fallen. They were correct.
The spirit of racing
Cody was at Churchill Downs when Cody’s Wish won for the first time, on Oct. 2, 2021. He would see him run in person seven times, and got to appear in six win photos with him, including Saturday, when the horse captured his second straight Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
It was known well in advance this would be the last start of the horse’s 16-race career, providing a definitive end to the racing side of this heartwarming tale, and Cody was not going to miss it. The Dormans traveled to California last week and on Wednesday accepted on behalf of Team Cody’s Wish the Mr. Fitz Award, presented by the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association for typifying the spirit of racing.
“I love everyone on the team with all my heart,” Cody said, communicating through his tablet. “They all worked hard to see my wish and their wishes come true.”
Going out on top
Stationed in the winner’s circle next to his doting 10-year-old sister Kylie, Cody watched his equine friend gradually wear down National Treasure, this year’s Preakness Stakes winner, who had an easy lead throughout the race. It was a photo finish, but Cody’s Wish won by a nose, ensuring a happy ending to the story of Cody Dorman and Cody’s Wish (although a 5-minute stewards’ inquiry put the celebration temporarily on hold).
“He said he was going to go out on top,” Kelly Dorman said of a Friday night hotel -room conversation, though the Dormans could not have fathomed Cody would be referring to himself as well as the horse. “We can’t get over the timing,” Kelly said. “It’s like Cody was saying, ‘I’ve done everything I can do and it’s time for me to go now.’ I think most people feel that.”
A country boy at heart
Before Cody became a horse racing celebrity, he was famous in the world of professional fishing. In fact, the original wish that he requested, and was granted, was a trip to Bass Pro Shop headquarters in Missouri to meet his good friend, fishing TV personality Mark Zona, for whom he named his dog, and tour the Wonders of Wildlife museum. He was also recognized at the Bassmaster Classic, where champion angler Kevin Van Dam and emcee Dave Mercer wore Casting for Cody shirts on stage.
Through Cody’s participation in a charity motorcycle ride for Make-A-Wish, he also befriended many bikers, who would drive by the Dormans’ house and rev their engines, bringing a smile to Cody’s face.
“He liked to sit around and listen to fish stories,” Kelly said. “He had great affection for animals and the outdoors, and loud trucks and motorcycles. He was a country boy at heart.”
Cody was a senior at Madison Central High School in Richmond, where he was a proud member of the fishing team and Future Farmers of America. He recently had his senior pictures taken at Gainsborough, the farm where he met his best friend, and was scheduled to graduate in May. He went to the prom last spring with his occupational therapist, Janna Lopez, and showed a 30-percent improvement in the ACT exams this year.
Cody’s connection with Cody’s Wish was more of a regional story until the Forego Stakes at Saratoga in August 2022, when the horse pulled off a shocking upset over Jackie’s Warrior, who had been unbeatable at the venerable New York track. From there it was on to the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland, a half-hour from the Dormans’ home. NBC produced an Eclipse Award-winning piece for the broadcast, Cody’s Wish won the Dirt Mile, and two stars were born.
Cody won the Big Sport of Turfdom Award, given annually by the Turf Publicists of America to a person or group who enhances coverage of Thoroughbred racing through cooperation with the media and Thoroughbred racing publicists. He traveled to Arizona to accept it.
Cody’s Wish was named winner of the Secretariat Vox Populi Award, presented to a horse whose popularity and racing excellence best resounded with the American public and gained recognition for the sport during the past year.
Godolphin and trainer Bill Mott chose to keep Cody’s Wish in training for his 5-year-old campaign and the horse responded with four wins in five starts and a third-place finish in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. The Dormans enjoyed a memorable trip to what is perhaps America’s most iconic racetrack, despite the loss.
As they reflect on the years they were blessed to love and care for their son, Kelly and Leslie Dorman are struck by his unyielding courage and positive outlook.
“Every adversity that was stacked up against him, he defied them all,” Kelly said. “He had good days and bad days, but almost every day he was in a good mood. Everything he went through, he came up with a smile. His body had been ravaged with strokes and seizures, but his mind still worked perfectly.”
Since his first experience with Make-A-Wish, Cody took great pleasure in helping the organization raise money so that other children could benefit. “He was the sweetest little thing,” said Leslie, who stopped working when Cody was 6 months old in order to care for him. “He had the biggest heart. He would always thank me for taking care of him.”
In addition to his parents and sister, Cody is survived by his paternal grandparents, Fred and Patricia Dorman; his maternal grandmother, Julita Spoon; an uncle, Kevin “Weazer” Dorman; an aunt, Angie Feese, and her husband, Bryan, and their sons, Dylan and Colton. He was the grandchild of the late Lester Spoon.
Cody’s funeral will be held Friday, Nov. 10 at 11 am central time at 3trees Church in Russell Springs, Kentucky. The family has requested that donations in Cody’s memory be made to Make-A-Wish of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
Note: The landing page image of Cody and Cody’s Wish is from Godolphin’s Facebook page.