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Play Unified Racing for Special Olympics

What’s in a name? In the case of Bona Venture Stable’s Louisiana-bred filly by Exchange Rate named Play Unified, there’s plenty.

Play Unified, a maiden winner late in the 2015 Saratoga Race Course meeting, is named for a relatively new Special Olympics initiative that brings together athletes with intellectual disabilities and athletes without intellectual disabilities. The filly got her name after Maura Collins, one of Bona Venture founder Dan Collins’ daughters who is involved with the partnership, pitched the idea to her father after being heavily involved in a unified sports initiative at a Virginia school where she teaches special education.

“As you know in horse racing there’s always a theme, a reason for a horse to be named what it is,” said Maura Collins, who teaches at Canterbury Woods Elementary School in Fairfax County. “We’ve used the genealogy of the parents for a lot of names, we’ve also named a lot of horses after St. Bonaventure, that’s my Dad’s pride and joy … I told him I really wanted to name a horse for Special Olympics, with it being such a good cause but also something we’re involved in. My Dad was like, ‘If you come up with a good name, we’ll do it.’ ”

Dan Collins agreed not only because of the career choices of Maura and his other daughter, Claire Collins Dunham, who he says spend countless hours working with special education children, but because of his family’s nearly 20-year association with Special Olympics programs. Dan Collins’ brother Bill is also an executive with Special Olympics New York Inc.

“(Maura) really drove the idea and it was hard to argue,” Dan Collins said. “When we had the opportunity when we bought the filly at the (OBS) June sale. I was not going to argue that we shouldn’t name a horse Play Unified. It was available and we did it.”

Play Unified didn’t meet her reserve initially at the OBS June sale but was purchased privately for $55,000. She was sold by Ciaran Dunne’s Wavertree Stables, then went to the Eclipse Training Center in Ocala with Steve Venosa, who purchased the filly for Bona Venture, before eventually shipping north to George Weaver’s barn at Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track.

Play Unified registered a monster upset in her career debut Aug. 30, the day after the Travers Stakes, winning a 6-furlong maiden on the main track by 2 ¼ lengths in a quick 1:10.95.

Dan Collins joked in late September that he caught some heat from his wife for not mentioning how the filly got her name to a reporter from The Saratoga Special when he was interviewed after the race, but it’s understandable considering the excitement of the Play Unified’s victory as the second longest shot on the board at nearly 21-1.

Neal Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics New York, also laughed about an opportunity he missed when the filly made her debut.

“That evening or the next morning and when I saw the horse won I kicked myself for not having a few quid on her,” Johnson said. “Of course my method for picking horses is I go to the track, I stand by the rail and when they come out for the post parade I throw my money at them. I’m not very successful.”

All kidding aside, Johnson said Bona Venture’s naming of the filly for the program Special Olympics is using to “inspire and mobilize youth around the world to connect with people with intellectual disabilities and create more inclusive communities, leading to a more respectful world for everyone,” is nothing but positive.

“I don’t necessarily follow all of Dan’s horses so I wasn’t aware she was going to be running so soon,” Johnson said. “When I did hear I was like ‘holy smokes, this is phenomenal.’ Then my next question was ‘can this horse keep on winning?’

“As most people know there’s no such thing as bad news. This is a good story. Hopefully it can raise some awareness about Special Olympics and the changes that we’re trying to make. I have had a couple people, who have seen (promotional material), which we sent out through the Special Olympics website, call me and email me and congratulate me. I just tell them, ‘I had nothing to do with it,’ but they just thought it was a great thing. If you get that one person that sees it, that industry is huge, and there are significant people involved in it so if it helps create some interest in what we do, anything we get out of it will be positive.”

Play Unified won’t get the chance to get her name in the racing press for the rest of the year, after undergoing surgery to remove a small bone chip in one of her knees. The chip was detected shortly after her maiden win. It wasn’t necessarily causing her any discomfort and she could have raced, but Collins and Weaver decided to err on the side of caution, take it out and map out a campaign for 2016.

The Collins family retained a 25 percent interest in the filly and plans to donate 10 percent of their share of the purses she earns to the Special Olympics.

“The chip wasn’t bothering her and she could run, but we decided it was the right thing to take it out,” Dan Collis said. “We had a lot of people knocking on our door telling us ‘this horse has great potential, are you interested in selling?’ We turned the offers down and we’ll continue to turn them down, for two reasons: when you’re a partnership, we’re more interested in the experience and the enjoyment of being part of the racing industry and while there are revenue levels for everyone, that is not our first goal. Secondly, we really felt because of the message we’re trying to send with Play Unified, how do you go do that? We just decided that was not what we were about.”

Maura Collins, who coaches unified basketball and tennis teams at her school, is also looking forward the filly’s comeback in 2016 and she hopes her name piques people’s interest and more.

“I hope she’s a horse that’s successful so the story can get out there and people talk about it,” she said. “The more the story of her name gets out there, because she’s named for Special Olympics, the more the conversation starts and people start to think, ‘oh, is this something that’s in my area?’ A lot of people don’t know about the different programs that exist for people with disabilities. And they don’t know what kind of impact people without disabilities can have on people that do.

“I’ve had two sets of siblings and it’s been the first time they’ve been able to play on a sports team together. That’s amazing, too. I’ve had parents write me emails at the end of the season, from those two sets of parents, saying ‘this is a program that will impact my child with autism, but my child without autism probably got more out of it because he no longer saw his brother as his brother with autism but as a teammate. He was the same as all the other kids on the team.’ You can tell with the kids how much it means to them, too.”

-by Tom Law, www.Thisishorseracing.com

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