Retired Trainer Matt Chew To Build Equine Therapy Program For Individuals With Special Needs

Matt Chew, a third-generation horseman, bid goodbye to more than four decades as a trainer on Labor Day.

The 60-year-old grew up in the shadow of storied Santa Anita, where his father, Richard, earned his spurs. Grandfather William trained primarily in New York. Chew took out his trainer’s license in 1982 on his 18th birthday and trained primarily in the Bay Area early in his career.

Now Matt hopes the future has something perhaps even more fulfilling than conditioning a Thoroughbred to win a race: helping those with special needs through programs he plans to develop.

One of countless everyday trainers who are the backbone of racing, not with abundant stakes winners but with mid-level campaigners, Chew never waivered in his philosophy: do what’s right by the horse.

Matt and his wife of 35 years, Candace, purchased a home on 18 acres in Idaho north of Coeur d’Alene, about seven years ago. It has been a work in progress, and after the completion of the barn and indoor ring this fall, they will relocate their five OTTBs (off the track Thoroughbreds) and three Weimaraners to the new location overlooking Hayden Lake.

Matt’s game plan is to have a safe haven for those with special needs who can benefit from the emotionally therapeutic environment the horses provide those with whom they’re in contact. Additionally, there will be room for a few more retired racehorses to thrive.

One local episode graphically reveals such a healing process.

Matt tells the tale: “Pete Siberell (Director of Special Services and Community Projects) arranged for a group from Pasadena called Ability First that aided the developmentally disabled to come visit Santa Anita.

“Candie and I brought the park’s mascot, Fred (one of the equine stand-ins for Seabiscuit in the movie of the same name) to the paddock one morning and we saw this young boy, maybe 11 or 12, looking at him real hard.

“I went over and handed him the shank. He took it and started walking with the horse, talking to him, telling him how pretty he was and what a great horse he was; he was having a conversation with him.

“Candie meanwhile looks over and sees three adults in the middle of the walking ring and their jaws are dropped; they look almost horrified. She realizes they are with the boy and begins to apologize.

“’I’m sorry,’ she says. “My husband does these kinds of things. We really should have asked permission before he gave him the horse.’

“One of the women—it turned out to be the boy’s mother—was sobbing. She finally told Candie that Austin (her son) doesn’t talk. He was technically what they call non-verbal autistic.

“He had been through a traumatic incident several years back and since had not said a word—until that day.

“So winning races is great, of course, but witnessing something like this is beyond special.”

Candie is Santa Anita’s dedicated and gifted Director of Print and Graphics. Both she and The Great Race Place have flourished under her astute guidance now going on three decades. Her most popular creation is the Wall Calendar, a traditional staple given to fans every Dec. 26.

The good news is, while Matt is retiring, Candie is not. “I will be working for Santa Anita as long as they will have me,” she says, “partially from Idaho, but at Santa Anita as much as I need to be.”

Candie also is President of the Board for CARMA (California Retirement Management Account), a program that has facilitated the successful efforts of the state to retrain and retire thousands of race horses in new homes. “I’m going to continue working at Santa Anita, but Matt will spearhead the operation in Idaho,” she said.

“He is excited about it. We have been planning this for a while, but it got moved up when it seemed the right time was sooner rather than later.

“Matt has a lot more experience with special needs kids than I do. He volunteered for a group in the Bay Area that had a riding program (Hippotherapy) for kids with cerebral palsy and that was a game changer.

“It gave him a new perspective and led us to eventually having a means of ‘giving back.’ Our plan is to have retired Thoroughbreds, with a program for PTSD-stricken vets to start, then explore what the community needs for other groups seeking equine-assisted therapy.

“It will require a lot of research and development, but it seems like the right thing to do.”


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