What started with an owner, a claiming horse, a young trainer and a promise has blossomed into an international stable racing in the name of breast cancer research and awareness.
In 2014, horse owner Lou Sorella was looking for a change of scenery with pacing mare Catch A Lucky Star. At the suggestion of aspiring trainer Rachel Oenema, Sorella gave the horse to her brother, trainer Terry Oenema. Catch A Lucky Star subsequently won his first two starts before requiring some time off. Around this time, Sorella's wife Maria was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"We knew it was going to happen, we just didn't know when," Lou Sorella said in a November 2015 Trot interview, explaining that Maria was predisposed to breast cancer.
Once Catch A Lucky Star was ready to resume racing, Sorella suggested to Rachel -- who had just received her apprentice trainer's licence -- that she buy the horse from him since she could only train horses she owned and Maria's fight against cancer was intensifying. Rachel agreed, and volunteered to give a percentage of earnings to the CIBC Run For The Cure, an annual event in support of breast cancer research and awareness. Maria Sorella was set to take part in the run in Windsor.
After taking nine months to bring Catch A Lucky Star back to the races, the horse was claimed in her first start back. Enter Joe Bellino, who had noticed what Sorella and Oenema were doing to raise money. He was selling some horses and after Sorella inquired about buying one, he decided to give Sorella the horse for free -- with all earnings going to the cancer fund.
Louie Sorella and his wife Maria (left). Joe Bellino and his wife Maria and their kids Frankie and Sophia (Trot Photo)
"My wife's dad passed away from cancer, so I wanted to do something," Bellino told Trot. "We give a lot to charities. This one was kind of close to harness racing.
"I wanted the horse to go to Rachel, I'm always trying to help the smaller guys in the business. At one time I was the smaller guy. I think a lot of the owners for the smaller trainers...they forget their grassroots."
The support hasn't stopped there. As of today, Team To The Moon consists of 25 horses from three countries (Canada, United States and Australia) and five trainers...all teaming up in support of breast cancer awareness. Horses racing in support of Team To The Moon include Ava N Ella, an unbeaten filly racing at The Meadowlands for Bellino Stables; Domedomedome, a stakes-winning trotting mare racing on the WEG circuit for Joanne Colville and Pamela Schmidt; and Anything For Love, racing for trainer Paul Humphreys in Australia.
"In an industry where it's tough to get people to support one another, this group has taken off," Sorella told Trot Insider. "Everyone has a story to tell be it a mother, sister, aunt or friend who has either battled breast cancer or is fighting it.
"Someone said 'you will never get the big horse to carry these small horses.' My reply was simple: every horse for us is a big horse, no matter where they race around the globe."
Most recently, Nor Star Renegade was a winner for #TeamToTheMoon on Tuesday. The Lindsey Kerr co-owned and trained gelding was driven to victory by driver Nick Steward in gate-to-wire fashion at The Raceway at the Western Fair District.
"It's nice to win, but it's even better to be winning and supporting breast cancer awareness at the same time," said Kerr. "Our family received tremendous support from people, almost nine years ago, when our Dad (Randy Kerr) passed away from lung cancer and now this Team To The Moon campaign is such a great way for our family to give back. We're more than happy to have 'Chucky' (Chuck In Charge) and 'Bruce' (Nor Star Renegade) doing their part in supporting such a wonderful cause that touches so many lives."
Nor Star Renegade winning on Tuesday (AG Photography)
"It seems we all have a horse or someone to cheer for every day that there's racing," continued Kerr. "Team members really come together and show their support for all involved in the Team. We're all closer as friends. We're all supporting breast cancer awareness and promoting harness racing in a big way. Again, we're all very happy to be involved!"
Statistics state that 67 women in Canada will be diagnosed with breast cancer today. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the national five-year survival rate for breast cancer is at an all-time high of 88 percent.
"When my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, we dug in for the fight of our lives," said Sorella. "Cancer can take away all your physical abilities but it will never touch your mind or take away your soul.
"When we started collecting in August last year for the CIBC Run for the Cure and my wife approached some trainers and drivers at Mohawk, they were all receptive not knowing who or what was going on," Lou continued. "I will never forget the look on Phil Hudon's face when one driver asked 'who's this for?' and Maria said 'it's me, I have been diagnosed with breast cancer.' I thought Phil was going to break down. He said 'you look so good, we see both of you all the time...we didn't know.'"
Team To The Moon is currently welcoming new horses to the stable. To contribute to the cause, simply nominate a horse that you or a group own and donate one percent of that horse's earnings from the day you list until September 1, 2016. Trainers and drivers are welcome to donate one percent of earnings for the same duration. To join, contact Lou Sorella via social media or find out more from the Team To The Moon Facebook page. There, Team To The Moon follows all horses, trainers and drivers listed, providing updates, racing reports and, hopefully, plenty of win photos and video replays to enhance the Breast Cancer Awareness Drive.
"On behalf of all of us at Team To The Moon, we extend our heartfelt thanks to all of our clients, friends, family and the racing community who have already listed with us for 2016," said Sorella. "Let's make this thing happen!"