Stephen Smiel couldn’t go see his family’s horse race this fall so the horse, Calvin B., came to him.
Smiel, whose 48th birthday is today, was born with Down Syndrome but has generally led an active life, working at the Rutland Price Chopper supermarket for 25 years and participating in Special Olympics. But about three weeks ago, he suffered a massive stroke, requiring treatment at the University of Vermont Medical Center before he was taken to the Pines at Rutland Center for Health and Rehabilitation in Rutland for follow-up care, according to his sister, Susan Smiel.
At this time of year, Stevie — as he’s called by his mother, Dolores Smiel — sister Sandy Gardyne and brother John Smiel Jr. would travel to Saratoga, New York, to see Calvin B. race, but this year, he is under close observation at the Pines.
But when Calvin B.’s trainers, Jimmy and Heidi Nickerson, found out Stevie couldn’t get to the races, they put Calvin B. in his trailer, and with their 2-year-old daughter, Emmy, Nickerson, came to the Pines on Tuesday so Stevie could have a visit without leaving the grounds.
Calvin B., who was very patient with the crowd that formed around him, was a popular attraction Tuesday, drawing many staff members to come out front at the Pines to see the horse or take pictures with their cellphones.
Heidi Nickerson said her family asked whether they could bring Calvin B. for a visit.
“Stevie can’t go see him. The whole family comes to watch him race every week, but they haven’t been able to, so we thought we’d bring Calvin to them,” she said.
A visit to Stevie from Calvin B. was expected to “lift his spirits,” Heidi Nickerson added.
Calvin B., a standard-bred horse who runs harness races, scored a win Saturday and is expected to race in Massachusetts today.
The Smiels hope many will appreciate how much the visit meant to Stevie as he knows so many people in the Rutland area. Gardyne said she went to Price Chopper on Sunday and got stopped by many, employees and customers, who wanted to know how Stevie, whom they know as a stocker and bagger, was doing. Dolores Smiel said Stevie’s recent health setbacks were a result of endocarditis, a heart infection.
On Oct. 15, his health was so poor, Stevie’s family took him to Rutland Regional Medical Center before he was taken by helicopter to Burlington.
Dolores and Susan Smiel recalled that Stevie had been to see the horses as recently as September.
The Smiel family currently has two racehorses, but they have a long history of involvement with horses so they have been a part of Stevie’s life for many years.
Susan Smiel said the family was very caught up in Stevie’s health problems, but the trainers were keeping Stevie involved with Calvin B., sending him a package of items from his last race and asking if Stevie would be allowed to have a visit.
“They didn’t know they were going to be able to see Stevie. They thought they were going to see Stevie from the window. They asked, ‘Does he have a big window?’ We said, ‘Yeah,’ but we were allowed to have Calvin visit,” Susan said.
Dolores said the Nickersons’ have been involved with her family for at least 10 years.
“At one time, when my husband was alive, we had 14 horses. My husband, before he died, said ‘Why don’t you keep a couple horses?’ So we did and I’m glad we did because they’ve been keeping our family together. We’ve had a lot of fun with them and Stevie loves the horses,” she said.
After the visit, as John Smiel took Stevie back to his room, Dolores said Stevie was “thrilled” with the visit.
Susan said she didn’t know whether there would be a “big reaction” from Stevie, but she said he seemed very happy and even got emotional a few times.
Calvin B. put his face right against Stevie’s, Dolores said.
The family planned Calvin B.’s visit as a surprise for Stevie, but there was a twist.
After his family shared a laugh, Dolores said she found out Tuesday that Stevie, who said little Tuesday afternoon, was talking about Calvin’s visit.
“I don’t know how he knew,” she said.