- The Washington Times - Friday, May 20, 2011

BALTIMORE — Congie DeVito spent much of his life in a wheelchair, battling a rare bone disease. Most of that time in the past two decades, he also spent working for West Point Thoroughbreds and watching just about every Temple football and basketball game he could.

Along the way, DeVito managed to strike up a friendship with legendary Owls basketball coach John Chaney, name a horse that’s running in the Preakness and touch the lives of many at West Point Thoroughbreds and Temple. When King Congie breaks from the starting gate Saturday evening, it’ll be a tribute to the man whose brave fight with brittle-bone disease ended unexpectedly in February.

“He was such an outspoken, wonderful, positive personality — probably the biggest personality that I’ve met in my whole life,” Mike Masiello of West Point Thoroughbreds said, struggling to speak through tears. “He was such a great person, and he’s got us all here, and this is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to us.”

Chaney said DeVito “was at every sporting event,” and every time the coach saw him at a game, he’d walk over, put his arms around him and give him a kiss. Chaney had to be careful with DeVito’s bone disease, but the emotion was always there even if a bear hug wasn’t always possible.

“This young man was so brave. All of those years he must’ve been in such pain,” Chaney said, holding back tears. “I’m so proud that I know him and that I knew him and that I was a part of his life.”

Chaney was up until the end, visiting DeVito in the hospital, holding his hand and talking to him just days before he died Feb. 16 of complications from his lifelong disease. He was only 35.

King Congie running in the Preakness gives the group plenty to smile about in remembering DeVito. Masiello recalled the story of buying a scrawny 2-year-old horse and trying to sell him. DeVito was charged with doing just that and agreed to — on the condition of naming the horse, which he did … after himself.

“The name King Congie is so appropriate because, despite his physical limitations, when he started talking — he had a motorized wheelchair — people tended to gather around him as he spoke,” Bellhouse said. “It was like he always had a court of people.”

The name is great, but that wouldn’t amount to much if the horse didn’t perform. After a couple rough starts, he won at odds of 43-1 at Aqueduct in November. A second victory followed in January and another in February (though that one was wiped out with a disqualification).

A few days later, DeVito died. But a third-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes in April put King Congie on track for bigger things to come — namely this Preakness. Chaney wasn’t aware there was a horse named after his friend, but when told the colt was small but raced beyond expectations, the coach laughed.

“That was kinda like Congie,” he said.

The expectation Saturday isn’t high. Few expect the 30-1 shot to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, but that won’t deter the people of West Point Thoroughbreds from enjoying this experience.

“We had a conference call with our partners the other day, and the last thing I said to them was, ‘Please, please, please, just soak up every moment of this — the draw, the breakfast, the race. This is why you get into horse racing,’” Bellhouse said. “And obviously to have this horse — this particular horse — whose breeding doesn’t jump out at you that he’s a classic horse and then to lose Congie unexpectedly in February, you can’t help but think there’s some special magic there.”

The magic will be there even if King Congie finishes last. But Bellhouse expects this horse to do his namesake proud.

“I think we’re all very confident that he’ll run good and he always tries real hard. Whether he’s good enough to win the whole thing, who knows?” he said. “But you won’t have any disappointed people in this group, just for the recognition of Congie’s life and accomplishments that he’s gotten through this whole process.”

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