An OTTB who was never supposed to walk again has returned to the Canadian showing circuit at age 19, a miracle on four legs with the drive to win.
Balmy Beach, who suffered an acute and mysterious spinal cord virus early in his post-racing career and spent weeks suspended in a sling, recently navigated surefootedly, if not amazingly, around tight corners in the pouring rain at a Canadian horse show. And soon, he and 12-year-old rider Ellah Dubeau-Kielty will tackle the A circuit as though nothing had happened to the gelding; once so sick his case was considered hopeless.
It was on a late September morning in 2004, two weeks after winning the championship at the Canadian National Exhibition, when Balmy Beach went down in his stall. Like a sudden storm that blackens a blue sky, his sickness came on strong, out of nowhere, recalls longtime owner Marilyn Lee of Sherwood Farms, Ontario.
“It was a Sunday morning and we noticed he started making odd noises, and then he started favoring his hind leg. In the span of an hour, he’d collapsed,” Lee says. “By noontime he was thrashing on the ground so badly that his legs were up against the walls … and the local vet said I had two choices: either put him down right there, or drive him 90 minutes to the Ontario Veterinarian College.”
Show name: Finders Keepers
Sire: Clever Trick
Dam: Delightful Year, by Half a Year
Foal date: April 27, 1996Unable to end the life of her daughter Robin Hannah-Carlton’s first horse, she quickly organized a team of men and veterinary professionals. At the time, Hannah-Carlton was so intent on saving her first horse that she said, “If the cost of caring for him means I never have another horse, so be it. And, even if he can never be ridden, he’s still my horse.”
And with that mother-daughter commitment, Balmy Beach was sedated and pulled to his feet. And with people holding him from all sides, he was supported on his walk onto the trailer, and for the entirety of the interminable trailer ride.
And they almost made it. But just before they pulled into the hospital parking lot, Balmy went down again.
“To get him off the trailer the hospital we had to administer general anesthesia, drag him out onto the tarp, and once they got him inside, they hoisted him in a sling, suspending him from the ceiling,” she says.
For two weeks he hung there, enduring test after test after test. West Nile was ruled out, as were equine herpes and rabies. “They couldn’t find a thing, it was really a mystery. They finally called it acute severe spinal cord injury with tetra paresis,” she says. “The doctors told me, in their words, that only a miracle would bring this horse back to return to athletic performance.”
Though his legs were compromised, Balmy Beach maintained a bright disposition and a hearty appetite. So Lee took him home when he was stable enough to transport and left him to graze and bask in her fields. Let’s just say he was a beautiful pasture ornament.
Then something happened. Around 2009, Balmy Beach started looking really good in his field. He was steady on his feet and she’d often marvel at his fluid beauty as he romped in his pasture. “At some point we decided to saddle him back up again and try again,” she says. “This horse loves, loves, loves to jump, and pretty soon he was so good that we sent him back into the show ring.”
In his showing circuit in Ontario, Balmy Beach’s story precedes him. And he’s is a bit of a celebrity, says Lee, who adds that the Thoroughbred who needed a miracle got it and has now returned to the stage for his second act.
“Seeing Ella ride him reminds me of what Robin looked like when she was only 17 and riding this same horse. He’s lightning fast, often beating other horses by a full eight seconds, and I think it’s just incredible that at age 19, a horse who was expected to never walk again is returning to the A Circuit.”
As Balmy Beach romped through a rainy course one recent day, Hannah-Carlton watched her old friend with a lump in her throat. “He is a war horse. He has done more for me in his life than he will ever know,” she says. “And, I can tell he is grateful that I didn’t give up on him when almost everyone told me I should. And seeing him return to the A Circuit is a feeling of pure joy for me.”