Stakes placed warhorse fights for life in Iowa

Denham was retired by his owners and given to TV announcer John Hernandez before hoof problems put the stakes placed OTTB's life in danger.

Denham was retired by his owners and given to TV announcer John Hernandez before hoof problems put the stakes placed OTTB’s life in danger. Photo by and courtesy of Kaylyn Hoskins Photography

A stakes placed racehorse with 72 starts and earnings north of $300,000 battles for his life in spite of an all-out effort by racing connections, including a TV journalist, to retire him.

Denham, 9, the son of Unreal Zeal by Mr. Prospector, has battled hoof abscesses, laminitis, and most recently, his coffin bone rotated to within seven millimeters of coming through his hoof’s sole, says Christina Norris, executive director of Unbridled Spirits, a horse retirement facility in Lisbon, Iowa.

“He’s fighting for his life,” she says. “It’s hard to say this because there are so many kids who love him, who visit our farm, but it’s not looking good for him. We have so many obstacles, especially with his coffin bone.”

Sire: Unreal Zeal, by Mr. Prospector
Dam: Danger Dances, by Slew City Slew
Foal date: March 9, 2006
Earnings: Stakes winner
The statuesque bay Thoroughbred arrived at Norris’s Iowa facility, which she affectionately dubs as a “stable of misfits and injured horses” on Dec. 2, 2015. Having raced primarily in the Midwest, Denham was a minor celebrity in the area, when he was retired through efforts by Prairie Meadows Race Track and Casino’s John Hernandez, the horsemen’s liaison and television commentator.

Following Denham’s last race at Prairie Meadows in July 2015, Hernandez accepted ownership rights of the retired racehorse from race owners Mary and Michael Pagano. At the time, everyone wanted to find an ideal retirement for the 17-hand gentle giant, says Hernandez.

“After he ran for the last time in the 2015 season, his owner, Mike Pegano decided he was going to retire him, and he asked if I was interested. I said yes. He was such an accomplished and professional horse. He tried hard every time, and won a lot of races. I got his papers and planned to train him to be my own riding horse.”

Denham has been plagued with hoof problems and other issues, which have rotated his coffin bone. Photo by and courtesy Kaylyn Hoskins Photography

Denham has been plagued with hoof problems and other issues, which have rotated his coffin bone. Photo by and courtesy Kaylyn Hoskins Photography

But soon after coming off the track, Denham began developing abscesses and showed signs of laminitis, he says. After three months, it was clear that Denham needed a sanctuary to live out his days. Hernandez says that he and the great horse’s past racing connections left no stone unturned until they came up with the name Christina Norris and her haven, Unbridled Spirits.

It was a friend of Denham’s racing stable that reached Norris first, she says. “Mary Gillen, a friend of the horse’s family, was at her wit’s end by the time she found me. Denham had hoof issues, Laminitis, and she really wanted to get him into a good home,” she says. “Mary and Michael Pegano were paying board on Denham while he suffered with abscesses.”

After Denham’s feet healed enough to weather a 2-hour van ride to her facility, Norris welcomed the beautiful, friendly horse and hoped for the best. And for months afterwards, she rode a roller coaster of highs and lows with the animal’s health, including blown-out abscesses that compromised the sole of his hoof, followed by the disappearance of lameness and hoof issues long enough for him to parade around in all his glory at the Prairie Meadows Fun Day this past May.

Denham is still eating well. Here he waits patiently while his wraps are applied.

Denham is still eating well. Here he waits patiently while his wraps are applied.

Then once again, Denham’s hoof issues reared back up. “He blew out his left front. It’s always the same one. Then it clears up, we trimmed it and kept him wrapped all summer to protect the foot. We kept him on the grass, and clear of muck, and he started to grow a new sole. We were ecstatic.”

But when his lameness returned again veterinarian Dr. Helen Beck was brought in to do x-rays. This is when a massive infection was found in his coffin bone, Norris says. “I feel so awful that we didn’t know,” she says. “We also learned he has excessive bone growth on his ankles, which has caused his coffin bone to rotate. It’s now about seven millimeters away from going straight through his sole.”

Norris and her vet are doing all that they can for Denham. He is on a strong regimen of antibiotics, and is cold hosed every day for 20 minutes to mitigate the swelling in his legs. Daily ice packs and wraps and foot soaks are also being employed to treat the affected, front left foot. And a hoof plate with poultice is put in place to protect his sole and frog.

If the treatments work, and the infection is cured, and the abscesses stopped, Denham will be fitted with corrective shoes to attempt to rotate his coffin bone back to a normal angle.

As Norris, Hernandez and friends watch Denham fight off infection, emotions have been high.

“One day I was putting together a video of his life, and dubbing in the Dan Fogelberg song, ‘Run for the Roses,’ and everyone around me started grabbing tissues and hankies. This is a wonderful horse. He has such a sweet disposition, and just loves children. He nuzzles, and comes up to me because he loves to be rubbed and held,” Norris says. “It’s gut-wrenching.”

35 responses to “Stakes placed warhorse fights for life in Iowa”

  1. Leah Brandon

    You are doing such an amazing job! Just noticed that cold laser therapy wasnt mentioned. From experience, I can not emphasis the benefits for hoof growth and fighting infection nearly enough. Godspeed ti all of you.

  2. Christa

    How is Denham doing?

  3. Mary Gillen

    Denham started off 2010 as a bottom level claimer. He went on to rise in class and prominence winning 8 races and garnering the Illinois male claimer of the year award. He was 13th in the nation in wins that year. He continued his winning ways in 2011, taking the 100k Milwaukee Avenue Handicap. That was his fifth win in a row. By the time I knew him, he was still trying at age 9. The decision was made to retire him and his first four months he had some “eventful” times. November was a brutal one for rain in 2015 and he in bad shape. it was apparent after various places there was not a facility around that could accommodate this gallant warrior who so deserved a great retirement and I did not have the experience to work with his needs. I had contacted retirement places, to no avail. I was getting desperate As I kept modifying my searches on Google to find something I came across a sub hyperlink, below the Iowa HART link that mentioned Unbridled Spirits. I looked it up and I left a couple of messages before getting in contact with Tina. We talked on a Saturday morning. She described her place and how the horses would walk around in single file. I was bawling. She said they had their limit but room for one more. I sent her some articles where he was referenced. She went to work on research. She looked up his past performances. She even called a jockey who had ridden him in California. Yes. SHE. CALLED. HIS JOCKEY.. Tina saw his greatness too! I cried with relief. Unbridled Spirits accepted Denham unconditionally into their program. He came there in rough shape. They gave him a hero’s welcome. They talked about him on the radio, took him to a fundraiser, posed him for a calendar, took him to Prairie Meadows. I could not be happier. Now he is in a battle. Thank you for your advice in the postings everyone and thank you Tina.

  4. Karen_CA

    Hoofs and hoof care has long fascinated me. This is an in-depth severe laminitis case study with coffin bone involvement. Read each chapter; the farrier is very forthright in discussing what she did right and wrong.

    Also: Rockley Farm in the UK focuses on returning horses to barefoot. Nic uses practical approaches to hoof care and health:

    She also posts peaceful videos shot around her farm, e.g., horses coming in from pasture, out hacking, and a very fun series on a horse called Felix.

    1. Christina Norris

      Thank you Karen,

      Any and all information regarding coffin bone and laminitis issues are greatly appreciated. Hopefully we can rebound him.

  5. Raegan Rothchilde

    Don’t forget about PROBIOTICS. With all of the antibiotics he needs probiotics daily. Leaky gut is a big issue. It’s not good to have faecal matter in the blood. Remember the integrity of the immune system begins in the gut. Really all health begins in the gut. Also every time I deworm my horses I give them a few doses of Opti-Zyme to re-culture what the dewormer has destroyed. I advise everybody to do this.

    1. Christina Norris


      Thanks for this information, he is currently in ulcergard, and doing well with it. No signs to date however we are watching closely for changes.

  6. Caroline Betts

    Not sure what bone spurs (excessive bone growth) have to do with rotation. Very confused. Very unclear what this poor horse’s issues are or why his prognosis is so poor.

    1. Christina Norris


      It’s extensive overgrowth of bone, much worse than Spurs, from a long career on the track. Bevause of the severity of his ankles, they have stiffened over time to where his bone doesn’t flex, and has rotated and remained at a 14 degree angle. That’s a separate issue, the coffin bone had a massive infection and will be needing surgery to clean out the capsul once we fight the infection off with antibiotics. I hope I explained this correctly, his issues are quite numerous.

  7. Karen_CA

    I’d hope the Paganos were paying his boarding fee without question after they earned $300,000 on him. It makes me wonder if he was being medicated and his issues were masked by painkillers and other meds. Really glad all these incredible people stepped forward to help what sounds like an incredible horse.

    1. Christina Norris


      The Paganos claimed him in May of 2015, from Kentucky. He ran twice at Prairie Meadows in Des Moines, and they retired him. I would have to verify through equibase however, he placed 6th his first time out, and 2nd in Augist. Perhaps earning $14,000? Regardless the Pagano family has provided donations to his care.

      1. Tonya

        Prairie Meadows is located in Altoona, Iowa about 15 minutes from Des Moines.

  8. C1Horse

    The ECIR (Equine Cushings and Insulin Resistant) Group has some good ideas on laminitis. They helped my horse through a couple bouts of laminitis. Every case is different, but they may have some ideas. Several veterinarians on their staff.

    1. Christina Norris

      Thank you for your response, I will look into this.

  9. Susan Rifkin

    When my OTTB got osteomyelitis of his fractured splint bone, my vet cured it with IV ozone treatments. The ozone did it 100%, had got NO oral antibiotics. He did get acupuncture. There are several of our local vets who now use IV ozone. For more info ask Judith M Shoemaker DVM, Always Helpful Veterinary Service. She was Vet of the Year recently for AHVMA.

    1. Christina Norris

      Excellent information, thank you!

  10. Mary McLeod

    Will be a prayer warrior for Denham. That _____ laminitis. It took my Secretariat but not my Paynter. Please keep us informed, Susan. Denham is a noble equine. xoxo, Mary in Boone

    1. Christina Norris

      Thank you Mary!

  11. Eileen Sutley

    God bless all of you for fighting for
    Denham to live. Will be praying for
    him to make it.

    1. Christina Norris

      We are doing our very best to stay positive for him. Today he was feisty and fiery, which lifted our spirits up, after a very difficult week. Thank you for your kind words.

    2. Christina Norris

      Thank you Eileen, we appreciate the support from everyone.

  12. meme

    Check out
    Will change his life for the better.
    Reboots the endocrine system even the worst conditions and issues are fixed 8n no time..
    My 27 yr old Mr.Prospector grand boy was on death door…until I put him on Thrive Feed. Now..his hooves and digestive system are perfect. Acts like a 8yr old

    1. Christina Norris

      Thank you!

  13. DB0628

    Looked at Denham to take on as a hunter/jumper prospect in Sept/Oct 2015. He was dead lame at the time with extreme calcification all around both fetlocks. Not sure the owner had enough knowledge to know what he was getting into when he accepted the horse. Very sad, I hope he can be saved.

    1. Christina Norris


      Please feel free to reach me by email or phone.

      When he was retired with us, we understood the uphill battle with his feet and ankles. Many people on this thread have probably never seen the calcification of this magnitude, on a horse.

      With that said, he has had really good months, existing on Previcox only. But these abscesses kept occurring.

      I’m curious how he could be marketed for future work however given his condition upon retiring. Please call me anytime is like to speak with you.

  14. Tonya LaFarr

    I never saw Denham race but as a Iowan he has won over my heart. He seems like such a fighter and the will to keep going. I hope he gets better from his hoof troubles. Thank you to his owners and his new home for giving him a fighting chance.

    Get better soon, Denham!!

    1. Christina Norris

      Thank you!

  15. LindaVA

    Prayers for Denham.

    1. Christina Norris

      Thank you Linda.

  16. Joan Downing

    You might contact For Love of the Horse, (866) 537-7336, in Lathrop, MO. They have several Chinese herbal formulas directed specifically at some of these problems. Web site is, and they can make custom formulas as well.

    1. Christina Norris

      We love natural remedies for healing, thank you.

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