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.”

Denham
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.”

Big winner nearly dies on the way to slaughter

Press Exclusive earned $400,000 on the track and foaled 9 babies before she was a “downer horse” on slaughter truck.

Press Exclusive earned $400,000 on the track and foaled 9 babies before she was a “downer horse” on slaughter truck.

All that money, nearly a half million dollars worth of racetrack winnings, couldn’t help her as she thrashed in panic and fear.

Flailing beneath the hooves of 30 other terrified horses, last December in a tractor-trailer heading for a Canadian slaughterhouse, once-winning race mare Press Exclusive had lost her balance on the truck, and her place in the world.

No longer valuable as a racehorse or a broodmare — she gave birth to nine foals—she fell down among the legs and hooves of the other slaughter-bound horses, and was pummeled as she struggled beneath them, writhing in the shavings and manure.

Press Exclusive
Sire: Press Guard
Dam: Gosh
Foal date: May 5, 1996
Earnings: $436,810
“By the time she made it to Ottawa, where the kill buyer off-loaded her to do paperwork before proceeding to the slaughterhouse, a sale-barn vet wanted to kill her immediately because she was in such bad shape,” says Mindy Lovell, longtime Thoroughbred rescuer, owner of Spring Hill Farm and operator of Transitions Thoroughbred Program.

Covered from head to toe with deep cuts and abrasions, Press Exclusive sustained four fractured ribs and blows to the face that caused grotesque swelling.

Of all the horses Lovell has pulled from the junk heap of discarded horses, the mere mention of Press Exclusive brings her to tears.

Her eyes were swollen shut from blunt trauma sustained en route to the slaughterhouse.

Her eyes were swollen shut from blunt trauma sustained en route to the slaughterhouse.

“She made $436,000 on the track and produced nine foals, one after the other, as soon as she retired. The last foal that was weaned off her just ran through the Select Yearling Sale at Woodbine and sold for $16,000!” Lovell says. “With a horse like that, with high earnings and nine foals, Jesus, God, that’s not what she deserves at the end of the day.”

And so on a fateful day in December of 2012, as a veterinarian hovered near, insisting the sorry animal be euthanized on the spot, her poor condition making her unfit even for slaughter, Lovell and her personal horse-shipper intervened.

The veterinarian who manned the Ottawa holding facility where the truckload of slaughter horses had stopped and temporarily unloaded, agreed to send the mare on to Lovell, despite deep skepticism. Already labeled “condemned” for meat sale, the once flourishing horse wobbled on weak legs to a transport waiting to carry her off to Lovell’s Ottawa farm.

And when she arrived, a few days before Christmas, and Lovell saw her for the first time, fear clawed her heart.

“I’d seen a lot of emaciated horses before, but there was something really wrong here,” she recalls. “I asked my vet if it was necessary to euthanize her, and she said it was worth giving her a chance. She said the next 48 to 72 hours would tell us if she would make it. If she stopped eating, or she got down in the stall, it would be ‘game over.’ ”

Press now has a permanent sanctuary home where she is adored.

Press now has a permanent sanctuary home where she is adored.

Lovell had agreed to purchase the animal, sight unseen, after receiving word from her network of horse-rescue associates of the animal’s need. She’d raised the necessary funds to purchase the mare from the meat buyer, and when she finally saw the animal’s condition, she couldn’t give up. Not yet.

Even after Lovell’s veterinarian judged the mare’s body to be a 0 on a scale of 1-5, and the horse’s fate seemed hopeless, Lovell started in immediately trying to get proper nourishment and medication to the injured animal.

The mare was given antibiotics and Bute, and coaxed to keep eating, even when it seemed all hope was lost.

“The biggest worries I had with Press was her reluctance to eat,” she says. “So I started feeding her peppermints.”

The peppermints led to a healthy, fattening diet of hay, hay pellets, 18 pounds of daily grain, beet pulp and nutrients to aid digestion.

Gradually, signs of defeat were replaced with a reawakening of spunk.

Press arrives at her permanent sanctuary in upstate New York. She is pictured with Susan Wagner, founder of Equine Advocates.

Press arrives at her permanent sanctuary in upstate New York. She is pictured with Susan Wagner, founder of Equine Advocates.

“The day I walked into the barn in the morning and found her pawing for her breakfast, I was absolutely ecstatic, which is the opposite reaction I’d usually have to a horse pawing for feed,” Lovell says.

For months she kept vigil over the horse, and it took even longer before she was able to slow her hurried step to the barn to double check, one more time, on the fragile animal’s wellbeing.

By late winter, Press Exclusive was well enough to take a walk outdoors.

Her eyes were no longer swollen, and the cuts and other signs of trauma had also healed sufficiently for the mare to eagerly walk on the lead line, tentatively at first, and with increasing vigor.

“When I began to notice shavings on her coat, I knew she was able to lie down at night” and this reassured Lovell that she was out of the woods.

As she recovered, many fans and interested parties, shocked by the horse’s condition, had their eyes opened to the horrible fate that can befall a racehorse, she says.

Press enjoys the green, green grass of home.

Press enjoys the green, green grass of home.

Fans, as well as those who had been touched by the once great mare, opened their hearts and wallets to aid her recovery. An owner of one of her offspring even paid the “bail” money to make the initial purchase that rescued her from the slaughter pipeline and an executive at Purina paid for six months worth of feed, Lovell says.

“A lot of people came through to help Press,” she says. They included Susan Wagner, executive director of New York-based Thoroughbred charity Equine Advocates, who offered the biggest gift of all: sanctuary.

On Sept. 10, fully restored of her strength, her swagger, and her Alpha Mare personality, Press Exclusive was relocated to her permanent new home, where she won’t be asked to do anything except to enjoy a romp in green paddocks with other horses.

In a transfer facilitated by Marlene Murray of the Race Fund, Wagner and Lovell agreed that the best thing for the fine mare was R&R, with no possibility of being bred or sold.

“Everybody followed her story. I remember waiting for her to arrive, and we were all waiting to see what she looked like, and what her condition was. We’d never seen a picture until she arrived right before Christmas,” Lovell recalls. “It was so bad that I had to warn people that it wasn’t pretty. She actually fell when she stepped off the van for the first time.”

She adds, “People were so shocked. She was such a great horse, and my hope now is that if her story can help make a difference, and inspire people to find other options for their horses, then she’s done her job. Press Exclusive was not an isolated incident, so I hope she will help a lot of people think twice about where their horses are winding up.” — Originally published on Sept. 20, 2013.

*This blog is sponsored by the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF, Inc.), the country’s oldest and largest retirement charity for ex-racehorse Thoroughbreds.

OTTBs make it to Kansas on 3,500-mile journey

Valerie Ashker and Primitivo stop to examine windmill fittings on their cross-country trip to raise awareness of OTTBs.

Valerie Ashker and Primitivo stop to examine windmill fittings on their cross-country trip to raise awareness of OTTBs.

Battling locusts, health issues and occasional setbacks, a 60-year-old California woman on a mission to cross the USA on her off-track Thoroughbred arrived in Kansas this week.

Some 1,500 miles into a journey that began in California in May, Valerie Ashker and her OTTB Primitivo rode like the wind toward lush grasses of the last “big state” they’ll cross on their five-month trek.

Ashker and her boyfriend Peter Friedman, who is riding alongside Ashker on OTTB Solar Express, were en route to Dodge City, Kan. yesterday afternoon, building up “million dollar experiences” on the trip that is easily the hardest thing she’s ever done, she says.

But her two Thoroughbreds are thriving.

Learning to “be comfortable in the uncomfortable” of their new normal, Solar Express and Primitivo have carried their riders eastward along the famous Santa Fe Trail, where wagon trains once headed west.

Once Valerie Ashker and her two OTTBs cross Kansas into Missouri, the smaller states should start to fly by, she says.

Once Valerie Ashker and her two OTTBs cross Kansas into Missouri, the smaller states should start to fly by, she says.

“We’ve hand galloped and we’ve cantered on un-level footing,” she says. “And there was a point where the locusts were everywhere. They’d take a step, and about 50 grasshoppers would fly up. The horses’ heads were flipping in the air, but they just kept on going. I’m totally floored with how well they’ve handled this.”

The longtime OTTB trainer, and mother of four-star eventer Lainey Ashker, together with Freidman, set out in May from her ranch in Georgetown, Calif. Ashker and accompanied by a van driver, have now covered 1,500 miles in a ride to raise awareness about the virtues of the OTTB. She posts updates on her trip via Facebook page 2nd Makes Thru Starting Gates.

And though tensions have flared, and a few bones have broken—Ashker broke her ribs and clavicle in two separate incidents—the Thoroughbreds have been sound as a bell, and game to face every day.

“They are fab-u-lous,” she says for emphasis. “I make sure I take full body pictures of them, and they look better today than the day we left. Their legs and feet are doing great, and we’re riding them in bitless bridles,” she says.

Once the horses hit the Missouri border, the states should start “flying by,” says Ashker, noting that they’re on track to complete the 3,500-mile ride by late October.

“This has been the ride of a lifetime,” she says. “And the Thoroughbreds haven’t taken a wrong step.”