Like so many horse and riders who make it to the Kentucky Derby, it’s often a tough road, pitted with seemingly impossible odds.
So while an eighth-grade teacher from Forney, Texas and an ex-racehorse with a two inch hole in his head may seem to have little in common with racing’s finest, it was on that celebrated first Saturday in May last year that the pair had their greatest victory.
That was the day that Kristi Montgomery, a 40-year-old mother who hadn’t ridden in 20 years, climbed into the saddle of an ex-racehorse she had nursed to health from a severe head injury.
“My coach said we weren’t ready,” Montgomery says. “I’d been out of the saddle for a long time, and he didn’t think Bally was ready either.”
“But, I said, ‘It’s the perfect day! It’s Derby Day!’ ”
With that declaration, the months she’d spent attending to the hole in Baltruchis’ head—an injury he’d sustained after rearing up and hitting an overhead bolt in a trailer— faded from memory.
Her attention now focused in on the stirrup as she set her left foot and swung her right leg over the careworn Western saddle.
Baltruchis turned his grateful eyes and studied her. And with a reassuring check on his passenger, and hearing the sound of a cluck, he walked triumphantly forward.
For an hour, Montgomery experienced something like bliss. Around and around they sauntered in the round pen until she felt comfortable enough to ease him into a light trot.
Race name: Baltruchis
Barn name: Bally
Sire: Salty Sea
Dam: Wildfire Ruby
Foal date: May 25, 2008
“He was perfect, and he’s been perfect ever since,” she says.
A horse who’d spent four mounts recuperating from a wound so serious it could have killed him was now slaying her entire family with his puppy-dog charms.
“He has such a beautiful, gentle soul that I let all three of my kids ride him. I’ve even let my daughter’s teacher, and my mother-in-law, who’s 66, ride him as well,” she says. “He’s like a giant dog who just wants to be where ever you are.”
And there are times, like when she feels Bally’s soft muzzle on her palm that Montgomery nearly has to pinch herself that he is there at all.
Having a horse of her own was always just a pipedream.
She often joked with her husband about buying one, but the realities of the expense always dampened that dream.
Until one day, while scanning Facebook, she noticed Baltruchis’ picture and story that had been posted by Texas retirement facility LOPE (LoneStar Outreach to Place Ex-Racers). His situation, the notice said, was “desperate.”
Badly injured on Dec. 22, 2011, Baltruchis nearly lost his life when he reared up in a trailer and punctured his skull on a protruding ceiling bolt.
“A veterinarian later told me that if it had been one millimeter deeper, he would have died,” she says. As it was, the bolt drove two inches into his skull, and became badly infected.
Unable to resist the sorry looking animal, she called the phone number listed on the advertisement and spoke for two hours to the horse’s trainer. A short while later, she received a call that the horse was hers.
At 9 p.m., on Feb. 7, looking thin and terrified, he arrived. She threw a blanket over him and settled him into his stall for the evening, and on next day, when she got a good look at the head wound, she was sent reeling.
“The vet came out and worked on it for four hours. It was severely infected and filled with pus,” she says. “While he worked, I stood there, with Bally’s head on my shoulder, helping to hold him up.”
It didn’t cross her mind to wonder what she had gotten herself into. “His condition reconfirmed for me that I’d done the right thing, no matter how much it would cost,” she says.
After a month of total stall rest, followed by hand walking, the wound healed, and Baltruchis was taken out to the paddock and set free.
But he wouldn’t leave Montgomery’s side. Finally, she urged him to take off. “I said, ‘It’s OK! Run!’ ”
And with that, the former claimer who’d won only one race in his career found his inner athlete and took off like he was shot from a cannon, bounding and bucking and kicking up clumps of pasture.
And only after 30 minutes of pure animal wilding, did he reappear at her side, ready to go back in.
After that first turnout, Montgomery and Baltruchis experienced the type of closeness that needed no halters and lead lines. She would just whistle and he’d come in from the filed. And they’d walk together to the gait with nothing but friendship tying them together.
One day, that friendship really proved itself as Montgomery was forced to run from a herd of cows.
Walking together towards the gate, as they always did, they inadvertently came between a herd of cows and their calves. Suddenly, and without warning the cows started to close in, mooing and becoming more aggressive.
Just before they reached the gate, one cow seemed to appear out of nowhere, threatening the pair. As Montgomery scrambled toward safety, she turned to see that Baltruchis had reared and was backing him off!
“Bally actually put himself between me and one of the cows and it gave me enough time to run to the gate and get out,” she says. “I don’t think I realized until later, after we’d gotten out and had a ride, how wrong things could have gone in that situation.”
When she thinks about the tough road the pair has traveled, the long days and nights Bally stood in his stall waiting to heal, and the day of the strange cow attack, Montgomery celebrates Derby Day, not with a blanket of roses, but with a deep appreciation for how well they have traveled the path they took to a happy life together.
“When we rode together for the first time on Kentucky Derby day, I felt the day would be perfect, and it was,” she says. “I remember saying to him, ‘OK, I trust you. I know you’re going to be perfect.”
And he was. Absolutely perfect.