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 winnerThe 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.”
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.
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.”