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Monday, August 22, 2011

Do You Have/Want a Grey Horse?

I am in the middle of writing a post about something else, but this topic is near and dear to my heart so I feel compelled to share.

As anyone who's read this blog for a while knows, my dream is to someday own a grey TB. I was aware that they are prone to melanoma, of course, but honestly, did not think that the disease was truly life-threatening in horses*. That is, until I met the wonderful stallion Black Tie Affair at Old Friends. When he turned to look at me the first time it was all I could do to not gasp out loud; this beautiful, now snowy-white but formerly dapple grey boy was absolutely covered in huge lumps. And I when I say huge, I mean HUGE, like up to 12" wide and about 6" tall. I was shocked beyond belief. Thankfully, none of these tumors was open or oozing, but they could not have been comfortable.

Blackie was laid to rest a year ago due to the "infirmities of old age." In addition to the melanomas he also had severe arthritis. I know he was being treated by the top vets available in Lexington, and in the time he spent at Old Friends he really did show remarkable improvement. He was able to get up and down, roll and enjoy some wonderful KY bluegrass and lots of carrots handed out by the staff and visitors. He was adored by all. But it wasn't enough for this magnificent, Breeder's Cup Classic-winning millionaire to make it past the age of 24. [Note: I would like to have included some photos of Blackie here, but I'm writing this via a link from the video referenced below and am not able to post photos.]

After learning about Blackie, I began to revise my thinking about melanoma in horses. Then, last week, I discovered a new horse blog. I was horrified to read that the blogger lost HER grey TB gelding to complications of melanoma, and he was only in his teens! The blogger did not provide too many specifics (at least not enough to satisfy this former pre-vet student's curiousity, but I'm sure she just didn't want to thoroughly gross out her readership) but I believe the tumors may have impacted his intestinal tract. I sent her a message and said all of this has really got me rethinking the whole grey horse thing.

So, imagine my interest when I noticed on home page just today that there was a video available for viewing regarding equine melanoma. This may not be everyone's cup of tea (there are some graphic photos of tumors) but I found it absolutely fascinating. Boy, did I learn a lot, starting with the fact that many, many veterinarians are inclined to dismiss melanomas as completely benign and not likely to cause any trouble! So I wasn't dumb to think that. Another eye-opener was the statistic that 80% of grey horses will have melanoma lesions somewhere on them by the age of 14. The vet leading the lecture said people will tell him, "Oh, my horse doesn't have any of those," and 100% of the time so far he has been able to find them on the horse.

Apparently melanoma often does usually start out as pea-sized lesions that often "do nothing" for a long time. Vets can be reluctant to remove them at that size because they appear to be harmless and "they might get irritated" if the surgeon goes in. I have heard that said before in regards to humans and animals, so this doesn't surprise me. Unfortunately, a large percentage of those small lesions do decide to grow and when they do - watch out. They can become very large in a short time and often become ulcerated, ugly and a really big problem. The moral of the story is, if your horse has small melanomas, NOW is the time to get them off. Your vet may take some convincing but apparently there is nothing published that indicates that the lesions will grow back or "get angry" if excised.

That's the bad news. The fantastic, terrific news is that there are new therapies being developed that show great promise in treating equine melanoma! I also found out that the researchers have identified a family of grey QHs that are completely melanoma-free, and are working to identify the genome that allows for this natural resistance to the cancer. And if all of this also leads to some new treatment for human melanoma, I am doubly all for it.

Here's the link if you are interested in the details (again, be prepared for gross photos):

The Horse Equine Melanoma: We Need to Help the Old Gray Mare (video)

* Believe me, I know perfectly well that melanoma is life-threatening in humans. A fellow from my high school class, a fair-skinned, freckled, blue-eyed blond, died at age 37 from the disease. I myself am extremely fair-skinned and suffered any number of severe sunburns as a kid. I have already had about half a dozen biopsies of suspicious neoplasms. Thankfully, none of those turned out to be anything, but I live in fear of the sun these days and plaster myself with sunblock. My brothers enjoy taunting me about my pale skin - I believe the latest insult was I would lose a tanning contest with a sheet of paper - but I say, just wait until they're sticking lidocaine needles in YOUR nose and you'll find out in a hurry why I don't fool around with it any more. :-/

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"And They're Off!"

"I am still under the impression that there is nothing alive quite so beautiful as a Thoroughbred horse."
 - John Galsworthy

It makes me sad that I feel like I need to justify what I did a week ago Saturday night, but here goes:

I LOVE Thoroughbreds. They are my favorite breed by far and always have been. I love them for their looks, their courage, their spirit, their personalities, for everything that makes them the Ferraris of the equine species. My fondness for the breed was born during childhood riding lessons spent at hunter barns where everyone's aspiration was to have a TB for the show ring. My mom was also a casual racing fan, and we usually watched all three Triple Crown races (the only ones televised back in the day), so I became interested in racing at an early age. Basically, as far as I am concerned, TBs have always been THE breed. Besides riding them, I like to read about them, study pedigrees, and watch them.

This includes live racing. As the years have gone by, and I've had Internet access, I've read and heard an awful lot about the dark side of TB racing. I'm afraid that when I was a kid, I never thought much about where they went when they were done with the track. Certainly off to greener pastures, to produce more wonderful animals like themselves or to be loved and ridden by horse-crazy people, right? Now I know that thousands go to slaughter. I know about the drugs, the breakdowns, the irresponsible breeding, the running on three legs and a heart, the riding too young, too fast, too soon. But I can't help it - I'm still fascinated. They are just so magnificent! Even the lowliest, shoulda-been-retired-two-years-ago broken down old claimer is a creature of absolute beauty to me.

So I went to the races.

Fairmount Park in IL is a little over an hour from my home. Every time I've driven by in the past I've thought, "I need to go there." But it took until last year, when a guy from work told me he was putting together a little racetrack-going party, to actually get me in the place. I had a great time, so this year when the email came I jumped on it and said COUNT ME IN.

Thanks to Equibase, I was able to pull up a complete list of entries for Saturday night's races. This made for some interesting reading: out of 47 runners total in eight races, guess how many had sires whose names I recognized? Six. And two of those studs are now retired at Old Friends! (More about this later) To be fair, most of the horses at Fairmount are Illinois-breds, and I don't know much about the breeding scene outside of KY. All of the horses whose dads' names rang a bell were KY-bred. In addition to checking out pedigrees, I also looked at recent workout times, races run and results, and what track(s) the horse ran on. I have never attempted before to do so much handicapping in advance, but the Internet sure made it easy.

I was especially excited about a horse running in the first race. Initially his name, Truebill, caught my eye, as I thought it was catchy, and then I saw his sire's name: Whywhywhy. I've heard of him... I have no idea "why," but I knew it. When I looked him up I found out he was indeed a nice horse. Not spectacular or a champion, but a useful sort and a graded-stakes winner of $315,000. He stands at Gainesway so you know he's also definitely a successful sire:
Wendy, if you're reading this - you guys need to call Gainesway! I think this is a LOUSY confo. shot: Whywhywhy's neck looks bad, he's overbalanced onto his front end, and his eye looks just awful! I know you could do a LOT better.
When I glanced back at Equibase and saw that Truebill is also a grey, I knew I had my pick for Race 1, pending a good look at the youngster. It was going to be his first race ever and he could act like a dingbat. I wanted to check out his eye and demeanor and see if I thought he had the smarts to figure out what he needed to do. Somewhere in the recent past - I think on Steve Haskin's blog over at - I read that the author feels you can predict a racehorse's success by how smart s/he is. This makes sense to me. I have never felt like I could bet on a horse without seeing him/her in person, and besides checking for lameness, I now want a look at their eye. An intelligent face is going far with this bettor! (I also bet on a horse Sat. night simply because I liked his feet, but I'm getting ahead of myself :-)

Having said that, I was so excited about this guy on paper that before the horses even appeared in the paddock I went all to pieces and bet $2 on him to Win. I don't know why I was so keen; just had a feeling, I guess. I was not alone. Practically everyone else at the track also liked the grey's chances, as he was 2-1 from the get-go.

Luckily, Truebill did NOT disappoint when I did see him. He was simply gorgeous, rippling with muscles, and looked far more mature and ready to run than the other somewhat weedy and small two-year-olds in the Maiden Special. He was quiet, not sweating too much (and it was hot), and yes, had a air of intelligence. I apologize for the crummy through-the-fence cell phone photo, but here he is in the saddling enclosure:
He was a very dark steel grey; it was almost hard to tell his color.
After this I immediately went back to the betting window and laid down a couple more huge, monster bets, totalling the whopping sum of $6.00. $4.00 more on Truebill to Win, and a $2.00 Exacta box with the #4 horse, who was also popular and looked pretty good. Hey, considering my usual is the minimum $2, eight bucks IS a big splash! :-) I had vowed that if there was a horse I really, really liked I was going to be brave and risk a bit more. The only thing that stopped me from really living large (like betting $20, my entire stake for the night) was the fact that it still was his very first race. Anything could happen.

What happened was the darn horse won the race easily, making it look like it was something he'd already done a dozen times before. It was only a half-mile race, and he hung second for about three furlongs, made his move around turn, sailed to the front and never looked back. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy. To add to my joy, #4 managed to come in second, completing my Exacta. I was so excited to be holding three winning tickets that I raced back into the Clubhouse to cash them in and missed getting the Winner's Circle shot. I was handed $21.50 so I was ahead $13.50 on the first race! I got back outside just in time to catch the victor prancing his way back to the barn:
Again, a wretched photo but better than nothing.
I consoled myself for not betting more with the knowledge that, at such low odds, I would "only" have made $20 if I'd bet my whole stake. Now, if I'd thrown down the twenty on the Exacta we would have been talking the kind of money that would really be good news. I know, I know, "what ifs" are the bane of every gambler. But doggone it, that horse was a LOCK and I knew it! :-)

Gambling-wise, the rest of the night also went pretty well for me. I bet on six more races, and cashed in on four. I wound up going home with five extra dollars in my pocket and considered myself a success.

So about the other horses... There was a son of Marquetry, and a daughter of Jade Hunter running. Both of these guys now live at Old Friends, and I believe I met Jade Hunter when I was there (Marq hadn't arrived yet). I bet on both of the "kids," just because of the connection. The Marquetry did nothing but the Jade Hunter mare came in third, so I got money for my Show bet. Before one race, where I hadn't really seen anyone to get excited about on paper, I went to the ring and saw a horse with a very sweet face. When I looked at his feet I noticed that he actually - GASP! - had HEELS! A racehorse with real heels, whoo-hoo! I said as much to the trainer, an older guy who was busy saddling him. He said, "Yes, I like to keep my horses comfortable, they all have heels." So I bet on Sweet Face, too, and he ran second to last - but hey, at least his feet hopefully didn't hurt.

The other horse I was most excited about in advance, though (besides Truebill) was a son of Street Cry.* Ding! Ding! Ding! Can you say, "Zenny's Brother!" I know, technically not even a half-brother, but what the heck, I was tickled. Here's his picture, where you can at least see his head:
Don't know if there was a family resemblance or not. This guy is named Roadster, and has really been around the block. He's run a lot (40+ races) and personally, I think he should be retired rather than appear in $3200 claiming races at a not-top-echelon track. He was the favorite, and wound up placing in this race, I believe. I'm going to check back on him in a while and see what's going on.

There was one bad occurrence this evening at the track. In the last race, a horse I had bet on had to be pulled up halfway around. I overheard someone say he'd gone down on his knees but the jock didn't come off (I couldn't see what happened). Here's my ticket that I sadly, never got to cash:
I hope this guy, a grey and a good past runner, is going to be okay and finds a happy home with a TB-lover somewhere.

So there you have it: a night at the racetrack, complete with thrills, chills and plenty of beautiful, beautiful Thoroughbreds. I had a great time and so did the other folks I went with. I think it's sad and scary that going to the races used to be such a popular activity in this country and now so many tracks are closing. Fairmount seems to be doing okay, though, and someone told me that their "Horse Hooky" Tuesdays are attracting quite a crowd. Who knows, maybe I'll play hooky one of these days and head back over there!