This is a hard entry to write. Not just because it’s sad and depressing, but because it’s not really my story. I didn’t have to be there when the end came, and it was a horse I never knew. I didn’t have to bear the brunt of all this, and so I can’t truly understand how it all must feel.
Yesterday Allie had to make the decision to euthanize a horse that had been donated to CANTER. It’s not the first time she’s had to do it. And like those other times, it wasn’t something that every horse owner prepares for, like old age or infirmity. It was just a combination of bad luck and a bad past and the wrong people.
In this case, the horse’s name was Half Court. I never met him, but I remember when he was first donated to CANTER late in the summer. “You have to see this horse,” Allie told me, “he’s beautiful.”
When he arrived, Half Court was 6. He outperformed his sire- who was a $130K sales yearling at Keeneland but who apparently never made it to the races, despite being by superstar Seattle Slew. In four years of racing, Half Court started 48 times, winning 9, and earning more than his sire’s original purchase price. A West Virginia-bred, he made every one of those starts at Charles Town race track.
Half Court got a slow start at the track. Claimed from his trainer/breeder straight off the bat, it took him until his second year of racing to figure it out and break his maiden. He spent the next few years working hard for his oats- getting a piece of the purse often enough to pay his way, and occasionally scraping a win. In all respects, he was a typical hard working claiming horse, just like the many others we see every day.
Things get a little strange in late 2007 and 2008. Claimed once again by a new trainer, Half Court demonstrated a better than usual running streak. In his last ten races, Half Court won five times (and came in second once), a significant improvement in winning percentage. Granted, it should be said that he dropped in class as well, going from Allowance company to Claiming races since 2006. But… well, it’ll be said later, so back to the point.
Half Court, despite his pretty run of the mill existence, was a very lucky horse in that he had people out there who cared about him. After his last race, he apparently pulled up badly enough that a former owner made the arrangement to purchase him (likely for far more than he was worth, despite finishing second and earning over $2000 in that last start) out of concern for his future. That owner decided the best place for him was with CANTER.
And so that’s how a beautiful bay gelding with ankles like “basketballs” ended up at one of CANTER’s farms.
I remember Allie being struck by his good looks and general aura- she said he was “proud.”
Unfortunately, Half Court later began to go through what we call a “crash.” With most of these guys, that’s just a little period of muscle loss, and sometimes skin problems, that they go through as they adjust to their new unsheltered lifestyle. Some have worse experiences than others (mostly horses on various medications who have to adjust to not getting those anymore), but this horse crashed hard. He lost a lot of weight, and the usual feeding strategy did not seem to help. He seemed anxious, and took to cribbing constantly. Ulcer medication, something that usually helps right this sort of thing, did not have any effect.
Allie has seen it before, and so has the vet who came to end his suffering yesterday- they theorize (there’s no real way to prove it) that he was likely on EPO (erythropoietin), a performance enhancer a lot of people haven’t heard of (most famously used in several bicycling doping scandals), that has some really nasty side effects. The stuff works by stimulating the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. When more oxygen can be delivered to vital organs and muscles, they can work harder and longer. The problem, in one horseman’s words, is that it turns the blood “to sludge.” Horses can experience a variety of nasty side effects from this stuff, and some of these side effects can happen long after the drug was initially administered. Anemia, anorexia and kidney failure seem to be the most common of those side effects- and any of the three can be fatal.
EPO is one of those nasty things that’s very difficult to test for. The substance itself is relatively undetectable if it isn’t tested for right away. Horses develop antibodies to it, which can be tested, but those tests can’t prove when the substance was last administered. So in the end, I suppose we just have to theorize. There’s no way to say for certain what was going on, after all, other than the experience of some people who have seen a lot.
On Christmas Eve, Half Court, weakened and very underweight from his “crash” also had the misfortune to choke. He then seemed to get a little better, but yesterday was choking again, badly, unable even to get water into his stomach despite trying desperately to drink.
The rest you all know by now. Half Court is no longer in pain, no longer stressed and hungry. In some ways he was an immensely lucky horse- he had someone who cared about him, who made sure he was in a situation where he would be loved and cared for. In his last few months, he got to just be a horse, with no one making demands, or giving him “help” in order to run faster than his body was really capable of. He was appreciated just for himself, rather than what he could do.
Allie, if you’re reading this, please know I think you’re incredibly caring and incredibly brave. And that despite what this horse went through, he was so lucky to have you there at the end.