Taking a Hit.
On May 18th, 2011, I received a phone call at 3AM from my nightwatch Shayna in tears screaming at me to come to Barn 5. We had just foaled our last mare of 30 the previous night, and there was only one other horse in the barns for her to check – so I immediately knew what was happening – Perfect was finally bleeding out.
Go back two months, and I had a field of perfect fillies – 8 of which were heading to the sales. Three of them were best friends – a War Front filly out of Miss Class Action ’10 (now Wild One) who would go on to sell for $625,000 dollars and end up in training with Bob Baffert, the second was a stunning Tapit filly out of Skipper Tale (now Quay) who would sell for $250,000, and then this filly – “Perfect” a chromey chestnut by First Samurai out of Perfect Motion. They were my “dream team” – they were stunning, they were all “alpha-like,” and they were all going to go to the Keeneland September sale and strut their stuff for their breeder (and myself) at Hinkle Farms. But on a dreary day in March, this was all shattered when Perfect came in from the field with a grapefruit sized hematoma between her front legs. It was nothing. We put some surpass on it, and chucked her back out into the field. I remember mumbling “Really Skipper? You had to kick your bestie?” I came back to the barn the next day and was horrified as I walked up to the gate to begin checking my “girls.” What had once been a grapefruit was now a basketball on her chest. I called my vet and waited anxiously while Perfect happily munched her grain, completely unphased.
Miss Class Action ’10 (Wild One) and Perfect Motion ’10 (Hit Girl) Spring 2011.
My vet quickly called another, and then another, until a large portion of the surgery department at Hagyards was at barn 5 and consulting on the case. They all said the same thing: “Leave it alone. Because if we try to lance it or drain it, she will bleed out and die.” I stared horrified at the vets, appalled that there was nothing that could be done to this monstrosity that took up her entire chest. The only way I could respond was: “But what about when it pops on its own?” They stared back and grimaced, letting me know that this was probably going to never have a good outcome.
For weeks I watched her chest grow. She was on permanent stall rest, and placed on reserpine to keep her as calm as you could expect a yearling to be. Her friends Skipper and MCA rotated in with her to keep her friends, and I sat at her stall staring at her and praying that it would eventually clot and begin to shrink – but it never did. At it’s final size it was approximately 75 pounds of fluid. It went from mid barrel to mid neck, and shoulder to shoulder. So when I received the panicked phone call in May, I knew that it was literally “do or die.”
I ran to the barn and the smell of blood hit me head on as I opened the main doors. Her stall looked as though someone had slaughtered an animal in it, and her chest was still pulsing out blood. I had my nightwatch immediately call our “emergency vet” Dr. Culbertson who lived down the road while I began throwing Yunnan baiyao into her mouth by the vial. I knew that our only chance to keep her alive was to stop the bleeding, keep her sane and not in shock, and get some fluids and plasma into her immediately. It was the longest 15 minutes of my life.
Dr. Culbertson arrived ready for action and we immediately prepared plasma to administer to Perfect, hoping to restore some of her healthy blood cells. We put in a catheter, began the drip, and suddenly Perfect was shaking and her heart rate sky rocketed — she was one of the 1% that would react to plasma and would be unable to receive it. We immediately stopped and hit her with dex to suppress the inflammatory response, and then stood befuddled at what our next step would be. The source of the bleeding had finally coagulated, but any slight movement of the filly could possibly open this and cause her to bleed out. We kept her on a dorm/torb cocktail and Shayna was told to stay with her all night until I could take my day shift to monitor her.
Only a few hours later, I got another panicked phone call telling me to RUN to barn 5 again – “Perfect was trying to kill herself.” I got to the barn to find that the previously shredding skin and scabbing had been mutilated – the filly was chewing her own flesh off. Again, I was at a loss. I could not leave her head tied to a corner for her entire life – she had to eat and drink. Our main repro vet recommended a neck cradle to keep her from flexing to her che
The neck cradle was placed on her and she sat in her stall for approximately 30 seconds before rearing straight into the air and flipping straight over, cracking her head off of the cement wall and laid on the ground without a movement. I was sure she was dead. I slowly slid into the stall and removed the cradle and checked her pulse – relieved to see that she had one. And then, as if nothing had happened, she jumped up and shook off – and then immediately began chewing on her chest again. Our only option was a “half muzzle” that we found in the yearling barn from years gone by – it would restrict her ability to chew on her chest, but not completely limit it – leaving for an adventurous next few months.
Hit Girl and her “half muzzle”
For weeks we did little more than monitor her, restrict her chewing, administered antibiotics and sedatives, and cold hosed the now 24″x24″ opening in her chest, hoping to deter any more loss of skin. Silver SulfaDiazene was applied to the wound, more in the hopes of tasting bad when she tried to chew than to treat an infection, but little could be done to restrict her. There were weeks where nothing would happen, and then one night she would decide to self mutilate, and we would have to start all over. Her hopes of attending the sales were gone, but it also seemed like her hopes of a happy life were as well. The prognosis was not good. If she continued to self mutilate, and happened to hit the artery, or just simply never let herself heal and had a huge infection occur, we were done. I had a long talk with her owner who resigned himself to the fact that she was might never be more than a pasture ornament – or a broodmare if we were lucky – and he asked me to continue on in what I was doing but to keep him updated if it ever came to a point where I thought she was taking a turn for the worse.
From June until August her routine stayed the same, and then in August she began turn out again – something that took her a bit of time getting used to, as she jumped her 4 plank fence TWICE before realizing life was good on the inside of the field as well. In September her best friends left for the sales, and in October the rest of the yearlings headed to Florida to be broke, leaving just Perfect. Her chest was finally scabbing over a bit, and she was blossoming into a gorgeous horse – if you could ignore her chest.
I had a long talk with her owner again in November and asked if he wanted us to do “anything more” with her and suggested maybe “legging her up” and “long lining” her – he gave me permission to begin as long as she stayed sound and her wound held up!
For a few weeks we worked with her to get her back into “business mode” and she thrived in the work – I began to call our 2yo trainer Caroline Webster in January and began conferring with her to see if she would be willing to take such a “high risk” candidate – this filly was going to require more than “normal care”. Caroline told me to send her on and at the end of January, Perfect loaded up on a Creech van and left my care. I will never forget my phone call the next morning at 6 AM from Caroline asking me “WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING” when she saw how wide her chest was still opened! I told her that it was actually at only 50-60% of it’s total size that it had been and she growled at me over the phone!
Caroline began giving me almost daily updates on Perfect, knowing how emotionally invested I was in this filly. She called me the first day Perfect galloped screaming over the phone at how amazing her stride was, she let me know what new ointments they were trying, she reported the first time Perfect could go without her muzzle – all monumental occasions – and then she called me at the end of May to say that Perfect – now HIT GIRL – was loaded up and being sent to Larry Jones at Ellis Park.
I was both nervous and excited for this next step that no one ever thought would occur. Her first race was set for August 25th, and to say I was excited but hesitant was the understatement of the century. She would run in a maiden special weight at Ellis, the 6th race on August 25th, 2012 – and due to unforeseen circumstances – I was forced to watch it on my phone in my kitchen. She broke from the gate first, and never let another horse even get near her for the entire race – and as she galloped down the homestretch I was screaming and crying – smacking my boyfriend and running circles. My phone immediately began ringing – Caroline, the Hinkles, my nightwatch girl, everyone who had had a hand in this fillies survival had been watching – holding their breath and closing their eyes – but yet again, this filly didn’t just survive – she THRIVED. That win will go down as my favorite in history – it beats every stakes race, every big purse, even the horse we had in the breeder’s cup – nothing compares to her just cruising past the finish line with daylight to spare.
But more importantly, I make sure that I always go check her chest and give her a pat on the neck. She is now 4 years old, and it has been almost exactly 3 years since her chest opened up on me. I am thankful for every day that she has gotten to live, to race, and hopefully to produce more babies with the same heart and charisma that she has – because THAT is what has kept her alive – PURE heart and determination on her part, on my part, and on the parts of all of the veterinarians, owners, trainers, and grooms who have had a hand in her story. I thank all of them every day!