Shedrow Secrets, Installment 6
The look of eagles. If you’ve been blessed to have seen it, it will never leave you. John Taintor Foote best describes this confident, proud expression worn by only the finest of Thoroughbred racehorses in his book The Look of Eagles. “About the head of a truly great horse there is an air of freedom unconquerable. The eyes seem to look on heights beyond our gaze. It is the look of a spirit that can soar…It is the birthright of eagles.” These extraordinary Thoroughbreds are aware that they are something special, yet their “air of knowingness” is tempered with a quiet kindness. I had seen this look, although the sightings were very few and very far between. And I had often wondered about the broken-down horses we rescued from the track…those who possessed this “air of freedom unconquerable,” could it still shine through despite their broken bodies and wounded spirits? Then one balmy Saturday morning at Great Lakes Downs, I met Lou’s Expectation.
Lou’s Expectation ran his first race on April 12, 2002, when he was yet 9 days shy of his third birthday. A Florida-bred, Lou’s fourth start was his first win, but it was also his last race in the Sunshine State. Only 18 days after that first victory at Calder Race Course, Lou was running in California for trainer Jeff Mullins. As a three-year-old, Lou raced 14 times in less than 9 months. His success that year – 4 wins and 6 second place finishes – was quickly making the classy Valid Expectation gelding one of his sire’s leading winners. The following year in 2003, Lou continued his winning ways in California and was ranked 99th in the country by wins. But in his last race that year, he was claimed for 50K for the infamous owner Michael Gill. Lou headed east.
Lou started 2004 with a race at Aqueduct on a clear, cold January day. The dark bay gelding “tired in the stretch” and came in last…something Lou had never done. The cracks were beginning to show, as Lou again finished last in his next two races. A trainer change brought a short-lived “improvement” with a third and a pair of fourth place finishes, but Lou ended his 5-year-old year in an allowance race at Monmouth Park, outrun, and coming in last by 23 lengths.
On January 26, 2005, Lou was claimed from Gill for 10K at Laurel Park. It wasn’t but three races later that the now 6-year-old former stakes winner was running for a 5K tag at Charles Town Race Track in West Virginia. By summer’s end of 2005, Lou’s ownership had changed hands ten times in just over three years. On August 12, in his 38th start, “Lou’s Expectation bore out and bumped with Mr. Lucky Numbers at the start then was used up after a half four wide.” “Used up after a half,” Lou came in dead last, more than 32 lengths behind. After a short 12-week break, he posted a win in a 4K claiming race, a third 2 weeks later, and another win on December 30, 2005 to close out the year.
Lou didn’t run all of January 2006, and it wasn’t until the end of February when he raced again. He was now among the lowliest of Thoroughbreds, running in cheap claiming races at a second-rate track. In the 9th race on February 24, Lou faced seven competitors in a 6K claiming race. He knew what it took to win – he had done it 14 times. He “pressed the pace just off the rail” but came up short by a mere ½ length, coming in a hard-trying third. Lou made $1500 for his connections, but he couldn’t walk off the track…he needed to be “vanned off after the finish.”
Three months passed, and the beautiful bay with the interesting white facial markings was now at Great Lakes Downs in Michigan. He had again changed hands, being either sold or given away, and another race was still to be demanded of him. Other trainers at the low-level track knew of Lou and his impressive racing history. Even though he was only seven – young by equine standards – the trainers referred to him as “that old class horse.” Lou was lame, but no one said anything, nor came to his defense. On May 31, 2006, Lou’s Expectation made his 43rd start, a cheap 4K claimer. And once again, he showed his class and his heart, coming in second and earning his owner/trainer nearly $1300.
Four days after Lou’s last race, on my weekly track visit for the rescue I volunteered for, I was approached by Lou’s trainer. “You can have the horse in stall #19…and you need to take him today. I’ve got another horse that needs that stall this afternoon. If you can’t take him today, he’s gone. Oh and… he’s got a bad ankle.” Lou’s Expectation, a winner of well over 300K, was being thrown out. He literally didn’t have a stall to stand in.
Lou’s pain was glaringly obvious with movement. Limping badly as I led him from the stall, I moved slowly, trying hard not to cause him increased suffering. I was so focused on Lou’s broken ankle and each tiny step we took in unison that I didn’t notice when we finally reached a clearing. But Lou did. When he abruptly came to a halt, and I looked up from the injured limb to his exquisite face, I saw it…Lou’s Expectation could barely walk, but in his eyes, I saw his spirit soaring. The heart that propelled him to the finish line when his body could not remained unconquerable.
Lou had suffered fractures of both sesamoid bones in his left front ankle. He underwent prompt surgery but the damage was severe, leaving him with a life sentence as a “pasture ornament.” Fortunately for Lou, a board member of the rescue was thrilled to embrace him as part of her beloved equine family. Gail still recalls his noble yet kind disposition the very day he was welcomed home. And though the physical limitations resulting from racing injuries bound him to this earth, Lou’s Expectation’s spirit continued to soar upon wings of eagles. Lou was lovingly cared for by Gail for too short a time. Less than two years after his rescue from the track, Lou colicked and required euthanasia while on the operating table. During surgery, a tear was discovered in his diaphragm. His intestine had migrated up through the tear and had become necrotic, greatly diminishing his chances for survival.
The tear in Lou’s diaphragm was determined to have not been a recent injury, but rather an existing one from some prior blunt force trauma to his body. A probable cause would be when two horses collide with each other during a race, just as Lou and Mr. Lucky Numbers did less than three years before Lou died. And although Lou’s life was cut drastically short, he was fortunate to experience love and kindness in the end. Mr. Lucky Numbers was not so fortunate…racing to 10 years of age, he was confirmed slaughtered in 2008.