by Bill Finley
The horse eats nothing but soup and there was time you would have had to have been nuts to believe he’d ever amount to anything. Speechify (Harlan’s Holiday) is not your ordinary horse. Not only is he a two-time stakes winner, but he has overcome problems that would have ended the racing careers of just about anyone else. But for every problem there is a solution, and sometimes that solution is soup.
Speechify, on separate occasions, has suffered condylar fractures in each of his front legs, but the more vexing problem for his connections has been an esophageal stricture, which is a narrowing or tightening of the esophagus that makes swallowing difficult and dangerous. With a horse who has this problem, a normal diet or standard stall bedding could cause them to choke to death.
Barry Irwin, the president of the Team Valor syndicate, didn’t know this at the time when he picked the horse out at the 2011 Keeneland September sales. He bid up to $85,000 on the son of Harlan’s Holiday, but the horse was RNA’ed. After the sale, he met with the consignor and brokered a deal to buy Speechify for $80,000, or $5,000 less than his final bid.
The next stop was Tony Everard’s farm in Ocala, where Speechify was to be broken. Everard immediately discovered that something wasn’t right with the yearling.
“We were bringing him in one morning and he looked a little in distress and we thought he might have a fever or something,” Everard said. “We took him to the vet who said he had hay and grass stuck in his throat that he couldn’t swallow.”
Everard consulted with the vet who discovered the problem and said Speechify could never be treated like a normal horse again. He could not be allowed to graze, his stall bedding had to be made up of something he would never eat (like peat moss), he could not consume normal grain or hay and his feed had to be liquified.
Irwin says the horse basically subsists on soup.
“Tony is one who developed the formula for feeding the horse,” Irwin said. “It’s a soup, not even as solid as mash. He went to the feed store and talked to the people there and they helped him develop it and told him what to put in it. It started out almost as water but they eventually let it become a little thicker.”
Said current trainer Ralph Nicks: “It’s not like he’s drinking a milkshake, it’s not quite that liquified, but it is close.”
Though everyone who has dealt with Speechify has been told to be extra careful, there have still been missteps along the way. Irwin didn’t want to name the individual, but said someone in his operation mistakenly put down straw bedding in the horses stall and that Speechify ate some of it and almost died.
At other times, the horse has gotten himself into trouble.
“If he gets one little chunk of something in him it’s a problem,” Nicks said. “He can’t have a bite of grass, can’t have a bite of hay. He can get ambitious coming off track and grab a leaf off a bush and it will clog him up. One time he overpowered the hot walker and started grazing. It’s always something you have to watch out for.”
Once the feeding issues were under control, Irwin and Everard could see that they had an exciting prospect on their hands.
“As a yearling, he looked like a ready-made 2 year old,” Irwin said. “He wasn’t very tall, but was muscular. Literally, it looked like if you brought him over there to run him that day he would have been ready. I had never seen a horse that well developed.”
Preparing for his first start, he suffered a condylar fracture in a front leg. By the time it had healed and he was ready to go, he was midway through his 3-year-old year. But the wait had been worth it. He broke his maiden in an Aug. 24 race at Gulfstream by 10 ½ lengths. (Video.)
“The first time he ran he ran a 1 3/4 on the Thoro-Graphs,” Irwin said. “We’ve never had any horse do that. It was ridiculous.”
From a numbers standpoint, Speechify didn’t run back to that race over his next several starts. Irwin was discouraged and perplexed, but he knew that any horse that had run as fast as this one had in its first start still had the potential to be something special.
Speechify won a Jan. 23 allowance at Gulfstream and seemed to be rounding into form, only to suffer another condylar fracture in his other leg.
“I’ve never had a horse break both front legs and keep going,” Irwin said. “If it weren’t for that freaky fast number in his first start, I would have given up on him. It so tough to find horses that have that kind of talent. When you do you will go to the ends of the earth to try to figure out a way to keep them going. That’s the motivating factor.”
They pieced Speechify back together and he was entered in an Oct. 25 grass race at Gulfstream Park West, where he finished eighth. Then it was back to the dirt, and the gelding has never looked back. He won the Kenny Noe by 3 3/4 lengths and then won the GIII Mr. Prospector by 1 1/4 lengths.
“He is a special individual,” Nicks said. “I don’t know if that comes from the choking incidents or he was just cut out to be that good. He has a whole different class about him that a lot of other horses don’t have. He wants to go and do his job every day. He wants to make you happy every day.”
Irwin said the next major goal is the April 9 GIII Count Fleet H. at Oaklawn.
“Most of time when a horse has this many problems, it never works out in the end,” Everard said. “He has been a real problem child for us. To see how it has worked out, I’m thrilled to death.”