By T.D. Thornton
When Brazilian Horse of the Year and Triple Crown champion Bal a Bali (Brz) (Put It Back) knifed through a narrow gap and kicked clear after being blocked the entire run through the Santa Anita Park turf stretch to win the GIII American S. May 9, it was, for most North Americans, the first glimpse of the 5-year-old's ability to overcome adversity.
But those closest to the dark bay know that the eye-catching performance was nothing compared to the tenacity Bal a Bali displayed in overcoming a sudden and severe bout of laminitis that nearly took his life last summer after being privately purchased to campaign in the United States.
“That Santa Anita race was one of the most exciting things in my 20 years in the business,” said Rick Porter, whose Fox Hill Farm owns the majority stake of Bal a Bali in a partnership with Siena Farm. “I don't think I've ever had more butterflies. Just to think of what this poor horse went through, the ups and downs, and then–here he is. And he runs a magnificent race.”
In telling the tale of the Brazilian star's long, strange journey to the winner's circle in America, Porter prefers to highlight how Bal a Bali's intelligence and physical strength helped save the horse's own life after Bal a Bali became gravely ill after landing in import quarantine in Florida.
But according to others involved in the arduous task of getting Bal a Bali healthy again, Porter and Siena Farm went to extraordinary lengths themselves, acting without delay to provide everything from high-tech stem cell therapy to the unconventional but highly effective practice of applying sterile, lab-grown maggots to Bal a Bali's diseased hooves to eat away decayed flesh and promote new tissue growth.
“I was involved in the entire drama from start to finish because we had coverage on the horse,” said Michael Levy, the founder of Lexington-based Muirfield Insurance. “In 25 years of doing this, I have never seen such a heroic effort by owners to execute immediately in terms of doing whatever they could to help that horse. There was never a hesitation for them to seek out every tool and trick and person that could possibly help this animal. The owners and their connections were the game-changers here. It was in tune with what Roy and Gretchen Jackson did with Barbaro.”
Now, 10 months after the ordeal, Bal a Bali is on the cusp of breaking through to the elite echelon of U.S.
turf racing. To appreciate where the horse might be headed as he aims for Grade I competition, let's rewind the story to see where he's been.
Bred by Haras Santa Maria de Araras and initially owned by Stud Alvarenga, Bal a Bali debuted with a sprint win at Hipódromo da Gavea on Feb. 2, 2103, and romped in 11 of 12 races in his home country over the next 15 months.
He established a course–and nearly a world–record by winning first leg of the Brazilian Triple Crown, the 1,600-meter Estado do Rio de Janeiro S., in 1:31.36 on Jan. 12, 2014. Two months later, he set the Gavea course record for 2,400 meters by winning the Grande Premio Cruzeiro do Sul in 2:23.25.
Around that time, Victoria Keith, Porter's executive assistant, was scouting horses in Brazil. Keith certainly wasn't the only U.S. buyer to have Bal a Bali on her radar, but she said she was the first to make an offer on behalf of Fox Hill Farm, arranging for South American-based bloodstock agent John Fulton to broker the deal.
Porter said the transaction fell through because of “miscommunication over value.” Keith said several other U.S. entities, including Besilu Stables and Team Valor, also tried to purchase Bal a Bali, but those attempts never came to fruition. Porter then partnered with Siena Farm to float another offer, and the sale went through at a price Porter said he would rather not disclose.
“And then trouble started,” Porter said.
Bal a Bali was flown to Florida Aug. 1, and after he cleared quarantine, the plan was to ship him west to trainer Richard Mandella with an eye on a 2014 Breeders' Cup turf race. But upon intake, Keith said a veterinarian in charge of quarantine reported Bal a Bali had a scrape on one leg. Four days later, that vet contacted Keith with an urgent message to say, “there's more here.”
The diagnosis was laminitis in both front feet, the right worse than the left.
According to the website http://www.laminitisresearch.org, laminitis is the most serious disease of the equine foot, causing pathological changes in anatomy that lead to long lasting, crippling changes in function. “It is the second biggest killer of horses after colic,” the site explains. “Scientific understanding of laminitis is incomplete and the horse owner often becomes committed to the symptomatic treatment of a chronic condition that inexorably deteriorates.”
In a healthy horse, the distal phalanx (coffin or pedal bone) is attached to the inside of the hoof by a tough, flexible, suspensory apparatus. The inner hoof wall is folded into leaf-like lamellae (laminae) to increase the surface area. A horse has laminitis when these lamellae suddenly fail.
“Without the distal phalanx properly attached to the inside of the hoof, the weight of the horse and the forces of locomotion drive the bone down into the hoof capsule,” the laminitis website explains. “Important arteries and veins are sheared and crushed and the corium of the coronet and sole is damaged. There is unrelenting pain in the feet and a characteristic lameness.”
The development of laminitis is what eventually led to Barbaro's euthanization after the colt shattered a leg in the 2006 GI Preakness S.
Bal a Bali's case was complicated by the fact that he was required to remain under quarantine conditions during transport and treatment. He was shipped by private van to the Palm Beach Equine Clinic, where no quarantine stable existed, so an entire barn had to be cordoned off to house him.
“It was definitely hour to hour,” Keith said.
Dr. Weston Davis, DVM, led the treatment team at Palm Beach, and Dr. Vernon Dryden, DVM, of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, was called in to consult. When it was suggested that Bal a Bali would benefit from a portable cold water spa that the clinic didn't have, Porter located one and ordered it to be shipped down from Orlando.
Bal a Bali's new owners also paid for stem cell treatment, which can be cost-prohibitive in many laminitis cases. In this procedure, mesenchymal stem cells are collected and processed from a horse's own bone marrow, then delivered into a capillary above the hoof to speed healing. The procedure often has to be repeated several times.
“I wasn't holding out a lot of hope when this first happened,” Porter admitted. “The first week or two I thought it was going down the drain. At that point I just thought we were trying to save the horse's life. As things progressed, we started to get some positive news, so we got our hopes up.”
After about a month, the vets said that the amount of rotation in the coffin bones adjoining Bal a Bali's hooves was so minimal that he would one day be able to continue training. Eventually, Porter said, the bones went back to their normal positions.
On Sept. 13, a recovering Bal a Bali was vanned to from Palm Beach to Siena Farm in Paris, Kentucky. There was a cold-water spa there to continue that treatment. Additionally, the vets tried maggot debridement therapy.
In this procedure, fly larvae are imbedded in gauze and wrapped over the infected site. When the maggots hatch, they selectively consume dead, decaying tissues but do not disturb healthy flesh. It is believed that the maggots also stimulate the formation of new tissues and blood vessels, which further aids healing.
“The maggots' job is to eat flesh, so it actually cleans up the foot. My understanding is that they are grown in a lab and very clean. It was interesting,” Keith said.
Mandella flew to Lexington to take stock of Bal a Bali. He said he had never met Porter or Anthony Manganaro, the founder of Siena Farm, prior to this interaction, and that he had been flattered months previously when they cold-called him to inquire about training their Brazilian import. (Porter said Mandella was chosen based on his documented success with South American horses dating back to the 1990s.)
“There was lots of discussion, teamwork, and an open and productive exchange of ideas,” Mandella said. “The way it should be.”
On Jan. 3, 2015, Bal a Bali was vanned to WinStar Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, to resume light training.
Upon driving onto the property, Bal a Bali “caused quite a ruckus when he saw the horses training on the WinStar training track,” Porter said.
“We all took that as a very good sign that he wanted to get back out there,” Keith said.
“WinStar got him legged up jogging and galloping so that he wouldn't be too fresh of a horse when they shipped him to me at Santa Anita,” Mandella said.
On Feb. 1 Bal a Bali was sent to Mandella, who detailed his first impressions: “He's a very smart, good-feeling, kind-hearted horse–but definitely not a 'pet.'. Physically he's not real tall, but he's very stout. Just a very strong horse, made well, and he has terrific action.”
Mandella said Dryden flew to California to shoe Bal a Bali. Because of the laminitis, the horse trains and races with flexible, glue-on shoes.
“That keeps his foot good and healthy without putting nails in it, and it's also part of the equation as to why we've been successful,” Mandella said.
Both Keith and Porter said it was an emotional experience to visit Bal a Bali when they flew out to Santa Anita before the American.
“He helped his case as much as all the people around him,” Keith said. “We did everything we could, but if the horse doesn't cooperate, then you can be really up against it. We were all taking about this horse's fighting spirit. What he had on the track also helped to save his own life.”
Porter said that for him, Bal a Bali's charisma is what stands out. In Brazil, he said, the horse was known for yanking baseball caps off the heads of his grooms and “giving them a bath” by licking their faces.
“His personality and how smart he is makes you like him even more,” Porter said. “I had one other horse like that, and it was Havre de Grace.”
Would he put Bal a Bali in same league?
“Not yet,” Porter said. “But if he does [in the U.S.] what he did in Brazil, we'll put him up there.”
Mandella said it wouldn't be fair to compare Bal a Bali to other South American stars he has trained over the years.
“But with one [U.S.] start under him and the record he's got, you wouldn't say he's not as good as anybody,” Mandella said. “There's a pretty high bar for him to meet and we hope he meets it.”
Questions remain as to what Bal a Bali's best distance might be, considering he's won from just under five to about 12 furlongs.
“He's only run once, so I can't say exactly,” Mandella said. “But I can tell you from training him, if there had been a good race sprinting that had some money to it, I'd have done that easy. He's very quick. He goes a mile and a half because he's smart, that's the difference.”
Would they consider running Bal a Bali on dirt?
“If he hadn't had the problems with his feet, I'd be really confident that he could be just as good on the dirt,” Mandella said. “Given the problems he's had, I'm not sure he could run as hard on the dirt. It's possible we could get around to finding out someday. If he didn't [handle] dirt, I would say the only reason is because his feet and it might 'tell' on him in a race.”
Mandella said Bal a Bali came out of the American “in really good shape” and that he is being pointed for the GI Shoemaker Mile at Santa Anita June 13.
“My first idea was maybe go to New York and run for the million dollars [in the GI Manhattan H. on the GI Belmont S. undercard],” Mandella said. “But then I got to thinking he's just had his first race, so I think it makes sense to stay here and build a little bit. Run him in the Shoemaker, maybe look at the GI Eddie Read at Del Mar, maybe the GI Arlington Million. For the short term, that's the long-term plan.”
Keith said one thing the new ownership team didn't expect was the outpouring of support Bal a Bali received from fans and the press in Brazil.
“We've gotten really lovely and warm reception from Brazilians,” Keith said. “They've been following 'Bali' through his illness, and now through his races. They've contacted Rick a number of times, and they're just very excited. They feel like they're part of his family, and I guess we do too.
“I always just thought that if you take away a country's biggest racing star, they might be upset,” Keith continued. “Instead, they think it's great that he's come to the United States and gets to show himself, and we really appreciate their support.”