His connections wondered if Wally’s Choice liked the racetrack any longer.
Wally’s Choice loved to run. He’d crowd the stall door, eager and waiting when he heard the message over the loudspeakers that it was time to go. He’d reach the receiving barn and stare down the competition, showing them a racehorse had arrived.
Then, after a surgery to repair a tendon and a long layoff, Wally didn’t have the same pizzaz. “He didn’t seem like himself,” said trainer Mike Biehler.
The horse was restless and lethargic. Inactivity appeared to have taken the fight out of him. “That happens sometimes when these geldings have a layoff,” Biehler added.
Then Biehler brought him north from his Oklahoma farm to Canterbury Park this spring and the change seemed to be the right tonic. Wally rediscovered his spirit, was full of run and began making the exercise boys hang on again in the morning. Wally wanted to race again.
Wally’s Choice, owned by Wally and Joyce McNeil and Curtis Sampson, the horse’s breeder, ran a fast-closing third on May 24 in his first race since July 29, 2006.
“We were really happy with what he did,” said Biehler. “Sometimes with a gelding like that and a long layoff, you just don’t know if they want to run again. We’re very pleased, although he’s in tougher competition this time.”
“He’s in with some tough, tough horses,” added Sampson.
Indeed he is. Wally is part of a 10-horse field for the Brooks Fields Handicap, the feature race on Belmont Stakes day that has attracted two horses who finished in front of him three weeks ago in addition to some tough invaders.
The race is scheduled for the turf at 7 1/2 furlongs, presenting a number of questions. Wally’s Choice prefers the dirt for one and something over a mile for another. The rain this weekend could move the race from the grass to the main track, but even that might not be the perfect answer. If the surface is too deep, Biehler won’t subject the horse to the extra stress on his repaired tendon.
Nonetheless, the tendon in Wally’s right front leg appears healed and sound after surgery and later stem cell treatment a year ago in March. The tendon apparently bowed shortly before the Festival of Champions in 2006 and then, after a layoff to let it heal, tore when he tried to race again. But after the strong showing three weeks ago and his responsiveness since, it appears the horse is back, maybe as good as ever.
“We were very happy with the way he ran and how he looked,” Wally McNeil said.
Equine doctors have been using stem cells to help horses heal with some very promising results for about two years.
“It’s real promising, fairly easy to do and it doesn’t break the bank,” said Dr. Lynn Hovda, head veterinarian for the Minnesota Racing Commission. “It’s better than thought when used appropriately in some horses, not as good as hoped for in others.”
It appears to have worked well in Wally’s case.
Hovda explained the process. A small portion of fat is extracted from the animal’s tailhead area and sent to a laboratory where the stem cells are extracted and then returned. “It’s about a 72-hour process,” she said. “You can get as many as two to four treatments that are injected into the tendon or suspensory.”
Stems cells extracted from pigs originally were tried without similar results. “It wasn’t as successful,” Hovda said. “The nice thing about using the horse’s own cells is that the risk of rejection is very, very low and it’s not as irritating to the tendon sheath because it’s the horse’s own cells, something its body recognizes.”
Wally’s Choice was healing well following surgery on the tendon but his connections elected to continue with the stem cell treatments at a cost of about $800. “The doctor who did the surgery on him said he appeared to be recovering OK, but wanted the stem cell work done, too,”’ said Russ Sampson.
Wally’s travail began two years ago. He had won the $100,000 Bosselman/Gus Fonner Stakes at Fonner Park that spring, but the decision was made to hold him out of the Festival of Racing on Labor Day despite the belief he could win the Classic easily.
“A few days before, Mike Biehler thought something was not 100 percent,” Curt Sampson recalled. “We were all throwing up our hands. If we raced him we might win but he might never race again. If we didn’t race him he might not race again anyway.”
A year of rest will sometimes heal a bowed tendon. Wally’s Choice got the OK from doctors six months later to resume activity but the tendon separated, longitudinally. When the sheath tears, the tendon, wrapped like hundreds of rubber bands, begins to unravel and tear. In Wally’s case, the tendon separated from top to bottom.
“That’s when we heard about stem cells,” Curt added.
Now, Wally is back in action. His resume not only includes the Bosselman win but also a win in the $150,000 Oklahoma Derby. With $431,955 in his career bankroll, Wally is within $100,000 of the record career bank account of a Minnesota-bred horse, held by Blair Cove’s, who earned $533,528.
“We want to beat that,” Russ Sampson said. If it doesn’t happen, so be it.
“It’s just great to see him back and healthy,” Sampson said. “He’s a real warrior.”