Alligator Blood back with a vengeance

15 March 2023 Written by Trevor Marshallsea

Following an injury in 2020, Alligator Blood was not only nursed back to health, but also back to his winning best.

Alligator Blood was considered unlikely to return to racing after an injury in late 2020, but with loving owners and a dedicated healthcare team, he was not only nursed back to health, but also back to his winning best.

Nearly retired. Finished with racing. Yesterday’s horse. Through his first 15 months of racing, he’d been a breathtaking young star, with 10 wins from 12 starts, starting in home state Queensland and culminating in his Group 1 breakthrough in Flemington’s 2020 Australian Guineas.

But from late 2020 through to the first few months of 2022, the son of All Too Hard was written off as a spent force. However, thanks to formidable forces behind the scenes – chiefly his faithful owners and a highly skilled veterinary surgeon – some of the gelding’s finest days were still ahead.

Alligator Blood – it’s a term from the USA’s deep south applied to resilient, ice-cold poker players – thrilled Melbourne crowds with three more Group 1s, including the Underwood Stakes, Flemington’s Kennedy Champions Mile and a last start victory in the Futurity Stakes at Sandown, mixing it with a rare crop of weight-for-age talent. It has capped a stunning comeback, a testament to what’s possible with dedicated care and the latest in veterinary science.

The trouble appeared on October 10, 2020. The gates opened for Randwick’s Silver Eagle, and Alligator Blood, naturally the short-priced favourite, dipped alarmingly before hauling himself up again. He still managed second, but his Golden Eagle performance three weeks later was abject – 15th of 18.

Granted, it was a bog track, but his fade-out when asked for his usual effort rang alarm bells. “He’d lost his desire,” said part-owner Jeff Simpson, a man with an eye for a horse honed through trotters and thoroughbreds. “The way he dropped out, I thought something had to be wrong.”

Simpson and his fellow owners sent their beloved “Al” to the University of Queensland Equine Specialist Hospital at Gatton. Their suspicions were confirmed when nuclear scintigraphy scans revealed the horse was plagued by impinging spinous processes.

Thankfully for most of us, there’s a more common term – kissing spines. Bones along the top of the spine (dorsal spinous processes) have grown too close and are squeezing forcefully together.

University of Queensland Gatton Professor of Surgery and Sports Medicine Ben Ahern says it occurs in around one third of all thoroughbreds. Many cases cause a horse no problems, but for some it brings acute pain when asked to flatten out under pressure.

“To compensate, he was putting pressure on himself in other areas,” Simpson said. “His stride became terrible. He’d started hitting his legs into each other. We don’t know when it started, but it was growing worse.”

Ahern found the trouble lay in five processes right under the saddle – and the weight of the jockey.

“It’s back pain,” Ahern said, “and no one likes exerting with back pain. If you’re just a horse walking around with someone riding you, you’re unlikely to have a problem. But in a high-performance horse, the one or two per cent of extra performance can mean the difference between winning Group 1s or being an also-ran.

“Dorsal spinous processes are like sails on a ship sticking upright. When they’re far enough apart, everything’s fine. But in AB’s case, they were pushing against each other, or even overriding, so the spine couldn’t flex properly.”

Alligator Blood was scheduled for a remarkable surgical procedure. While the area was numbed with local anaesthetic, the horse was still awake, though sedated, and kept upright in a crush. Using a small, surgical buzz saw, for some 90 minutes Ahern sheared away the front and back sides of the five spinal “sails”, which are each about five centimetres from front to back. He reduced each by around two centimetres, creating an extra 10 centimetres of room – not huge in a horse’s back, but enough to make a difference.

After surgery came recuperation and rehab. Like any recovering patient, Alligator Blood had to take it easy, with minimal movement. Six weeks of box rest was followed by six more in a small paddock at the Robbins Equine Centre, near the Simpsons in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, with his longterm vet Mark McGarry heavily involved.

Rehab focused on core muscles. Alongside considerable swimming, Alligator Blood was “worked over poles” – trotting repeatedly over low obstacles which, Ahern said, “requires horses to bunch up their abdominal muscles, building core strength and back muscles”.

Another “trick” involves laying a carrot between the horse’s forelegs, or to one side, compelling them to bend to fetch it, again strengthening internal muscles.

“It’s a good thing Alligator Blood loves carrots,” Ahern said. “Jeff and Robyn would bring bags of carrots for him.

It was a perfect situation really – owners who love their horse, a dedicated care team, and a horse with ability who’s a real trier.

“In the past, there hasn’t been great diagnostic technology, and rehab was overlooked. An injured horse would just be put in a paddock for six months, then brought back. But now, hopefully you can attain an accurate diagnosis, have good treatment and proper rehab.”

Alligator Blood had been switched from David Vandyke to another Sunshine Coast trainer in Billy Healey, known for having a focus on swimming. After three moderate handicap runs, he was again consigned to history by many. But Simpson says Healey was “bringing him along nice and slowly”.

The gelding had also shouldered 61kg in those runs, and, with fitness improving, that prompted a transfer to Randwick’s Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott. He’d again tackle major races, under lighter weights. The first was the Group 3 BRC Sprint at Eagle Farm in May, 2022.

Alligator's Blood's triumphant return to the track was handled with great care.

“In those first runs with Billy,” Simpson said, “you could see he wasn’t travelling straight in the home straight. He was thinking, ‘Is this about to hurt me?’

But in the BRC Sprint, about the 350-metre mark, his head turned to the side a little, but he straightened up, pushed through it and ran a close second. I thought, ‘We might have our horse back’.”

So they did, as his next start – victory in the G1 Stradbroke Handicap – and his ensuing spring heroics proved. “We knew he could return to his old ability once he started to relax,” Waterhouse said. “He was a little nervous at first, which can happen when horses come from different places to our place. You’ve got to observe the horse, watch how you’re training them, take in their mannerisms, and that helps you get them to chill out. Once he started to relax, things were OK. “He’s marvellous. He’s tough, he’s durable, he rolls up his sleeves and he gets on with the job.”

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