Patience Game's splintered survival

Horse racing: Maryland-bred Patience Game is the runaway winner as the improbable story of this year's Preakness.

May 11, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

A foal can step in a hole.

A foal can run into a fence.

A foal can be struck by lightning.

A foal can impale itself on a 4-foot piece of wood that rips into his chest and out the top of his body.

What? Wait a minute. A foal's life can be treacherous, but a 4-foot piece of wood through the chest?

That's what happened to Patience Game when he was 4 months old, romping in a field with his mother at Ross Valley Farm in Baltimore County.

Now 3 years old, Patience Game will return to the state of his birth tomorrow as one of the likely 14 starters in the Preakness on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.

The lightly raced colt, winner of the Derby Trial, won't be one of the favorites. But the Maryland-bred Patience Game ranks first in one category. He is the believe-it-or-not story of this year's Preakness.

It was June 1996, and the rambunctious foal was in the field with his mother, Starboard Tack, and another mare and her foal. This was at Ross Valley Farm in Sparks, owned then by Eleanor Ross. She died in April last year. Peter Angelos bought the farm in October.

Laurie and Rachael Walsh, wife and daughter of farm manager J. R. Walsh, were walking down the farm's driveway with neighbors when Laurie noticed the horses in the field acting strangely.

A foal was moving backward, and the other horses were moving away from the foal. Laurie investigated and found that the foal had a long piece of wood stuck in his chest. He couldn't move forward because the protruding end would poke into the ground.

Rachael ran to get her father, and Laurie started to pull out the spear-like piece of wood. It was about two inches thick and two inches wide, part of a new oak fence that lined the field.

"My wife thought it was stuck in there five or six inches," J. R. Walsh said. "But it just kept coming out and coming out."

Laurie pulled out about a foot and a half or two feet of wood from the foal's chest. The piece turned out being about 4 feet long.

"The foal was amazingly calm," Walsh said. "He pretty much stood there patiently."

Road to recovery

They loaded him onto a horse trailer and drove the five miles to Manor Equine Hospital in Monkton. Veterinarians discovered that the foal had not only a hole in his chest but also a hole in his withers (between his neck and back). The sharp piece had gone all the way through.

They stuck a hose at both ends and flushed out the wound. Splinters of wood and paint washed out.

"I expected we'd lose him," Walsh said, "or in the best case he'd survive with a ton of bills and be crippled."

The wood had not punctured anything vital. The foal spent three weeks at the hospital, came home, but then reacted to the medication with severe diarrhea. He spent two weeks at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., receiving fluids intravenously.

"Everybody was real pessimistic at that time, too," Walsh said. "But again, he was easy to work with. He was a good patient."

Finally, the foal returned to the farm.

"His recovery was just miraculous," Walsh said.

No one ever figured out how that piece of fence became impaled in his chest. Walsh said that maybe a mare had peeled it loose, and then the foal tried to jump the fence.

Regardless, the wounds heeled until the scars practically disappeared. The foal grew into a fearless colt who brought $250,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale.

The Thoroughbred Corp. bought him, an unnamed son of Woodman. The Thoroughbred Corp. is the name used by a group of businessmen from Saudi Arabia, Europe and the United States, headed by Prince Ahmed Salman. He is a member of the ruling family of Saudi Arabia.

Richard Mulhall, the group's racing manager, did not know about the colt's mishap until yesterday, when this reporter called him. He said Patience Game's name came from horse racing being such a game of patience.

It's also a game of eerie coincidences. Patience Game is the perfect name for a horse who survived largely because of his patience -- or because he was such a game patient.

Change of trainers

Patience Game did not race as a 2-year-old, but that was not because of physical problems, Mulhall said. He raced first in February this year and then in March, finishing second each time for trainer Wally Dollase.

After that, The Thoroughbred Corp. fired Dollase, reportedly over his reluctance to race 2-year-olds. Trainer Alex Hassinger Jr. inherited Patience Game.

Hassinger, 36, trained Cigar in his formative years for Allen Paulson. Based in California, Hassinger also trained the 2-year-old filly champion Eliza and the Grade I winner Fowda for Paulson and his wife, Madeleine.

In 1994, the trainer opened a public stable in his native Kentucky, but his efforts failed and last fall he was thinking about changing careers.

Then The Thoroughbred Corp. called out of the blue and sent him horses from Dollase's barn. One was Patience Game.

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