St Nicholas Abbey's legacy

St Nicholas Abbey and jockey Joseph O' Brien take the 2011 Breeders' Cup Turf. Breeders' Cup photo

I read the press release and in a flash of naive disbelief hoped that if I closed my browser window and reopened it, the words would somehow change. They didn't. St Nicholas Abbey had been euthanized.

In that brief moment of time while I waited for the screen to reload, my mind traveled back to my seventh grade English class. That year, our teacher faithfully read our class one chapter a day from Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes. I loved the story, until the last chapter.

The ending of the novel was so unacceptable to my 12-year-old self that I actually raised my hand and asked her to reread it because she must have skipped a page. My brain processed her words but my heart couldn't accept them. The characters deserved a better ending than they received.

Upon reading of St Nicholas Abbey's demise, I felt very much like I did that day in the classroom. The ending wasn't right and it wasn't fair and it couldn't possibly be true.

His connections collected an amazing international list of surgeons in an effort to save him, and the surgery, which required putting 20 screws in his leg, worked.

Of course, it was. Life isn't fair and not everyone gets the ending -- good or bad -- that they deserve. Horses die everyday, and part of living is accepting that you will also eventually die.

For the rest of the day, though, I couldn't shake my feeling of how unfair it all was. Unlike the fictional story my teacher read to us years ago, St Nicholas Abbey's story was very much real, even if at times it read like it wasn't.

While racing for Coolmore, St Nicholas Abbey won six Group/Grade 1 contests and earned almost $8 million. The talented runner was a champion that won at the highest levels in Europe, North America, and Dubai, and as he continued to prove his abilities year after year, he developed a large international fan base.

American race fans know him best for winning the 2011 Breeders' Cup Turf. His victory was one of the more noted races of that year's event because of the jockey on his back. St Nicholas Abbey was piloted by the then 18-year-old Joseph O'Brien, who is the son of the horse's trainer, Aidan O'Brien.

Father/son story lines in sports are always popular. When you add in that the younger O'Brien also became the youngest jockey to ever win a Breeders' Cup race, it was no wonder it was a highly celebrated victory.

Last year, at 6-years-old, St Nicholas Abbey seemed to be in the best form of his already remarkable career. He won the Dubai Sheema Classic on the Dubai World Cup undercard and followed that effort up with a victory in the Coronation Cup at Epsom Downs in England.

Then, in July, everything went wrong. St Nicholas Abbey fractured a front pastern while out for routine exercise. His connections collected an amazing international list of surgeons in an effort to save him, and the surgery, which required putting 20 screws in his leg, worked.

As the months went on, complications ranging from colic to broken hardware in his leg to laminitis occurred, but St Nicholas Abbey seemingly shrugged off each challenge. Coolmore remained committed to both the horse and to updating the world on his condition.

Press releases, complete with photos and videos, were released at regular intervals. The videos backed up the written words. Somewhat unbelievably, St Nicholas Abbey appeared to be in good spirits. His veterinary team always noted how intelligent and willing a patient he was, and as each hurdle was cleared, optimism slowly began to grow that he would make it.

And then, on Jan. 14, St Nicholas Abbey colicked again and just like that, it was over. The final press release read: “Surgery revealed a severe strangulating colon torsion that was unviable and he had to be euthanized on humane grounds. This is extremely unfortunate as St Nicholas Abbey had been in terrific form, the laminitis was resolving very well and the fracture had healed better than expected.”

It all just seemed so brutally unfair. It is akin to surviving a particularly deadly form of cancer, only to get hit by a bus as you neared the end of your treatments.

While I am obviously sad for the horse, I am also devastated for all of the people who worked with him. As much as his fan base mourns for him, I can only imagine what his actual connections feel. I offer my sincere condolences to everyone who worked so hard to give St Nicholas Abbey a chance, both when he was racehorse and when he became a patient.

It is easy to say it was all for nothing, and that at the end of the day he was just a horse, but I would argue that is far from the truth. As I considered everything that happened, my mind once again flitted back to that English class and Tarzan.

At the time, I argued that the book was pointless if that was how it ended. My teacher smiled and assured me Burroughs had a lot of success with that particular group of characters. There are more than 20 books in the series.

Years later, I finally read the second book. It didn't take away my long held belief that the original story didn't end the way it should have, but it helped a little.

St Nicholas Abbey didn't get the ending he deserved, and neither did his supporting cast of characters, but in a way, he too will get a sequel because he was a perfect storm for advancing equine medicine.

He was a willing patient who had connections willing to spend any amount of money to save him, as long as he retained his fighting spirit. The best of the best were able to work with St Nicholas Abbey, and there is no way they walked away from the experience without learning something new.

I offer my sincerest thanks to everyone who used minds far more brilliant than mine in an effort to save St Nicholas Abbey. He didn't make it, but down the line other horses will, in part because of what was learned from this unique situation.

Broken limbs, colic and laminitis are three of the top concerns any horse owner has when it comes to the health of their equine. It doesn't matter if they are racehorses, show horses or backyard pets. If racing ceased to exist tomorrow, those three evils would still haunt horse owners the world over.

If what veterinarians learned while tending to St Nicholas Abbey can advance research in any of these realms in even the smallest way, then it was worth it. It is not the legacy anyone wanted for him, but it is a valuable one, nonetheless.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.