Final Days for a Hall of Famer

 

Post Time USA, Volume 34 Number 1. December 2006 - January 2007
by Bill Mooney

“Final Days for a Hall of Famer,” is the now Eclipse Award winning article written by Bill Mooney, which appeared in the January 07 edition of Post Time USA. The article won in the 2007 Media Eclipse Award for Writing in the News/Commentary category.  Bill is a dear friend to both the horses and humans at Old Friends. He is a racing historian and writer. Bill.....congratulations! ----

They put down Precisionist on September 27. The termination of his life occurred at the Old Friends thoroughbred retirement facility in Scott County, Kentucky, where he had been a pensioner since early June of this year.

He died on a beautiful early autumn day – sunny, breezy, warm. The leaves on the pair of oak trees that flanked his grave site were just beginning to change their colors. Nine people were present, including Michael Blowen, the founder and president of Old Friends, and Dr. Holly S. Aldinger, a veterinarian with the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington.

Precisionist – winner of the 1985 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Aqueduct, recipient of that year’s Eclipse Award as North America’s champion sprinter, a Hall of Fame inductee in Saratoga Springs in 2003. Heart was something he never lacked, and on the last day of his life, Precisionist walked the 100 yards from his barn to the grave that awaited him.

There, at 12:42 p.m., Aldinger gently inserted a syringe into Precisionist neck. “What I did,” she later explained, “was inject him with what we call a ‘euthanasia solution.’ In essence, it’s an overdose of barbiturates. What it does is dislocate his brain from the rest of his system.”

Within seconds, Precisionist let out a heavy gasp, slowly knelt down and rolled over on his left side. Already, he was brain dead, although he continued to reflexively breathe, and there was also some reflex action in his legs. As Blowen cradled Precisionist’s head in his arms, Aldinger administered a second barbiturate-laden syringe to the horse’s neck. Three minutes later, all reflexive movement had ceased. Precisionist was gone.

Aldinger stood up, dabbed a tear from her eye and hugged Blowen. A graduate of Ohio State University’s veterinary school, Aldinger is 28 years old and has been with Hagyard for a little over a year. The treatment she provided throughout the 3 ½-month stay for Precisionist at Old Friends had been done without charge.

His own eyes streaming with tears, Blowen tried to speak, but couldn’t find any words to say. Neither could anyone else. In the distance, faint sounds from a flock of geese could be heard. Otherwise, silence descended on the Old Friends property.

* * *

Precisionist’s death had been dignified and painless. It had also been necessary. A series of cancerous tumors had invaded his soft palate and nasal passages. They had effectively merged into a single huge tumor that was inoperable.

“We first realized something was wrong about six weeks earlier,” said Blowen. “Precisionist had developed a really awful case of bad breath. We thought the cause was an abscessed tooth, and he did have an abscessed tooth. But, when X-rays were taken, the tumors were revealed.”

The tumors were diagnosed as squamous cell carcinoma, an aggressive, fast-spreading form of cancer. Humans develop it. Less frequently, horses can be afflicted with it, too. “The veterinarians at Hagyard tried to treat it with antibiotics, but the tumors keep multiplying.” Blowen said.

On September 25 at Hagyard, a team supervised by Dr. Jorge Gomez had performed a tracheotomy on Precisionist. The surgery was done by an intern, Dr. J. T. Goodwin. “This allowed Precisionist to breathe more easily, but the affect could only be temporary,” said Blowen. “Blood clots kept forming in his nasal passages, and the clots were drooling out of his nose.”

After returning to Old Friends, Precisionist kept rubbing his nose on the walls of his stall, trying to relieve himself from the irritation of the blood clots. In ten, twenty, eventually dozens of places, the walls contained smears from the blood.

Champion racehorses are not culled from a single mold. Some are front-runners. Others are closers. Some are dirt specialists, and some are turf specialists. Some are best at sprint distances, others at middle distances, and others at routes. And some – the truly great ones – have combinations of abilities.

The one defining characteristic all of them seem to posses is intelligence. “Precisionist was exceptionally smart,” said Blowen. “During his final 48 hours he’d look at me and his eyes seemed to say, ‘Yes, I know what has to be done. Don’t fret over it. I understand.’ You could see it in his body language. He was ready.”

Other pensioners at Old Friends took notice. People who don’t spend time around equine stock may scoff at this, but thoroughbreds can sense when one of their brethren isn’t well.

“When Precisionist first got sick, and I would bring him back to his stall after hand-grazing him in the pasture, his barn-mates, a pair of geldings named Popcorn Deelites and Special Ring, would just stand there and stare at him,” Blowen said.

Blowen didn’t need to describe the heartbreak he was feeling. On the evening before Precisionist’s death, the horse wouldn’t eat. But Blowen kept a half-filled bucket of carrots at Precisionist’s stall. “When he was healthy, he’d eat gallons of carrots,” Blowen said.

As the hours passed, Bowen frequently entered the stall with a box of Handi Wipes, to clean the blood clots from Precisionist’s nose, and to stroke the horse’s head. “Hey, big boy, you look ready,” he said to Precisionist. “How about us giving the fourth race at Turfway a try? Is there still time to enter?”

Outside, a huge red sky to the west faded into nightfall. A low, thin fog descended over the Central Kentucky countryside. The setting was peaceful, tranquil, appropriate. At 11 p.m., Blowen checked Precisionist, then went to bed. But he got up and checked on the horse again at 2 a.m. And again at 4 a.m., “at which point Precisionist allowed me to feed him some hay out of my hand,” said Blowen.

An hour or so after dawn, Steve Johnson, the co-owner of neighboring Margaux Farm, sent over a back-hoe and a man who knew how to use it, to dig the grave. “It needs to be seven feet deep,” Blowen said. “Steve’s charging us nothing for it.”

As the man did his work with the back-hoe, creating piles of brown clay from the soft earth. Popcorn Deelites and Special Ring, along with a pair of mares named Bonnie’s Poker and Narrow Escape, watched silently from their paddocks. “I think they want to be pall bearers,” said Blowen.

It took several hours to dig the grave. Two radio reporters came by, to get information and quotes from Blowen, and express their sympathies. One of the radio reporters had to leave, but the other stayed, as did a print journalist, who had arrived earlier that morning.

Just before noon, Blowen led Precisionist out of his stall, took a brush and groomed the horse’s coat. Precisionist was snuggling his blood-drenched nose against Blowen’s leg, when the cell phone rang. “It was Holly Aldinger,” Blowen said, after a brief conversation. “She told me she’d be here in 15 minutes.”

The slow walk to the grave site began, with Blowen leading Precisionist. Halfway, the pair stopped. Blowen wiped the horse’s nose one more time. “Could you please get me a hoof pick?” he said to a farm assistant. “I want to clean Precisionist’s hooves.”

* * *

An hour later, Blowen sat on the veranda outside the main house at Old Friends. He had Precisionist’s foal papers, and was reading them aloud. “Foaled, February 28, 1981, in Florida,” said Blowen. “Registered with The Jockey Club, November 17, 1982. Chestnut colt by Crozier out of Excellently, the latter a daughter of Forli. Bred and owned by Fred W. Hooper.”

There’s other information that will always be attached to Precisionist’s name, too. He made 46 career starts, and won or placed in 34 of them. He earned $3.49 million. He swept the Strub Series at Santa Anita “He was a Grade 1 winner at six furlongs, one mile, a mile and one-eighth, and a mile and one-quarter,” said Blowen. “Precisionist looked fast even when he was standing still.”

But one thing Precisionist couldn’t do was breed. His seasons at stud resulted in only four impregnations. Tests showed that, while the sperm in his semen was alive, they failed to make contact with mares’ eggs. “Big mystery, never solved,” Blowen said. “There won’t ever be a Precisionist line.”

He gazed at the mound of clay over Precisionist’s grave, shook his head and sighed. The clay would settle when the first rain came, and after that a grave marker would be erected.

“Old Friends is a unit for equine geriatrics, “ Blowen said. “Every horse here will eventually go from the paddock to the grave. And the same will be true for their successors. Emotionally, I have to accept this, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it.”

In Blowen’s hand was Precisionist’s halter. “Hand-made by Glenn Castle at Midway Leather. Didn’t charge us anything for it,” Blowen said. “I’ve also got a video-tape of Precisionist’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint win.

“And I’ve been promised a tape of his Strub sweep. I hope to get it soon. I’d love to show those races to visitors when they come here during the coming years, so they can see for themselves what a wonderful racehorse Precisionist was.”
------------

Precisionist Enjoying Retirement With Old Friends by Bill Mooney
Post Time USA, Volume 33 Number 3. March 2006

At age of 25, Precisionist has been given a new and permanent home. In early June, the Hall of Famer was transported from Siobhan Ellison’s farm in Fairfield, Florida, to Scott County, Kentucky, where he now resides at the new locale for Old Friends, the retirement facility for thoroughbreds founded by Michael Blowen.

For the past several years, Old Friends had been situated at Hurstland Farm just outside of Midway. But this spring Blowen obtained the financing to purchase Clay Neel’s 52-acre Dream Chase Farm near Georgetown, and relocate the Old Friends operation there. Old Friends was already the stomping territory for such illustrious retirees as Sunshine Forever, Ruhlmann, Taylor’s Special and Ogygian. Precisionist, though, is the first Hall of Fame member to be among the group.

At Old Friends, Precisionist has his own paddock that’s slightly larger than two acres. Other than being a touch swayback, he looks exceptionally fit. “He doesn’t walk, he dances,” said Blowen. “I was at Aqueduct in 1985 when Precisionist won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Despite all the wind and wetness and the cold, he looked beautiful that day. He still does.”

“He’s one of the cleanest-legged horses I’ve ever seen,” said Neel, a veteran Kentucky hardboot, who sold the Dream Chase property because he’s building a new farm along Elkhorn Creek.

“Precisionist’s suspensories – no problems there,” Neel said. “And his ankles are in such good shape you might never know he raced. It’s really too bad Precisionist couldn’t breed, because he really could have made a contribution to thoroughbred bloodlines.”

Therein lies the mystery of Precisionist. He couldn’t breed, although he is, himself, very decently bred, by Crozier out of the Forli mare, Excellently. And on the racetrack, Precisionist was terrific. He made 46 career starts, won 20 of them, came in second ten times and third on four occasions, and earned $3,485,398.

Bred and campaigned by Fred Hooper, Precisionist is certainly one of the top ten racehorses ever produced in Florida. Six times, he was a Grade 1 winner. Precisionist’s six-furlong Breeders’ Cup victory gained him an Eclipse Award as North America’s champion sprinter in ’85, but that season he also won the 1 1/8-mile San Fernando Stakes and the 1 ¼-mile Charles H. Strub Stakes, both of which were run at Santa Anita, and both of which were Grade 1 events as well.

Precisionist had speed, and would stretch it out. His Breeders’ Cup Sprint win was clocked in 1:08 2/5, and when he won the 1986 Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park his time for the 1 1/8-mile distance was 1:46. Back in ‘84, he had won the 1 ¼-mile Swaps Stakes at Hollywood in a time of 1:59 4/5, annihilating his rivals by ten lengths.

It also must be noted that when Precisionist won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, it was his first start in nearly 4 ½ months. His preparation for that event included a six-furlong work in 1:10, a five-furlong work in :57 4/5 and another six-furlong work (a week before the race) in 1:11 2/5. He never shirked a challenge.

Following his initial retirement from racing in early 1987, Precisionist went to do stud duty at Hooper Farm in Ocala, Florida. In the 1988 “Blood-Horse Stallion Register,” his fee was listed as private. But Precisionist’s first foal died shortly after birth, and he got a grand total of four mares pregnant.

Hooper sent Precisionist to undergo tests at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center. Hooper also sent along eight mares, to serve as testing partners. At New Bolton, it was learned that the sperm in Precisionist’s semen was alive, but for some reason wasn’t making contact with the mares’ eggs. The mares were transported back to Florida, as was Precisionist, and he was put back in training.

It really was one of these situations of, “Who would have ever predicted it?” From the time he began racing, Precisionist seemed such a powerful colt. At age two, on July 23, 1983, he broke his maiden at first asking by 7 ½ lengths at Hollywood Park. Two starts later, Precisionist was a 4 ½-length winner in allowance company at Santa Anita, and in his next effort he won a division of the Hoist the Flag Stakes on Hollywood’s turf course.

Chris McCarron was aboard Precisionist for the vast majority of his career efforts, including his ten-length score in the 1984 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood. But Bill Shoemaker had the mount on Precisionist in that year’s Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, a situation that has some interesting side stories.

In early September of ‘84, with McCarron in the irons, Precisionist had been a wire-to-wire winner against older horses in the Del Mar Invitational Handicap, clocking a time of 1:56 4/5 for the distance of slightly less that 1 ¼ miles. Then, eight days prior to the Super Derby, during a morning workout at Del Mar, Precisionist ran off with Shoemaker (there’s no other way of describing it), clocking a mile and one-eighth in 1:48 1/5.

Going into the 1 ¼-mile Super Derby, Shoemaker knew would have an exceptionally sharp and headstrong colt. And Precisionist, the second choice at 8-5 in the field of eight, behaved to form, and was leading by three lengths at the eighth-pole.

But, looming on the outside, guided by the powerful hands of Laffit Pincay, Jr. – here came the 11-10 favorite, Gate Dancer. A colt who could easily be distracted (or spooked), Gate Dancer was outfitted in a hood, white blinkers, white ear muffs and a purple-and yellow shadow roll. He looked like he was on his way to a jousting tournament. But Gate Dancer could close powerfully when he minded business, as he had done when he won the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.

And, in the Super Derby, Gate Dancer was closing on Precisionist now, cutting the margin to two lengths inside the furlong grounds, to a length at the sixteenth-pole and a half-length with the wire approaching.

At that point, Shoemaker looked to his right, saw that Gate Dancer was about to draw even with Precisionist and proceeded to hit Gate Dancer three times in the chest with his whip. Shoemaker’s strokes were hard, deliberate and on the mark – it was, indeed, a marvelously obvious attempt to cheat. No matter. Gate Dancer prevailed by a head. Precisionist finished second, 11 lengths in front of the third-place horse.

Shoemaker stated later, “I wasn’t aware I had misused my whip.” The Louisiana Downs stewards disagreed and gave him a seven-day suspension. Not surprisingly, “The Shoe” never rode Precisionist again.

Leland Ross Fenstermaker trained Precisionist during his initial four racing campaigns, which culminated with a third-place finish in the 1986 Breeders Cup’ Classic at Santa Anita. Hooper had intended to race Precisionist in ‘87, but the horse suffered a condylar fracture to the left cannon bone just above the left ankle joint while in training.

In the wake of his almost entirely futile efforts in the breeding shed, Precisionist returned to racing in late June of 1988, with John W. Russell handling training chores. In Precisionist’s first outing, a one-mile allowance at Hollywood, he unseated McCarron as they exited the starting gate.

On August 1 of that year, however, Precisionist was victorious in allowance company. Towards the end of that month, he was a 3 ½-length winner of the Cabrillo Handicap at Del Mar and in September of that year he won Del Mar’s Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap.

Precisionist made five more starts that season, and although he never won again, he was third in the NYRA Mile at Aqueduct, and second (missing by just a neck and a head) in the Citation and Native Diver Handicaps at Hollywood. That ’88 season was his last at the racetrack, and thereafter Precisionist was in essence a pensioner at Hooper’s farm, and subsequently at Ellison’s farm.

Ellison is a veterinarian, and tried for a long time to solve Precisionist’s breeding problem. But this couldn’t be done, so the decision was made to send him to Old Friends. When Precisionist arrived there, some of Neel’s mares were still at the farm in an adjacent paddock. One could see them take an interest in Precisionist, as he did in them. But that sort of thing had happened many times before, with no results.

In 2003, Precisionist was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. The new location for Old Friends is only five miles from the Kentucky Horse Park, so vanloads and even busloads of tourists will likely visit Precisionist this summer and fall. They will learn of his racing exploits, and see how splendid he looks today. It’s a twilight that befits a grand Hall of Famer.

-- Bill Mooney

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