The closing stages of a race are often filled with drama and excitement, yet the tension was heightened at the Cheltenham Festival last year when Edwulf’s prospects took a sudden turn for the worse at the end of the four-mile chase.
During the charge to the finish line, the gelding appeared to lose control of his legs and was pulled up by jockey Derek O’Connor. He collapsed on the track, shaking and convulsing. The outlook appeared bleak as screens were drawn around him — even more so when, nearly an hour later, vets were still working to get him to his feet.
Despite suffering a chaotic heartbeat and temporary blindness, Edwulf not only survived, but fought back to win again. His extraordinary story begins as he runs into trouble soon after clearing the final fence…
14 March 2017
As Edwulf staggers and hits the floor, on-course vets including David Chalkley and Henry Tremaine race to his side. The gelding’s rolling eyes indicate some sort of neurological crisis.
“Most recumbencies in racing are due to the horse falling over a fence or being brought down, which was not the case with Edwulf,” explains the racecourse’s senior veterinary surgeon Liam Kearns MRCVS, of Three Counties Equine Hospital. “It appeared that he had overheated as a result of exertion and was suffering from cerebral hypoxia — an acute oxygen deficit.
“He was immediately given anti-inflammatory medication into his jugular vein and light sedation to ease the neurological signs. Meanwhile, the cooling process was started. An overheated horse is usually up and walking and benefits from evaporation as water is applied and scraped off, but it’s more difficult when he is recumbent.”
Although Edwulf had been galloping and jumping well, neurological tests are used to check for a skull or spinal fracture.
“If the horse fails to withdraw his leg when the skin on his fetlock is pinched, for example, this indicates that messages are not getting through from his brain to the limb,” explains Liam. “These tests are not so easily interpreted, however, when exertion fatigue is involved.”
Edwulf’s heart rate and gum colour are monitored and he receives intravenous fluid, but he remains down. The Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service roll him on to a sliding stretcher called a glide, so treatment can be continued away from the track.
Liam explains: “Recumbency in itself is not necessarily an issue, but the question is what is the cause — and has any permanent damage been done? Edwulf had shown an erratic heartbeat, known as dysrhythmia, but this returned to normal fairly quickly. It was a matter of monitoring his responses and giving him time to recover, while waiting for him to show signs that he was ready to get up.”
More than 45 minutes after his collapse, a wobbly Edwulf rises to his feet. The vets steady him and help him with limb placement, before guiding him into a waiting ambulance equipped with a low ramp and a support sling. The clerk of the course arranges a police escort to facilitate the 25-minute journey to Three Counties Equine Hospital.
“When we unloaded him and put him in a stable it was evident that he couldn’t see,” says Liam. “There was no visible damage to his eyes, but this blindness tied in with the hypoxia. We gave him more fluid therapy and medication, including an anti-inflammatory to help combat brain oedema [swelling].”
15 March 2017
After a night under observation, a much-improved Edwulf is up and eating the next morning.
“His sight was back to normal and he was a hugely brighter horse,” says Liam. “There was no sign of trauma. His temperature and heart, pulse and respiratory rates were monitored and all were within normal parameters.”
18 March 2017
Edwulf can now go out to graze.
“His recovery was remarkably quick,” says Liam, who was astonished to see the lofty gelding having a buck and a canter in the field. “He had routine haematology [blood testing], which didn’t reveal anything extraordinary, and there were no signs of neurological deficit.”
Veterinary nurse Annie Rogers is also surprised by his daily improvements.
“He bounced back really quickly,” she says. “He was a pleasure to have around and he made our job easy.”
24 March 2017
Now well enough to travel, Edwulf sets off from Gloucestershire for the boat trip back to Ireland. He will enjoy a lengthy holiday at owner JP McManus’ Martinstown Stud, under the care of vets John Halley and Ger Kelly.
After a summer recuperating at grass, Edwulf’s connections feel that he is ready to begin some light exercise. He starts with daily sessions on the horsewalker to start building condition.
Edwulf heads to trainer Joseph O’Brien’s yard in Piltown, Co. Kilkenny.
“He’d had a really good break and everyone was of the opinion that he could go back into some kind of training,” said Joseph.
“He was on such good form and looked so well. Medically, he was 100% — the vets said the chances of the same thing happening again were no greater than with any other horse.”
Once back in training, Edwulf continues to impress Joseph’s team with his progress.
“He was so fresh and was thriving, eating well and enjoying his schooling,” Joseph recalls. “We spoke to JP and decided to run him at Leopardstown at Christmas. He showed great enthusiasm and jumped well, but he was pulled up before the finish. He was just a bit short of work.”
4 February 2018
In a fairytale finish, Edwulf wins the Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown — battling from third position over the final fence under jockey Derek O’Connor.
It’s a miraculous outcome for the horse who had cheated death a year previously.
“It’s great when it all works out like that,” says Liam. “Most racecourse recumbencies are due to a fall or a cardiovascular catastrophe and in the latter, sadly, the horse usually dies.
“Heat stress is sometimes seen after a race, but more commonly when the horse is walking back after the finish,” he adds.
“Edwulf didn’t quite fit that picture. He had some sort of potentially fatal neurological episode, the exact trigger for which was most likely a combination of factors.
“Rather than signalling the worst, pulling screens around a horse provides a quiet place where the veterinary team can deliver treatment.
“Edwulf was down for almost an hour, which significantly reduces the odds of survival, but we were afforded the facilities and the time to allow him to recover.”
“The racecourse vets did a terrific job and encouraged us that he might pull through,” says Joseph, who also praised the hospital staff and his own team for nursing the horse back to health.
“Edwulf is an absolute gentleman and he obviously has a very strong constitution. It was a long road to get him back from Cheltenham, when we thought he was gone.”
Ref Horse & Hound; 15 March 2018