From Hyde Park bomb survivors to a fairytale Grand National winner, Kate Johnson tracks down horses who have made miraculous recoveries
“He’s a mischief-maker; his stable’s like a padded cell,” laughs eventer Emma Hyslop-Webb of her adored 17-year-old Waldo III (Wally, pictured above). “And he loves drama! If we’re hacking, and people are walking through the village, he thinks that’s his audience and we have to canter sideways.”
After 13 years together, Emma feels a very special bond and was worried when the vet agreed that Wally “wasn’t quite right” after two weeks’ rest following the Barroca International Horse Trials in Portugal last year. They were entered for their first Badminton just over two months later.
“No one knew what it was or if he would recover,” she remembers, as diagnoses such as meningitis and the fatal West Nile virus were ruled out with extensive tests including a spinal tap.
Far from recuperating from the unknown virus affecting his immune system, Wally contracted bacterial pneumonia as a secondary condition. While he battled, Emma moved into her horsebox to be nearer him, checking him every hour through the night, and installed cameras in his stable.
Progress was slow, though “the vet said, ‘As long as you can jump a drop fence, you’ll be good to go to Badminton,’” she recalls. And by some miracle, he did recover in time and they made it to the great event, though Emma knew that “the fitness lead-up wasn’t ideal”.
It was an emotional occasion. Emma’s head girl, Sophia Robinson, was also devoted to this horse, and had helped nurse him better.
“She was so hands-on in his recovery that for her 21st birthday, I gifted her half of Wally,” Emma says. “So when we got to Badminton, she had her name announced as we went into the dressage arena.”
Recalling the cross-country, she says, “If I’d felt at any stage he couldn’t carry on, I’d have pulled up. We got to Huntsman’s Close, four or five out, I took a long route at the wall to make it easier, and I nursed him home. There’s a photo of me jumping the final fence at Badminton in tears. The whole team was in tears. It wasn’t just for me, it was for everyone.”
It was also a team effort that saved Edwulf’s life, the eight-year-old who collapsed on the run-in of the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham in 2017. He was treated by the on-course vets behind green screens for well over an hour, delaying the last race.
Trainer Joseph O’Brien’s sister, Sarah, took off her heels and ran back and forth carrying buckets of water to cool him down. His heartbeat was out of rhythm, he was fitting and uncoordinated when he finally got to his feet. Given a police escort to the Three Counties Equine Hospital, it was discovered he’d gone blind.
Joseph says: “It was a very traumatic experience for everyone involved on the day. Credit must go to the veterinary team on the track. We were very worried but we knew he was getting the best care possible. When you know that, all you can do is hope for the best”.
Edwulf regained his sight, and returned to the Martinstown Stud of owner JP McManus, where he was given “time to recover and get over the experience” before coming back into training the following season.
“It wasn’t to race, it was just to get him back into his routine,” says Joseph. “We started from scratch – baby steps – and let Edwulf tell us what he was ready or not ready to do. He actually really enjoyed getting back into work, and was in great shape. We wouldn’t have raced him at all other than the fact that he was loving life. It was incredible for him to come back as well as he did.”
That comeback was winning the Irish Gold Cup in 2018, less than a year later, partnered with his Cheltenham jockey Derek O’Connor.
“He sprinted up the straight,” remembers Joseph. “It was an emotional day, a marvellous day, no two ways about it, and very special to everyone here.”
Edwulf, the “gentle giant – he’s a huge horse, over 17hh” – has now retired to Martinstown Stud where he is “living the life”.
In 1979, another racehorse refused to give up, and inspired a desperately ill man to do the same. Aldaniti broke down for the third time at Sandown and vets recommended he be euthanised. His owner Nick Embiricos and trainer Josh Gifford refused. Jockey Bob Champion MBE – who long dreamed of riding Aldaniti in the Grand National – was also at Sandown that day, halfway though his “horrendous” chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
“I felt like giving up that day, going home and dying,” he says. “Back at the Royal Marsden Hospital, I felt desperate. A staff nurse said, ‘We won’t take the cannula out; have a walk and think about it,’ and I ended up walking through the kids’ ward. I saw them on different kinds of chemotherapy. They weren’t giving up, and it made me ashamed of myself. I still remember that feeling and I thought, ‘Let’s get back on with it.’”
Aldaniti’s only chance was to put his leg in plaster, and be tied up so he couldn’t walk for six months. He was, says Bob, “an unbelievable patient. He had a fantastic temperament”.
In 1981, they lined up for the Grand National. Aldaniti landed on his knees over the first fence because of “the speed you’re going for the first two fences, horses tend to over-jump. It’s not the fence, it’s the speed”.
He continues: “I jumped Becher’s in 29th place, where I should have been, then I had the best run round the Canal Turn any jockey in
the history of racing ever had. Between Becher’s and Valentine’s Brook, three-and-a-half miles from home, in three fences he jumped to the front.”
And he stayed on to claim victory. Bob dedicated his win to the nurses and patients of the Royal Marsden – he’d arranged for the ward nurses and sister to be there.
In the years after that, a movie was made. Bob Champion was played by John Hurt and Aldaniti was played by the horse himself, and the two made millions for Bob’s cancer charity.
“Aldaniti loved the public; he was a bit of a showman, he knew he was the centre of attention,” says Bob. “When he died aged 27 in 1997, Nick Gifford [Josh’s son] rang, and we were both gutted. Aldaniti meant so much to me, and did so much for me – in a way I still miss him.”
Mark Avison, equine care director of the Horse Trust, knows just how that feels. On 20 July 1982, he was not even 18 and a part of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, stationed at the Hyde Park Barracks in London when he heard a noise that he will never forget.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says of the Hyde Park bomb that killed four Blues and Royals, and seven horses. Seven bandsmen of the Royal Green Jackets died in a second blast at Regent’s Park.
The first horse back to the “sick line” of stables was Echo, a dazed police horse, with one major injury near his girth.
“I remember watching the surgeon putting his hand in, feeling around, banging against something, and pulling out shrapnel – metal and nails – the size and shape of a tennis ball,” Mark says.
Next, military horse Sefton found his own way back to base and Mark’s senior NCO “ran out through the ceremonial gate, caught Sefton, and took his shirt off straight away to put pressure on the wound”.
Shrapnel had sliced through his jugular groove and the action saved his life.
It was at least a year for nearly every horse on guard that day before they were ready to come back into work, if at all, and longer for Sefton, who had 38 shrapnel wounds. He convalesced at the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray, where his new groom Isla spent a lot of one-to-one time tending him.
“As patients, every single one of the horses was very good because they knew they needed care for their injuries,” Mark remembers.
Sefton, Echo and another horse from that day, Yeti, spent the rest of their days at the Horse Trust’s Home of Rest for Horses and they all lived to 30. Echo never got used to crowds again and would colic every afternoon when visitors entered the grounds, so he was taken to a quiet barn.
At the end of his life, Sefton was transferred back to Melton Mowbray, where Mark was then a riding instructor.
“We knew why he was coming,” says Mark. “He had a few weeks enjoying the lush grass, and would happily come to the fence to be fed extra apples. I was with him when the veterinary officer put him to sleep. We gave him a burial with a gravestone. He came full circle. Even now I get a tingle on the back of my neck. It was a fitting farewell.”
Ref: Horse & Hound; 26 November 2020
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