07/28/2002 11:00PM

10-year-old stakes hero Today a Star retired with injury


SANTA ROSA, Calif. - A familiar face was missing at the running of the Ernest Finley Handicap at the Sonoma County Fair on Saturday.

Multiple stakes winner Today a Star, a 10-year-old gelding with $285,460 in career earnings, suffered a career-ending injury as he pulled up following his final work for the Finley.

Today a Star, third in his final start, the six-furlong Sam J. Whiting Handicap at Pleasanton on June 29, had finished third in the Ernest Finley last year.

He had just finished a four-furlong work in 49 seconds on July 19 at Golden Gate Fields and was pulling up near the seven-eighths pole.

"I had been watching him through my binoculars, and I'd just taken them down when I heard the pop. It's just the thing we all dread," said trainer Terry Houghton, who will run first-time starter Jodahvy in a $12,500 maiden claimer on Wednesday's 10-race card.

Roberto Gonzalez was working Today a Star and helped to save his life.

"I credit Bobby," Houghton said, noting that Gonzalez has Today a Star "pulled up in three strides and jumped off."

Today a Star had a condylar fracture of his right foreleg. The injury was so serious it could have cost Today a Star his life, but owner Norma Rogers encouraged Houghton to do all she could to save the tough old veteran.

Houghton always works her horses in heavy bandages, which may have helped as Gonzalez was pulling him up. An ambulance reached Today a Star quickly but was not equipped with a Kimzey Boot, a special boot to protect a leg from further injury and relieve stress from a leg when a horse gets on and off an ambulance.

By the time Today a Star was standing in front of his barn, a portion of bone was protruding through the heavy bandages, but X-rays showed no sesamoid damage.

Rogers and Houghton contacted the University of California at Davis, and Today a Star was vanned 70 miles to the school's equine hospital, where a surgical team headed by Dr. Mindy McDonald was waiting.

Dr. McDonald operated for nearly six hours, installing a series of three plates and 23 screws to stabilize the injury.

Today a Star's recovery from the surgery has been little short of miraculous.

Ultimately, he may become a pony horse.

"He's one of those horses who loves being around the track," said Houghton, who watched the surgery and stayed in Davis for three days to be near her star.

"He's more than just a horse in the barn. We had a birthday party and cake for him this year when he turned 10. He makes you look forward to going to the barn. To come in and see his stall empty is devastating."

Houghton hopes one good thing will come out of the injury.

In the state of California, the only Kimzey Boots available on ambulances are at the track where a race meeting is being conducted.

Houghton will launch a crusade to have a Kimzey Boot available in ambulances at every track where there is racing or workouts.

"I went to the website and discovered they only cost $239.37," she said. "I don't know why there's not one at every track. It can make the difference between saving or having to euthanize a horse."

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