10/13/2006 12:00AM

Happy ending for two sad horse tales


ARCADIA, Calif. – Sometimes the news business tends to let a story dangle. The drama is duly recorded, but then the world moves on, leaving loose ends flapping in the wind.

Two horses from stories this summer deserve a second visit. One of them was last seen in the stages of early recovery from a near catastrophic breakdown, the other was rescued from a fate that no horse deserves. Let’s see how they are doing now.

Home Tour is the 5-year-old mare who fractured just about everything important in her left front ankle in a $10,000 claiming race at Del Mar on July 20. She was making the 24th start of a spotty career, during which she had earned just $67,000 and change for a variety of owners and trainers.

The injury was bad enough to put euthanasia on the table, but Home Tour’s trainer, Bob Bean, thought she at least deserved a chance to fight for her life. What a concept.

Bean was able to place Home Tour with Becky and Craig Shields at their farm in the Santa Ynez Valley. She arrived there on Aug. 9, after three weeks in a stall at the racetrack with her leg in a splint. As far as Becky Shields could predict, the best-case scenario for Home Tour was a fused ankle joint and a recovery free from the dangers of founder. Surgery was not performed.

Two months later, Shields is happy to report that Home Tour is doing pretty good, all things considered. A fiberglass cast has been replaced with a heavy-duty support bandage. Home Tour’s front feet were reshod with corrective plates. Best of all, the mare has been an ideal patient.

“She’s really smart, and she really wants to live,” Shields said Friday morning. “She has a voracious appetite, her eye is bright, her coat looks good, and she lays down a lot, which is excellent. She had a couple of sores from the cast that have almost healed now.

“It still could happen, but I’d be surprised if she foundered at this point,” Shields noted. “The only battle now is all that mess in the ankle. Will it actually fuse? The bones had displaced, and she basically has no suspensory ligaments left to hold anything in place. The leg is ugly and deformed-looking, and it always will be that way. But as long as it’s fused and set, and she can get around comfortably, we’ll continue.”

This week, Shields and her staff have been able to graze Home Tour outside her stall, a rare and welcome treat.

“I had one vet tell me there was so much damage to the joint that it would never fuse,” Shields added. “Everybody else I talk to has a good feeling, though, and she has so many people rooting for her. You can’t help but admire her – her will to survive. She’s really kind of a special filly.”

Champion Lodge could be described the same way. He is the old Irish campaigner and major U.S. stakes winner who was donated to a Southern California high school agricultural program last spring and somehow, four months later, ended up on double-deck trailer bound for an Illinois slaughterhouse.

Dead lame and suffering from nasty wounds, he was bought out of a Colorado feedlot by aspiring veterinary student Margaret DeSarno, who steered Champion Lodge to the equine hospital at Colorado State University for treatment of malnutrition, failing kidneys, and possible founder.

That was a month ago. Today, Champion Lodge is living at the DeSarno farm in nearby Wellington, along with three other horses, where he is acting like the whole thing was just a terrible dream.

“In fact, I’m cutting back on his grain because he’s going to be getting fat real soon,” DeSarno said. “I even tossed him out in the round pen one night. He threw a couple bucks and trotted around, so that told me he was doing pretty good.”

Champion Lodge, a finalist for luckiest horse alive, is living in a stall that opens into a small paddock, where he loves to hang out, enjoying his first encounter with snow. In DeSarno’s words, Champion Lodge is “just being a really sane Thoroughbred.”

There are plenty of the other kind, most of them with a lot less of an excuse to be insane.

“There’s still an issue with an abscess in a foot that popped a couple weeks ago,” DeSarno added. “It’s still draining, but Sandy sent me some miracle stuff – I have no idea what it is, but it works.”

DeSarno was referring to Sandy Shulman, who trained Champion Lodge in California as recently as last April. When Champion Lodge bowed a tendon, Shulman donated the horse in good faith, then was horrified to learn that Champion Lodge was rescued on the way to slaughter.

Shulman covered the $4,000 worth of hospital bills run up by Champion Lodge (he has since been promised reimbursement by the offending school district that let Champion Lodge slip away), and he was planning to give the horse a permanent home at a Southern California farm.

But then Shulman decided that Champion Lodge and DeSarno were a match meant to be.

“He’ll stay with her,” Shulman confirmed. “I’ll help support him, but she deserves to have him.”

Her reaction?

“Awesome, just awesome,” DeSarno said. “By the beginning of next spring I’ll be able to ride him. I can’t wait, but he’ll probably dump me the first time I try.”