12/26/2014 3:55PM

Hovdey: Even the swiftest can end up losing to colic

Barbara D. Livingston
High Chaparral, a 15-year-old stallion, died earlier this week after a bout of colic.

Christmas was not so merry this season for the people closest to the Ireland’s Coolmore breeding operation. Earlier this week they lost High Chaparral, a 15-year-old stallion who was still at the height of his procreative powers.

As a racehorse, High Chaparral was one of those European stars with transatlantic appeal, and not simply because he was named for a TV western from the late 1960s that was not much more than a poor man’s “Bonanza.” Racing under Michael Tabor’s colors for the Coolmore brand, High Chaparral won the 2002 Epsom and Irish derbies, which was impressive enough. But he also won back-to-back runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Turf, accomplished first over soft ground at Arlington Park in 2002 and then on a course baked California firm at Santa Anita in 2003, when he finished in a dead heat with the home team’s Johar.

High Chaparral also sired the international champion So You Think, the most beautiful racehorse these eyes have ever beheld.

The headline screamed colic as the culprit, a common enough term in the equine world. A closer reading revealed that exploratory surgery was prompted when High Chaparral showed signs of abdominal pain, and that “colic” should be read as the outward symptom, not the malady itself. In fact, the surgery discovered a part of his intestine perforated beyond repair, leaving a merciful euthanization as the only alternative.

High Chaparral was the second high-profile Coolmore horse to die in 2014 with colic attached. Last January the victim was St Nicholas Abbey, also a Breeders’ Cup Turf winner who won the Dubai Sheema Classic and two runnings of England’s prestigious Coronation Cup. St Nicholas Abbey broke down in July 2013 while training and survived both the subsequent surgery and complications of laminitis before facing the dread of colic alarm. In his case it was a severely twisted colon.

For those of us without a DVM degree, colic seems to be the Freddy Krueger of the Thoroughbred veterinary world, the ever-lurking horror. Fatal breakdowns are easy to understand, but a tummy ache? These are supposed to be the most pampered animals on the face of the Earth. How do you kill something so big and powerful with a little gas?

Dullahan, winner of the 2012 Pacific Classic, was retired in October 2013 at 4 with a tendon injury. Less than a week later he colicked – the active verb – and was euthanized after surgery revealed a burst colon.

Laughing, a two-time Grade 1 winner and Eclipse Award finalist of 2013, began showing signs of colic one night and was on the operating table the next day for a twisted intestine. She could not be saved.

The Thoroughbred has about 100 feet of intestine. Every inch is susceptible to a twist, a collapse, perforation from infection, blockage or tears from undigestible matter, or an impaction from gas or solid waste. Fatty tumors can form on the outside of the intestinal tissue, grow connective stalks and then cinch the gut closed with what are called strangulating lipomas. The various manifestations of colic can be brought on by anything from stress to worms to poor dentistry.

Kentucky Derby winner and successful sire Unbridled was 14 when he went through two abdominal surgeries during 2001. A third surgery determined the condition was chronic and ultimately debilitating, so he was euthanized.

Native Diver, the Hall of Famer from California, was 8 and still going strong as a racehorse when he succumbed to a fatal bout of colic after traveling from Del Mar to San Francisco in September 1967.

Kelso, a five-time Horse of the Year, came off the farm to lead the post parade for the 1983 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park as a fund-raising promotion for retired horses. The next day he was dead. The cause was announced to be colic.

Kelso was 26, and at that age a Thoroughbred is usually going to die of something. Colic was cited in the death announcements of both Northern Dancer and Mr. Prospector, the two most influential sires of the last 50 years. They both were 29.

Fortunately, whatever causes a horse to colic is not always fatal. Timely Writer, winner of the 1982 Florida Derby and Flamingo Stakes, needed abdominal surgery to unblock his intestine and had to miss the Kentucky Derby. John Henry survived a colic episode after shipping to Tokyo for the 1982 Japan Cup, and another one in 2002 in retirement at the Kentucky Horse Farm. He died five years later, at 32.

More recently there was Wise Dan, the two-time Horse of the Year who showed signs of colic one day last May. Efforts to ease the tangle in his gut without surgery were unsuccessful, so he went under the knife. But the problem was quickly resolved and he was back to winning races by September.

Colic and its causes have been studied for as long as horses have been taken away from their natural grazing environment and asked to train and race on command. If it can happen to High Chaparral, John Henry, and Wise Dan, it can happen to any horse.

Eclipse, the stallion to whom most Thoroughbreds trace, died in February 1789, just shy of his 25th birthday. The cause was listed as colic.