05/31/2011 5:39PM

Louisiana Downs: Keep On Smokin gets back on track after surviving barn fire

Dr. Jennifer Schultz
Keep On Smokin bears hairless patches that are a result of second- and third-degree burns sustained in a barn fire at a Texas training center back in February.

Keep On Smokin returned to training last week at Louisiana Downs after three months of intensive veterinary care to recover from second- and third-degree burns that he sustained in a barn fire that claimed the lives of 25 of the 32 horses stabled at a training center in the east Texas town of Canton.

"It's just been devastating, mentally, physically, an
d financially," said Charlie Hukill, the training center's owner and a longtime prominent owner and trainer at Louisiana Downs.

Keep On Smokin, a 3-year-old son of Smoke Glacken who ran fourth in two stakes last year at Louisiana Downs, returned to Hukill's local stable late last week after being treated for his injuries at two different equine hospitals in north Texas.

"The care that he's received is the reason that he's a survivor," said Sharon Pittman, who races Keep On Smokin with her husband, John.

The Canton fire erupted around lunchtime on Feb. 25. Hukill was out of town, for the wedding of his youngest granddaughter and to tend to his stable at Delta Downs.

"I had three boys working, and they had broke for lunch," he said. "One of them was at the end of the barn, where he always ate, and he heard the horses kicking and whinnying and saw the smoke and fire. He ran in and got two out right in the middle."

There were five other horses that were able to be rescued from the fire that leveled the 30-year-old barn.

"We figured it was electrical," Hukill said. "The people came out and looked at it. It was burned to the ground.

"We lost so many young horses that I was really looking forward to running at Louisiana Downs. We had bought 11 Louisiana-breds, and they'd been in training close to four and a half months. They were going to go to Louisiana Downs when they opened."

The Pittmans lost two horses in the fire, including the stakes-placed Two Ex. Shortly after the fire, Keep On Smokin was transported to the equine hospital at Lone Star Park and was cared for by Dr. Jennifer Schultz.

Pittman said Schultz diagnosed Keep On Smokin with multiple second- and third-degree burns just below the withers and down his back extending to his hindquarters. Hukill said the general location was where an exercise saddle would sit atop a horse.

"There was a ridge," Pittman said, "and it was all burned underneath, and Dr. Schultz said this is where the concern was. There were all these little patterns where each blood vessel and all the little veins boiled, or burned."

Pittman said the heat of the fire was so intense that one horse who escaped lost his sight. Keep On Smokin continued treatment with Schultz until March 1, when he was sent to the Equine Sports Medicine and Surgery facility in Weatherford, Texas, to undergo 12 hyperbaric oxygen chamber treatments under the care of Dr. Fairfield Bain.

"Dr. Bain encouraged us to have the hyperbaric therapy that served two purposes," said Pittman. "One, it helped any possible injury to the lungs. But he felt that because he wasn't coughing, he didn't have any significant lung damage. The other concern was the bacterial infection that goes along with the burn. The hyperbaric oxygen therapy prevented it."

Keep On Smokin has not yet had any weight on his back as part of his current training regiment.

"We started ponying him this last week and he's doing really good," Hukill said. "He just has a two-and-a-half-inch area that the hair hasn't come back on. He's not sore to the touch at all on it. We anticipate being able to start galloping him in two to three weeks."

Hukill said he will customize a saddle pad for Keep On Smokin that will feature a cut-open hole around one of the old burn areas. He is hopeful that the horse will return to racing by the close of the meet in late September.

The other horse the Pittmans have in training, Noble Alex, will make his career debut in Thursday's fourth race at Louisiana Downs. A 2-year-old, he is a son of Afleet Alex and the mare Cute N Noble, who won both the Louisiana Champions Day Ladies and the Louisiana Breeders' Oaks.

Keep On Smokin, meanwhile, will continue to race with his original name even though it could now be construed as a reminder of the events of Feb. 25.

"A number of people have said, 'Are you going to rename him?' and we've said, 'No, absolutely not,' " said Pittman. "To sort of borrow a phrase from Dr. Bain, 'Every horse needs a story, and he has one now.' "

Strong card for Thursday

There are three optional claiming races on the card Thursday. In the fifth, Five Star Fun returns to the overnight ranks for trainer Al Stall Jr. after missing by a neck last out in the $50,000 Tellike at Evangeline. In the seventh, Yankee Gone South will seek his third straight win for trainer Bret Calhoun.

The first stakes of the meet will be held on Saturday, with the running of the $50,000 John Franks Memorial and the $50,000 Honeymoon.