06/21/2001 12:00AM

Personal First story: Long road back from nerve damage


OCEANPORT, N.J. ? It is remarkable that Personal First is still living, that he is still racing. It is even more remarkable that he is one of the top contenders in Saturday's $75,000 Longfellow Stakes.

Personal First, a 4-year-old son of Personal Hope, looked to be on the road to the Breeders' Cup Sprint last summer. Sent off at 11-1, he won the Grade 3 Amsterdam at Saratoga versus top 3-year-old sprinters Disco Rico and Trippi. Two races later, he ran a huge Beyer Speed Figure of 110 to place in the $300,000 Smile Sprint Handicap for 3-year-olds and up at Calder.

But his chances of racing again, let alone participating in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, came to a halt at Turfway Park on Oct. 24, and he came close to losing his life.

Personal First was working out that fall day, when a rider jogging a horse the wrong way swerved in front of Personal First, and the two horses slammed into each other. The accident damaged a nerve in Personal First's shoulder, compressing it in and out, eight to nine inches at a time. The condition is called an entrapped nerve.

"It didn't look good the first week or so," said trainer David Paulus. "Dr. Larry Bramlage said we would know if he would ever be right or not in the two weeks after the accident."

Personal First could not be operated on until two weeks after the accident. At that point, a true diagnosis of the injury could be given, along with a decision to operate. Because the nerve was entrapped, the horse's muscles could not get the stimulation to grow. According to Paulus, Dr. Bramlage compared the nerve injury to a garden hose being kinked. Atrophy set in on the shoulder, and the outcome looked bleak.

"You have a horse that has done that well," Paulus said, "and it's horrible to see a horse's racing career seem like it is done."

After two weeks, the owners of Personal First, William Shively and Dianne Walderon, decided to operate. The surgery, performed by Dr. Bramlage at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., consisted of shaving a minimal amount of bone on the shoulder to allow the nerve to lay flat. In time, the nerve could pulsate at full strength again.

The surgery was successful, and the biggest danger was avoided. When some horses come out of anesthesia, they are prone to fall, and in Personal First's case, there was a possibility he could break his shoulder. But the problem was avoided.

Nearly seven months after the surgery, Personal First returned to the races, in the Mr. Nickerson Handicap at Philadelphia Park. He ran well over a tiring track and finished third. On June 2, Personal First started at Monmouth in a money allowance and placed. Now Paulus said he believes the horse is almost back to 100 percent and geared to return to his stakes-winning form.

"Off a serious injury, you don't know when the horse will be back to top form," he said. "It has taken a couple of races for him to get mentally right. But right now he is so focused and seems like he is at his peak swing."