COLUMBIA — Racehorse Nates Mineshaft has somewhere to go and is in a hurry to get there.
“He runs at the front, or he won’t run,” Shannon Reed, Nates' veterinarian at MU, said. “You can’t rate Nate. You can’t tell Nate to slow down. That’s the problem, he doesn’t want to slow down.”
Nate, as he's called by those close to him, is the son of the famous racehorse Mineshaft. He is a 5-year-old dark bay thoroughbred with a white spot in the middle of his forehead and a front right foot that skews a bit to the side.
On Saturday afternoon, Nate is scheduled to run in the Hawthorne Gold Cup at Hawthorne Race Course near Chicago. To Nate and his team, the race is a “prep” for the Breeders' Cup in November, the biggest race of the year for older horses.
Reed, along with MU students Zachary Dombek and Mike Fink, plans to be in the crowd cheering. The two students at MU’s Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital helped Reed provide Nate with his primary veterinary care.
Nate first came to the Equine Clinic at MU in September 2011 with swollen ankles or fetlocks. Reed and the students treated him with physical therapy and rehabilitation as well as an injection treatment that uses the horse’s own blood.
After his most recent race in June, Nate returned to MU for four weeks to rest and rehabilitate in the air-conditioned horse hospital. The decision to take him away from the track and back to the vet, along with the friendship between his owner and veterinarian, sets Nate apart.
Professional horse racing has come under increasing scrutiny over the use of prescription drugs that can mask pain and hide underlying problems, making horses more prone to serious injury.
"With MU you take a step back and think about the best treatment for the horse," Nate's co-owner Scott Reiman said. "We want the horse holding together for a long time."
Since leaving MU and returning to racing at the end of last year, Nate has won more than $500,000. Now, he is on the verge of an appearance on horse racing’s second biggest stage. Nate’s owners, father and son Pete and Scott Reiman, are aiming for the main event in California's Breeders' Cup, the Breeders' Cup Classic. The prize money for the Classic totals $5 million.
“If you’re gonna dream, you might as well dream big,” Scott Reiman said.
On a hot streak
Since leaving MU last fall, Nate has found himself crossing the finish line in first place more often than not.
Last December, Nate raced with a claiming tag, which means the horse’s owner must put the horse up for sale in order to qualify for the race.
“We snuck him into an easy race to get his confidence up," Reiman said. "We thought we would get away with it, and we did. I was scared to death that someone would claim him.”
Nate moved into the more competitive graded stakes races, which have larger prizes and no for-sale requirements. On Feb. 25, he won the Mineshaft Handicap, the namesake race of his sire. He won the New Orleans Handicap on April 1.
In early May at the Alysheba Stakes, Nate’s trainer tried a new strategy. Nate usually tries to gain a lead early on. This time, his trainer opted to pace him along with the other horses in the hopes of gaining speed and pulling ahead at the end. But the strategy didn’t work, and Nate finished sixth, Reiman said. He rebounded May 28 with another win at the Lone Star Park Handicap.
It was on his trip to Dallas for the Lone Star that Reiman realized the significance of Nate's accomplishments.
“Down in Dallas, I got a Racing Form and Nate was on the cover," he said. "That’s the bible of horse racing, and he was on the cover. Needless to say, I bought more than one copy.”
Back to MU
During Nate's rest at MU this summer, fourth-year veterinary student Dombek was responsible each morning for icing Nate’s legs, stretching his ankles, taking him walking and lunging in a play ring at the hospital.
After the first few days, Nate warmed to Dombek, and the two settled into a routine. Reed told Dombek she knew the horse was comfortable once he began taking his midday nap because that was his habit during training.
“He liked rolling in the sand, especially right after a bath,” Dombek said. “He knew he was going right back to get cleaned up.”
Reed said the rest was important because Nate had raced for an extended period of time and it was so hot in June that the air conditioning was a good place for him to be.
"He just chilled and had his ice therapy and played in the arena and worked on the treadmill," Reed said.
Backside of the track
Not all racehorses are given the level of care that Nate receives. Racehorses are an owner’s assets, and economics demands different treatment for different horses.
According to statistics compiled by the Jockey Club, for every 1,000 horses that start a race, 1.8 end it with an injury that requires they be euthanized.
As many as 24 horses a week suffer fatal breakdowns on American racetracks, according to a New York Times analysis. The analysis linked the deaths to a culture of treatment that relies on drugs and over-emphasizes the importance of the next race.
“The backside mentality is to keep the horses there and get another race out of them,” Reiman said. “With MU, it’s about getting the horse back to as close to 100 percent as possible.
"It’s a cutthroat business. There’s money involved, and it’s hard to stay in business if you aren’t winning money."
James Morehead, treasurer of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, owner of Equine Medical Associates in Lexington, Ky., and an MU graduate, said he thinks the press overemphasizes the negatives of horse racing. Nonetheless, he agrees changes are necessary.
“Everyone involved in the industry recognizes there are changes that need to occur if this industry will survive,” Morehead said.
The Jockey Club and the American Association of Equine Practitioners have made recommendations that include improving racing surfaces, increasing the quality and quantity of drug tests and establishing more monitoring and security of the track's backside, Morehead said.
Many care and treatment decisions are mediated by trainers; direct communication between owners and vets is often restricted. Morehead thinks opening these channels of communication would improve care.
"More communication between vets and owners is good," he said. "It doesn't need to be all of the communication, but a more open line is important, so the owners can get all of the information in an accurate way."
Horse racing economics also insists that owners mind their investments. Racehorses are valuable assets, and owners are heavily involved in their success and failure.
“It pays for people to pay attention,” Morehead said.
Prep and maintenance
After a Sunday morning workout in late September, Anne Smith, Nate’s daily rider, brought him back to stall 23 in Barn 1 on the backside of Hawthorne racetrack. Still weeks ahead of the October meet, the track was quiet and near empty.
As she fed Nate his sweet feed and iced his legs, Smith remembered the first time she rode Nate and recognized he was special.
“Stakes horses have a feeling that they give you, the way they get over the ground. It feels easy for them,” she said. “People thought I was crazy.”
Anne and her husband, Nate's trainer Austin Smith, started working with Nate at the end of last year after Nate first left MU. Anne said she rides Nate every day.
“It’s been wonderful and exciting, exhausting and thrilling,” Smith said. “If I die or retire when he’s done, that’s fine with me because I’ve had a good run with him.”
Nate likes to run from the front and has been successful doing so at shorter distances, but on Saturday he will be covering a mile and a quarter — his longest race.
“We are looking to see if he comes out sound and has a pretty good effort, if he has a pretty good showing,” Reiman said. “He doesn’t need to win.”
Nate has already earned enough points this year to qualify for the Breeders' Cup in California and is in the top 10 of Breeders' qualification rankings.
“Unless he gets hurt and can’t race, he will be in California,” Reiman said.
Smith said that Nate is a cool customer that goes about his business like a true professional.
“The only thing that really upsets him is another horse getting in front of him," she said.
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