Miracle of Cheltenham - how horse cheated death

POSTED ON  |  21-03-2017

Later today, a horse who for all intents and purposes could have died at Cheltenham will be loaded on to a lorry at an equine hospital in Gloucestershire ready for the boat trip back to Ireland. That Edwulf, who collapsed after the last fence in the penultimate race on the opening day of the Festival, is alive and making a full recovery is testament to the skill, dedication and professionalism of the veterinary team at Cheltenham, together with support services who battled for more than an hour to save the eight-year-old’s life. By any normal measure it could not, perhaps should not, be possible. Usually if a horse is stricken and lying on its side for 40 minutes it is unlikely to survive. Edwulf, the horse who simply refused to die, rose unsteadily to his feet after more than twice that time.

Liam Kearns, the head vet at the course, had never seen anything to compare with Edwulf’s recovery. The Irishman said: “That’s the longest I have ever had a horse down which survived and came back. It is pretty incredible and a wonderful feeling. The vets treating him had more than 150 years’ collective experience and none of us has witnessed anything like that.” 
The drama unfolded after the last fence of the JT McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase, when the horse owned by JP McManus, trained by Joseph O’Brien and ridden by Derek O’Connor immediately showed signs of distress. The ensuing period involved a dramatic battle for survival as, in turn, the horse’s heartbeat was wildly out of rhythm and he started to have a fit after likely oxygen starvation to the brain. It was at about 4.55pm when Edwulf went down. David Chalkley, one of eight vets dotted around the course, was stationed at the final fence. He was first to the scene closely followed by a colleague, Henry Tremaine.

“It happened pretty much straight in front of me,” Chalkley said. “He pulled up sharply after the last. We led him round and I could see in his eyes he was in a lot of distress. You could tell that there was something very wrong. I said, ‘Careful lads, he is going to collapse,’ which he did heavily on to his side.” Screens were quickly erected. Chalkley’s first instinct was that Edwulf had suffered internal bleeding similar to the fatal injury suffered by Many Clouds when he died after beating Thistlecrack at Cheltenham in January. “I listened to his heart,” Chalkley said. “The rhythm was chaotic. It as all over the place. I knew he had a significant heart problem. Then he started to fit, convulsing, shaking. He was on his side. Henry arrived quickly and got a sedative into him. Within a couple of minutes that had kicked his heart into normal rhythm and stopped the fitting.”

A painkiller was then administered. “He was moving his limbs but not making any attempt to stand,” Chalkley said. “This can be normal for a horse that is exhausted. We were waiting for him to do that, which usually happens within five to 15 minutes. Instead he became less and less responsive and we were thinking he was dying.” 
By this time the next race was due off imminently. The decision was taken to move Edwulf from the course to the side of the track rather than bypass the fence. This is done by tying a rope to the horse’s legs and rolling him over on to a large grip mat on which half a tonne of horse is dragged away. Paul Hollocks and Michael Keel, from Gloucestershire fire and rescue service, oversaw this. As the vets worked, McManus was watching on. He said simply: “Do what you can boys, do your best.” By this time Kearns was on sight after rushing from the winner’s enclosure.

“I was told the horse was still recumbent [lying down] and looked like he would be down for a while,” he said. “It did look as if he had serious neurological problems. Normally when you tap a horse on the skin close to the eye you get a blink. He didn’t. He had had some sort of neurological episode, the exact cause of which we are still not sure about, a temporary lack of blood supply and oxygen to the brain. It can have potentially fatal consequences without treatment.” Kearns added a dose of cortisone to the medication. Suddenly, after the last race had passed he started to try to get to his feet. Staff were on hand to provide a steadying hand. After an hour and ten minutes a “wobbly” Edwulf was led into the ambulance.

The decision was taken to take him straight to the Three Counties Equine Hospital, near Tewkesbury, with a police escort. They arrived at about 7.30pm, when Edwulf appeared to show evidence of blindness. “He was looking for something to eat but he was not aware of where he was,” Kearns said. “But there was no visible damage to the eyes. By morning that had resolved.” Kearns has worked at Cheltenham for 19 years. “To have a horse down in that situation, that was way out of the ordinary. I have never known anything like it. I have never known a situation whereby a horse has recovered from being on its side for so long.”

By Saturday morning Edwulf was cavorting around the paddock at the hospital. “When you have a successful outcome, it is fantastic.” 
McManus and O’Brien also showed their appreciation. McManus publicly thanked the veterinary staff at the trophy presentation for Defi Du Seuil’s success in the Triumph Hurdle on Friday. “The vets were top class,” O’Brien said. “They did everything in their power. I couldn’t say enough good things about them. This was way out of the ordinary. It highlights how good they are. I thought we had lost him. I can’t describe the feeling of getting him back.”

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