This year, if you are an older filly or mare at the track, and you are not named Zenyatta or Rachel Alexandra, good luck getting noticed. One such filly ran her first race in the early summer. What could be so special about the pretty but plain brown four year old placing second in her initial outing in a Belmont maiden claiming? If your name is Little Larky, plenty.
A few years ago, Marc's Lark, a broodmare at Buttonwood Farm in Rhinebeck, NY, delivered a filly early in the evening. When I logged in at 10 pm for nightwatch, the foal was normal and her dam was comfortable. I checked Marc's Lark and her foal every twenty minutes because even with remote cameras available, there is nothing that replaces eyes-on observation of a newborn.
All was quiet at 2AM. The filly was down resting when she drew her head back abruptly, stiffened her body and began convulsing. Calling Jenny, the farm manager, while retrieving the oxygen tank, my goals were to get the foal safe, get oxygen to her brain and get the vet to the farm ASAP.
After the first seizure, the foal was in a twilight state, inert but with strong, elevated vital signs -- pulse, temperature, respiration. Once she regained consciousness, the filly was able to stand with assistance, walk only to the right and with difficulty, and she had diminished suckle reflex to nurse. We stayed by her, either walking with her or cradling her, to keep her safe from injury -- self inflicted or from her agitated mother -- until help arrived.
Heather O'Leary, the vet from Rhinebeck Equine, was kept informed of the foal's condition as she drove to the farm. Upon arrival, her assessment of the foal was that it was starting a disorder called neonatal maladjustment syndrome; plainly stated, this was a dummy foal. The most likely cause was at some point during foaling, blood flow from the placenta to the foal was compromised causing a lack of oxygen to the brain.
At first a dummy foal seems normal. However, over a course of hours, there is a cascading chain of events occurring within the foal's physiology due to the hypoxia. Symptoms of this process may include a decrease in suckle response, aimless wandering, excitability, a guttural sound similar to a dog bark, and/or seizures. It looked like this filly had hit the jackpot.
Marc's Lark was given a tranquilizer to ease her distress and enable us to safely work with her baby. The filly was lightly sedated to permit the administration of her immediate lifesaving cocktails: diazepam for the seizures, mannitol and dimethyl-sulfoxide for brain swelling, vitamin C as an antioxidant, Naxcel antibiotic for secondary infection, and lactated ringer's/dextrose solution for hydration. An indwelling intravenous catheter was inserted into her left jugular vein, kept in place with sutures and surgical tape, to facilitate the intense therapeutic regimen that would support the filly for the next few weeks.
After the vet left, we administered the IV meds as scheduled and kept the filly quiet. By morning, she had lost all instinct to nurse and a nasogastric (NG) tube was placed so she could be given milk without risk of aspiration pneumonia. Marc's Lark was milked hourly and the baby fed through the NG tube, and medicated through the catheter. This worked for about a day. The mother was highly stressed by the situation and began rejecting her foal and shutting down her milk production.
The decision to remove the mare from the foal was difficult, but necessary to keep the foal, now called Little Larky, from harm. In addition to the medications, the filly would be fed mares' milk replacer at a rate of about 15-20% of her body weight daily. The replacer was supplemented by raw goat's milk, for gut enzymes and bacteria, at the suggestion of Paul Mountan, senior partner at Rhinebeck Equine.
By now, Jenny, and the staff of the broodmare barn, Jill, Jo and I, were hunkering down for a long, intense recovery for the filly. Larky had four mommies. The veterinarians at Rhinebeck, primarily Jeff Williams and Jim Mort, were steadfast in their commitment to this foal. It was a focused and resolute group.
From outside Team Larky, questions were asked, statements were made: What if she doesn't get better? You're getting too attached. She'll never be normal. She'll never run. Is this the best use of farm resources? We had the backing of the farm owner, Mr. Fried, so all else was moot.
Over the next few weeks, Little Larky's brain developed new pathways and her motor skills increased. She went from no suck reflex, to a tiny one at the right side of her mouth, to gobbling-slobbering her bottle, to normal suckle and bottle drinking. To transition her to drinking from a bucket, we held a rubber teat in the milk in the bucket and she would suck up milk like through a straw. Jill made the huge breakthrough of getting her to drink straight from a bucket.
There were setbacks. Larky would have random seizures, necessitating sedation. She lacked the ability to regulate her body temperature. She developed aspiration pneumonia from her initial clumsy attempts to drink from a bottle. Each challenge was treated and surmounted.
Eventually Larky needed to go outside. Her companion was a 30 year old former jumper, Barney, who was Mary Poppins to all the farm's "problem" youngsters. Once Larky and Barney were a pair, Stolen Beauty and her foal, were introduced; they made an unlikely foursome. When it came time for Larky to go out with the other mares and foals, Stolen Beauty was her surrogate mother. Barney couldn't go in with the herd because the bossy, protective mares would have chased him off.
Larky thrived out with her playmates. At about eight weeks old, the only difference was that she was given a bucket of milk several times during her turnout time. If you were late with the bucket, she would be at the fence looking for you and bellowing her displeasure.
Little Larky's weanling, yearling and two-year-old years were unremarkable. She took well to training. One challenge at the training center was to keep her weight down. A robust eater, Larky had turned into a butterball. A couple of minor leg issues kept her from getting to the races until this year.
When Larky posted a bullet work at Belmont this spring, all the questions and qualms from her early years were unequivocally answered. When Larky ran gamely her first time out, she showed the same toughness and determination she exhibited as a little mite. When you see Little Larky entered in her next race, remember one thing, don't doubt Little Larky.
Follow Liz O'Connell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NYThoroughbred