Natural Herbie overcomes a series of injuries to continue his career
story by James Platz
Keeping a racehorse sound and injury free is one of a trainer’s greatest challenges. Many promising careers have been derailed due to a singular incident during training or in racing competition. Millionaire Natural Herbie has battled injuries in each of the last three seasons.
Rehabilitating the Indiana-sired trotter, and getting him back to his championship form, has proven an educational experience for his owner and conditioner, Verlin Yoder.
“One of the things that people have to understand about Natural Herbie is that he’s not a big horse,” Yoder said of his Indiana Sire Stakes champion and Grand Circuit winner. “He’s always been an overachiever and when you have overachievers like that, that’s when things like this happen. Slow horses never go lame.”
The “things like this” began during Natural Herbie’s 5-year-old campaign in 2015. He be-came prominent as a 4-year-old after winning the $75,000 Vincennes Invitational at The Meadowlands in a lifetime-best 1:51.4 before capturing the $250,000 International Trot Preview at Yonkers Raceway later that year over a stellar field that included world champions Bee A Magician and Obrigado.
Returning the next season, Yoder selected several Grand Circuit engagements for the son of Here Comes Herbie, one of those being the Maple Leaf Trot at Mohawk Racetrack. After a win in his elimination and a third-place finish in the final of that event, the trainer knew all was not well with his star pupil.
“I don’t even know when it happened,” Yoder said. “When I won the Maple Leaf elim, I noticed that there was something not right with him when I warmed him up. I was nursing him through the last turn and then I chased Bee A Magician down and nipped her at the wire. I came right back another week later, he was shod the same way, and he was not quite as good. I really had to nurse him the whole mile. After that, he was just no good.”
Returning home to Bell, Fla., Yoder contacted horseman Marty Allen, who inspected the trotter and discovered issues with Natural Herbie’s right knee. The X-rays showed the knee had sustained significant damage.
“[It looked like] somebody threw a hand grenade in it,” Yoder said.
Allen worked on the knee, which was also arthritic, using stem cell treatments over a two-month period. Now aware of the knee issues, Yoder brought his 6-year-old back to the races. Starting the year at Pompano Park, Natural Herbie returned to the Midwest in April 2016 and logged 19 starts, trotting a season’s best 1:53.1 in July. He was also second by a head to Dan Patch Award winner Obrigado in the $210,000 Charlie Hill Memorial at Eldorado Scioto Downs in June. Unfortunately, his campaign ended before the month of September after the gelding suffered another setback.
Competing in the invitational class at Hoosier Park, the trotter sustained a torn suspensory, this time in the left hind leg. It was a significant tear—50 percent—located an inch above the ankle.
After surpassing $1 million in career earnings earlier in the season, Natural Herbie’s career was now in jeopardy. This time, platelet-rich plasma therapy was utilized to heal the torn suspensory. Given time and treatment, the gelding answered the bell for his 7-year-old campaign.
Natural Herbie was back to his winning ways at Hoosier Park. In 18 starts he hit the board 12 times, registering six wins, including a 1:52.1 score in mid-September. He was also an exceptional third over that oval in the $240,000 Centaur Trotting Classic behind Homicide Hunter and Hannelore Hanover.
Bad luck would again surface, this time as Yoder steered his charge in the $50,000 Indiana Sire Stakes final for older trotters on Oct. 13, 2017. Racing near the front, on the way to the three-quarter-mile marker, the gelding sustained a broken coffin bone in his left front leg.
“The night he broke the coffin in the last turn, I could not pull him up until the tote-board,” Yoder said. “He would not let me pull him up. I was trying to pull him up and re-turn to the paddock because I felt it happen. I didn’t know what went, but I knew some-thing went.”
The overachiever returned to the sidelines. Once again, he traveled to Florida and rehabilitation began. Naturally, the veteran responded. Yoder said the gelding was shod with a special shoe and Natural Herbie was given time and shockwave therapy treatments.
“I think we did eight treatments,” Yoder said. “I believe the second week in March was his last one. All of a sudden, he started coming around again.”
The 2018 campaign was abbreviated compared to previous years. Natural Herbie, now 8, made nine trips to the gate. He won twice, trotting in 1:52.4. Yoder, however, sensed there was again an issue with the right front knee, and after reviewing X-rays, he felt that a bone chip that was lying on the outside of one of the joints had moved.
“He raced one night and I didn’t like the way he pulled up,” Yoder said. “I was sure it was that knee again. I just gave him some time off and I had actually scheduled him for surgery on the knee. The day he was supposed to ship down to Rood & Riddle, he had a temperature of 103.5 degrees, so we couldn’t take him for surgery.”
With the shortened 2018 season, Natural Herbie returned to Florida sound, something he had not done since age 4. While Yoder does not see him tangling with Grand Circuit horses in the future, he said the trotter loves his job as a racehorse, even showing he still has something left during a winter training session.
“Marlin Fry goes with him when we train over the five-eighths-mile track,” Yoder said. “When we train, every straight the back guy goes to the front. Marlin was on the front end and I came with (Indiana Sire Stakes Super final winner) It’s A Herbie. Natural Herbie takes off and Marlin couldn’t hold him. The old man knows what’s going on; he’s up to the game. Every once in awhile, when he’s feeling fresh he’ll sneak one in on you. That was a good sign.”
There is a good chance fans will see Natural Herbie show up in the program at Harrah’s Hoosier Park for a 2019 campaign. After three significant injuries, the trotter has shown tremendous resilience and fortitude. It’s one thing to return to competition, it’s another to flash the speed of his youth.
“Through all of that, every year he’s come back and trotted in (1):52. That’s the amazing part,” Yoder said. “If he didn’t love his job, I would just turn him out somewhere. He loves the everyday thing. He’s got a lot of grit.” HB
James Platz is a freelance writer living in Indiana. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.