A terrible trailer accident nearly took the life of Rowlock Hanover. Thankfully, that was just the beginning of the story. By Melissa Keith
Rowlock Hanover is a blueblood. He was one of the three-year-old male pacing elite to make TROT’s 2013 North America Cup Spring Book, albeit at odds of 90-1. Three years later, the Western Ideal gelding faced odds at least that steep after a random accident. To recover, let alone to race and win again, Rowlock Hanover looked like a serious longshot.
Even owner/trainer Jansen Sweet, a paramedic, remembers being unprepared for what he saw inside the horse trailer on April 9th. The day had started with so much promise.
“In 2016, he was training down real good and ready to qualify for opening day in Charlottetown,” says Sweet. “I knew from 2015 he had some issues so we decided to get some joints injected before qualifying.” Early on April 9th, Rowlock Hanover was en route to the Atlantic Veterinary College from his home at the O’Leary matinee racetrack in Western PEI. “We’re not sure exactly what happened yet—all we know is that the snap in his trailer stall unhooked,” Sweet tells TROT. “It was the back stall of a three-horse, slant load trailer, so he was basically a free horse in a fairly large stall of the trailer.”
Stopping to check on the pacer, what he saw nearly floored him. “When I opened up the back of the trailer, [Rowlock Hanover] was facing backwards, staring at me, two back legs in the middle stall, two front legs in the back stall, a big gash over his eye and a hole in the middle of his skull. There was a pool of blood on the trailer floor.” Rowlock Hanover’s demeanour added to Sweet’s sense of alarm: “He was very relaxed and looked like he was falling asleep, so I knew that wasn’t a good thing.” He was concerned that shock might be setting in, and knew that the pacer needed emergency care.
“Blood and stuff like that doesn’t really bother me, but it’s a different story when it’s your horse bleeding in front of you and there’s nothing you can really do,” admits the 22-year-old trainer. Fortunately, the gelding affectionately known as “Rollie” had size on his side—at 17 hands high, he straddled the partition that would have lifted a smaller horse off its feet, creating the conditions for additional injuries and major difficulties unloading. Rowlock Hanover’s four hooves remained in contact with the floor, bearing his body weight, so Sweet could untangle him and lead him off the trailer. “I imagine we were getting some crazy looks by people in the gas station parking lot, standing there with a horse covered in blood,” remarks the gelding’s dedicated owner. The once-unremarkable drive to the vet had taken on a sudden urgency.
Dr. Kathleen MacMillan is Rowlock Hanover’s regular veterinarian. Sweet says he quickly texted her, letting her know that he was unsure about his horse’s exact injuries. “I don’t think she was expecting it to be as serious as it was,” he adds. “When we got to the clinic, they did a bunch of x-rays and found out he had a fractured skull and his sinuses were full of blood. The main concern was the large cut underneath him, near his back leg and sheath area—it was fairly deep and he had a hematoma on his back leg, which led them to believe he could have damaged a blood vessel in his leg. He could have been bleeding out internally.” The prognosis was up in the air, but Sweet authorized a team of AVC equine specialists (veterinarians Drs. Kathleen MacMillan, Laurie McDuffee and Emily John, assisted by fourth-year students Elizabeth Sperry and Kamille Cormier, and veterinary technician Karen Nicholson) to do whatever it took to help “Rollie.”
The scenario looked bleak when the equine patient arrived, says Dr. MacMillan. “I have been in practice for 15 years and have seen a lot of traumatic injuries, but even I was surprised by the extent of ‘Rollie’s’ injuries,” she notes. “We immediately sedated ‘Rollie’ and gave him Banamine for pain and began a thorough examination.” In addition to the gelding’s facial and leg cuts, fractured skull, and a bone fragment lodged in his sinus cavity, his vet observed that the inside of his upper left thigh was “swollen to the size of a soccer ball” and there was a six-inch laceration behind his penis. The latter was of greatest concern to MacMillan: “There was a good chance that it could have penetrated into his abdomen, which would have required surgery and maybe even euthanasia.” Luckily , she determined that Rowlock Hanover’s abdominal wall was intact.
“We worked on him as a team for about three hours, with one person tending his wounds while another sutured a laceration over his left eye,” recalls MacMillan. “After taking radiographs of the skull fracture, I had Dr. McDuffee [a large animal surgeon] consult on the case.” McDuffee extracted a piece of fractured bone, and then the veterinarians could suture yet another wound on their six-year-old patient.
Veterinary bills are a part of life; catastrophic veterinary bills can call for tough, time-sensitive decisions. Jansen Sweet and Rowlock Hanover’s co-owners Patti and Allison Sweet, Brody Ellis and Susan Thomson decided the cost of saving their pacer was less important than simply saving him. The horse, after all, had been nothing but good to them since he was purchased online last August from Standardbred Canada’s Horses For Sale Board.
Racing out of Rideau Carleton, Rowlock Hanover had garnered only a pair of lifetime wins, but adapted to his new home of PEI in a big way. Despite the prevalence of half-mile tracks in the Maritime provinces, the extra-large Pennsylvania-bred fit in perfectly. “We were told he was big, but we didn’t expect a 17 hand horse,” confesses Jansen. “But he was great—he raced super for us. In his first three starts on PEI, he had a second followed by two wins, and finished out 2015 on the island with 15 starts, three wins, three seconds, three thirds and in the [purse] money 13 times.”
May 29th, 2016 “Rollie” was ready to qualify again. He finished fifth in 2:02.4 for driver Ryan Desroche at Charlottetown. Unexceptional for a racehorse with a lifetime mark of 1:53.2 taken at Georgian Downs three years ago—highly impressive for a horse coming back from the grimmest of situations in less than two months time.
Treatment began with an emergency admission to the veterinary hospital April 9th. “He was hospitalized for two nights at the AVC—couldn’t have asked for better care at the AVC,” says Sweet. “He had his sinuses drained and was kept on pain medication. He was able to come home on the 11th, however he needed to be watched very closely—he was on a lot of different medications throughout the day and was very prone to infection, with having a direct opening to his sinus and a large open cut underneath him, the same type of cut that would be there after being castrated.”
Rehabilitation included half an hour of hand-walking daily, with up to eight weeks of stall rest recommended. “Rollie” did not take to the regimen very well though, observes his trainer: “He definitely got worse before he got better. He would tear the bandages off his face every night, so we had to wear a hood on him in the stall. His legs were swollen up like elephant legs from being on stall rest and the hole in his head was showing no signs of healing over.” The veterinary advice provided by Dr. MacMillan, in conjunction with the day-to-day care Rowlock Hanover received from several Sweet family members, gradually paid dividends. Although the gelding’s comeback was not originally anticipated until much later in the season (“he was not supposed to have a harness on until the middle of June,” notes Jansen), he improved faster under the diligent hand of his groom, Jansen’s youngest brother, Jaycob.
“Jaycob and my father both helped out with him, everything from hand-walking to daily wound cleaning,” explains Jansen, adding that his own paramedic training was no factor in nursing Rowlock Hanover back to health. “I think being around people with years and years more experience around horses than me helped with caring for him properly.” As the trainer of three standardbreds at the O’Leary matinee track (Rowlock Hanover, Western Wild and Duchess Killean), he and Jaycob have ample opportunity to learn skills and watch the veteran horsemen at work, like their great-uncle Ralph, for instance, who also shoes all their horses. With just two years of training racehorses, Jansen considers himself fortunate to have one like Rowlock Hanover in his barn. Not just for the wins, either—when he had to transport the pacer to AVC after the accident onboard the trailer it meant loading the traumatized animal back into the confines where he was injured. “Rollie” walked right back into the trailer. “Most horses wouldn’t do that,” remarks Jansen.
July 13, 2016 is a date that will stand out for Jansen for the indefinite future. Summerside Raceway’s biggest week of racing also marked the real return of Rowlock Hanover, four races and one qualifier after his misadventure. The conditioned event wasn’t one of the night’s feature races—Atlantic Sires Stakes fillies were the highlight of the card—yet the best story of the night may have been Rowlock Hanover, in rein to Jason Hughes, making front in 28.2 and controlling the race from gate to wire. His 1:58.2 victory wasn’t the only celebration for his connections either: 13-year-old Jaycob was awarded the Prince County Horsemens’ Club’s Rising Star Award after the next race, in part for his work as Rowlock Hanover’s groom.
Jaycob says the honour took him by surprise–”I didn’t know anything about it.” As “Rollie’s” caretaker since the gelding’s arrival last summer, he earned it. The aspiring trainer-driver tells TROT his “easygoing” charge “needed the time off to get healthy”, which he attended to after school and all day on weekends over the course of Rowlock Hanover’s convalesce.
Dr. MacMillan observes that both Jaycob and Jansen deserve credit for their work bringing Rowlock Hanover back. “Jansen was a paramedic student at the time and did an amazing job taking care of ‘Rollie’,” she says. “It is gratifying to see ‘Rollie’ heal after such serious injuries and be back in the winner’s circle in just a few months.”
Co-owner Brody Ellis, visiting from Fort McMurray, Alberta, is at Summerside Raceway (July 13th) and is beaming over his horse’s performance. “We would have been happy with second or third too!” he laughs. “He deserves lots of green grass after that!” Rowlock Hanover is destined for a future as Ellis’ saddle horse in Alberta whenever he retires from racing, adds his co-owner. Not that the six-time winner is retiring anytime soon. Ellis is simply sharing his high regard for the equine athlete in the Summerside winners’ circle: “I’m very happy with that guy!”
Jansen is pleased as well. It’s the horse’s first win of 2016, and he outperformed even the 7/2 morning line odds, which had him as third choice. “We’ll take him home tomorrow and put him out in the field. He likes to play around—he’s pretty fiery in the field,” he says with a smile, surrounded by the growing trackside crowd.
In the paddock after race four, “Rollie” stands calmly for his bath. His scars are still visible, but only if you look close and know the story. All anyone else would see is the gentle giant’s obvious contentment.