Dan Patch Award winner Obrigado beats suspensory injury to return to racing
Story by Hope Ellis-Ashburn
It means “obliged” or “thank you” in Portuguese and could be considered an unusual name, but world champion Obrigado is not a normal Standardbred.
“He’s a pretty remarkable horse in many, many ways,” said trainer and co-owner Paul Kelley, who purchased the horse from friend Mike Andrew, a breeder and owner.
“He bred this horse and raced him for two years in Maine,” Kelley said. “He made about $170,000 in two years of racing in Maine, which is pretty good.”
In fact, the son of Boy Band – Malimony was more than pretty good, as Obrigado was a two-time Maine champion, was a perfect 13 for 13 as a sophomore, and had won 21 consecutive races when Kelley saw him in the 2013 Standardbred Mixed Sale.
“When those Maine stakes races are done, [Andrew] moves those horses, selling them to other trainers,” Kelley said. “[Obrigado] had a presence about him. But, in retrospect, he looked like a good horse, but in no way was I thinking he was a great horse or what he would become.
“Knowing Mike, I felt comfortable and confident going ahead and trying to buy the horse at public auction. We got him for $53,000. I brought him to my winter training base, Sunshine Meadows, in Delray Beach, Florida.”
In the spring of 2014, Kelley moved Obrigado to a training facility in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to prepare for that year’s campaign. His initial impression was the trotter would be a nice horse for a second-tier track.
“He trained just fine through the winter, but never gave me any indication he was anything that special,” Kelley said.
The horse, however, quickly proved he was much more than an overnight contender.
“Even at 4, he pretty much established himself over the course of a couple of months as the best horse on the grounds up [at Saratoga],” Kelley said. “The race secretary politely asked if I could take him somewhere else because he was winning every week.”
Although Kelley obliged, he wasn’t yet ready for Obrigado to hit The Meadowlands. He kept the horse in New York and eventually landed at Yonkers Raceway that fall.
In six starts at Yonkers, Obrigado won the Open trot three times and was also second and fifth. He was then invited to the $250,000 Yonkers International Trot Preview, where he placed fourth behind winner Natural Herbie. European champion Commander Crowe and the defending Horse of the Year in the U.S. and Canada, Bee A Magician, also tripped the timer in front of him.
“At that point, he was starting to show me he was a little bit special,” Kelley said.
In 2014, Obrigado earned $173,742. For 2015, Kelley planned a more competitive schedule for him and the horse did not disappoint, holding his own against some of the best horses in North America.
“The most important thing is that every time the horse faced tougher competition, he always rose to the occasion,” Kelley said.
Obrigado became a regular on the Grand Circuit as a 5-year-old and demonstrated he could not only compete, but also win. Despite drawing some unlucky post positions, the gelding banked $405,535 and was victorious in the $200,000 Crawford Farms Open Trot, third in the $301,500 John Cashman Memorial and second in the $400,000 TVG Free for All final.
“We now knew that we had a really nice horse that could race at the top level of the sport,” Kelley said of that season.
In 2016, the best year of his career, Obrigado captured seven Grand Circuit events. His triumphs included the $200,000 Maxie Lee Memorial, the $210,000 Charlie Hill Memorial, another victory in the $193,000 Crawford Farms Pace and the $400,000 TVG Free for All final.
The gelding earned $873,300, established a world record (1:53.2) winning the $180,000 Cleveland Trotting Classic at Northfield Park and collected that year’s Dan Patch Award as the sport’s best older male trotter. He was, however, not 100 percent when he won the TVG final.
“He had some issues going on—we weren’t even sure of what those issues were—but he fought his way through it and won that race,” Kelley said.
Getting the right diagnosis proved difficult and time-consuming. In the fall of 2017, Dr. Allen Nixon from Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y., performed arthroscopic surgery on Obrigado’s right stifle to remove a cyst and clean up a torn meniscus. The horse returned to Florida for the winter of 2018 where, much improved, he returned to training.
Obrigado went to the starting gate on seven occasions in 2018 with three wins and earned $71,360 as his trainer sought to provide him with plenty of time to return to form.
“I would say in 2018 he was quite sound all throughout the year,” Kelley said. “He was nice and square, trotting really good. I took him back to a couple of B tracks where he could just kind of get back into the swing of things, but everything went really, really well.”
But when Obrigado traveled to Lexington, Ky., to prepare for the Caesars Trotting Classic at Harrah’s Hoosier Park, all did not go according to plan.
“During that time, I don’t know, just something happened,” Kelley said. “I can’t really pinpoint what it was, but he ended up with a suspensory issue in his right hind.”
Unfortunately, the type of injury Obrigado sustained was not unusual. In his article “Suspensory Ligament Injuries: Advances in Diagnosis and Treatment,” Dr. Mike Scott explained further:
Suspensory ligament injuries are a common cause of lameness in the horse, particularly athletic horses and those involved in competitive events.
The anatomy of the lower limb is very similar below the level of the knee or hock. The weight of the horse is borne on a central column of bones comprised of the cannon bone (third metacarpus or metatarsus), the pastern bones, and the coffin bone within the hoof. This column of bones is supported by several large tendons and ligaments in the back of the leg including the superficial digital flexor tendon, the deep digital flexor tendon, and the suspensory ligament.
While part of the suspensory ligament’s role is acting as a connector between two bones, its larger function is to prevent excessive extension of the fetlock joint. It also acts to capture and release kinetic energy and in the dynamic support of the limb during athletic performance.
Lameness associated with the suspensory ligament may be mild and intermittent; it may resolve and return; or it may respond to treatment for other injuries.
Lameness examinations are often the first line of defense. Nerve blocks, ultrasonography, and magnetic resonance imaging are also helpful in identifying the source of the problem.
Among the treatment options are shock wave therapy, ligamentous injections, and surgery. Rehabilitation involves rest with a gradual return to exercise. The longterm prognosis varies with minor injuries having more favorable outcomes.
After weighing the options, Kelley and Obrigado’s other connections concluded it might be time for the trotter’s career to come to an end.
“At that point, I thought he’s just been through so much that maybe this was it,” Kelley said. “So, I would say by October or November 2018 we were pretty much convinced the horse was just going to be retired. I was just going to have to find a permanent home for him.
“Over the winter of 2019, I was lucky enough to be able to send the horse to Chris Coyle’s Olive Branch Farm in North Carolina.”
Olive Branch Farm provides rest and turnout during the off-season. Obrigado spent roughly 4½ months there.
“I picked him up in April 2019 when we came to Florida and brought him to our new location, Congress Hill Farm in Monroe, New Jersey,” Kelley said. “We had already broke the horse to ride and he was quite comfortable under saddle. I was just trying to find the right place for him and in my mind, I’m thinking maybe I’ll be the permanent home. I really love the horse and I enjoy being around him. We had him up here at the farm when we were training in New Jersey and the horse was very happy to be back at the barn with the daily routine.”
Obrigado was in a paddock with a buddy watching horses go back and forth to the track when it became obvious he wanted to do a whole lot more.
“We decided let’s just start jogging him a little bit and see how he is,” Kelley said. “We have a pool at the farm where he could swim. The girl taking care of him could ride him.”
Encouraged, Kelley had the leg ultrasounded around the end of April or first of May.
“You could see where there was still a little bit of damage to the suspensory, but my veterinarian thought that a little bit of exercise would be good rehab for the leg and help it get a little stronger,” he said. “It’s kind of snowballed in the right direction from there.”
Kelley also introduced laser therapy, which he credits for playing a large part in Obrigado’s recovery. Having already had success with the treatment when the gelding was initially injured, Kelley began using it when Obrigado returned to the farm in April.
“I started using the laser on his right hind suspensory three times per week on an every-other-day schedule,” he said. “There’s no question that the laser played a big part in getting him back to the races.”
Obrigado finished second in his return on Nov. 1 in a qualifying race at Freehold Raceway. He captured his next two qualifying contests at the same facility before entering the pari-mutuel ranks at Yonkers on Dec. 7. He was sixth and fifth in two Open Handicaps there prior to finishing sixth in a preferred event at The Meadowlands on Dec. 27. In his most recent outing, he was third in an overnight race at The Meadowlands on Jan. 31.
“He’s doing really good,” Kelley said. “He’s just a great horse with a great personality.”
Hope Ellis-Ashburn is a freelance writer living in Tennessee. To comment on this story, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.