Frank Mitchell: Wildcat Heir a true survivor

By Frank Mitchell
Courtesy of Paulick Report

Wildcat Heir officially turns 14 on New Year’s Day, just a few days after his daughter Heir Kitty became the stallion’s first Grade 1 winner with a victory in the La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita over established top-tier performers Sweet Lulu, Executiveprivilege, and My Happy Face.

Throughout his career at stud, the G1-winning stallion has maintained a high profile, ranking either first or second among all Florida sires since he had racers. In 2013, Wildcat Heir is second among Florida sires with $4.3 million in progeny earnings.

But, in an ironic twist, the bay son of Forest Wildcat is lucky just to be alive.

Two years ago, a problem was discovered with the horse, who was standing at Brent and Crystal Fernung’s Journeyman Stud in Florida. Brent Fernung said, “In November 2011, we noticed the horse didn’t act like he was swallowing properly. He acted like he was choking on something, and I called our veterinarian, Dr. Bill Russell. He ran a scope down Wildcat Heir’s throat and said it wasn’t choke but that something was occluding most of his trachea.

“He suggested it might be an abscess, then he scoped Wildcat Heir the next day, and it was gone. Over a 60-day period, it would come and go, depending on the circumstance, and the horse began to have trouble breathing.”

That was the signal for Fernung to bring out all the guns. They sent the farm’s star sire to the University of Florida for an MRI, then a biopsy of the occlusion, as well as examinations by multiple veterinarians.

One of them, Dr. Don Slone, a partner at Peterson and Smith Veterinarians and past president of the certification board for equine surgeons, said the “mass was a tumor because it was so hard,” Fernung recalled. “Dr. Sloan went in and removed the tumor. He cut it out in chunks, and each one was as big as your fist. It was maybe eight inches long and big around as a baking potato.”

The surgery took place in February 2012, and “they had to take out his arytenoids, his voicebox, and performed a temporary tracheostomy on him,” Fernung concluded.

Surgery of that scope is very serious, and everyone associated with the horse approached it as a life and death matter because they didn’t have any alternatives. Fernung described the situation: “The tumor sat at the top of Wildcat Heir’s throat, occluded the entire larynx, and was set lengthwise in that space. It ran down his throat maybe eight inches, and the surgeon had to go in there, peel it all off, and also take enough margin to prevent it from coming back.”

In addition to the mechanics of the surgery, management of the horse became a systematic process around the clock.

The horse lost the ability to swallow properly as a result of the surgery.

“To maintain his condition and give him the energy to survive,” Fernung said, “we had to do an esophagostomy, which is a hole coming out his neck, not far from his jugular groove, and every four hours, we would feed him a slurry made of water, pelleted feed, corn oil, and other nutrients through that opening, as a short-term solution, we thought. Unfortunately, he would never be able to eat and swallow normally.

“Since February 2012, that is how Wildcat Heir has been fed. Otherwise, he’s great. We turn him out in the paddock. He runs, rolls, grazes, and has a great time. But when he eats, the grass or hay comes out his esophagostomy or tracheostomy.”

Despite his blooming health, all this is asking a lot of a horse, and Fernung said that Wildcat Heir “is the only stallion that I’ve ever been around that would have tolerated this and kept a good attitude, not getting sour or aggressive about the limitations he has to cope with.”

But the strength of character in the horse has been repaid by the attention from his people, and Wildcat Heir has recovered from the operation, covered his mares, and prospered.

Despite all the extra work and complications, Fernung said that “when it was all said and done, it worked out well. Wildcat Heir has regained his health; he is healthier now than when we found this thing. He covered 125 mares last spring, with in-foal mares about 88-90 percent. He’s good with his mares, but he can’t nicker to them because of the throat operation.”

In balance, everything is rosy for Wildcat Heir. All his checks for recurrence of cancer have been clean, the crew at Journeyman understand what he needs, and as a sire, he is finishing strong in 2013.

And yet, Fernung admitted, “I would actually like to cut his book back a little. I don’t think it’s too hard on him, but it’s pretty tough on me.”

Considering the kind of year he’s had, I don’t know whether demand for Wildcat Heir will allow Fernung to get that wish for 2014.

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