From an outside perspective, Wet Your Whistle’s victory in the Karl Boyes Stakes at Presque Isle Downs Aug. 17 was just another triumph. Another stakes win, another $45,000 added to his earnings and another return to the winner’s circle for owner David Palmer and trainer Mike Trombetta. If anyone noticed the nearly 11-month gap between his final start last season and his return as a 5-year-old, they probably shrugged it off as another effect of the coronavirus pandemic.
But when it comes to racing, the story always goes beyond the numbers on a race record and the names in a program. As Wet Your Whistle charged across the wire on his right lead, he represented the efforts of the people behind him who made his comeback from a unique injury possible.
For Palmer, racing has always been a consistent piece of his life and an enjoyable venture to share with his family. With a Maryland-based breeding and racing operation consisting of a broodmare and her offspring, along with one or two horses of racing age, a highlight for Palmer is his annual trip to Keeneland’s September yearling sale in search of additions to his program. And in 2016, a Kentucky-bred son of Stroll and Winlocs Glory Days in Beau Lane Bloodstock’s barn caught his eye.
“Whenever I go to the sale, my first stop is always to [Lane’s] barn. I really have a lot of respect for their operation, they do a great job raising their yearlings,” Palmer said. “So I had him pull all the horses out of the stalls and I came across this average-sized dark bay and he happened to have a nice shoulder, big hip and nice walk. He was just a solid looking individual. [Lane’s son-in-law] Michael Orem was pretty high on him and thought that I’d be able to pick him up for a pretty reasonable price.”
And that’s exactly what happened. Palmer paid $17,000 for the prospect and eventually sent him to Trombetta’s barn at Fair Hill Training Center.
Making his debut as a 3-year-old, Wet Your Whistle broke his maiden on the dirt at Laurel Park in July 2018. But six more starts without a return to the winner’s circle forced a reevaluation.
“We got a little bit down on him,” said Palmer. “We weren’t sure what was going on, we knew he had a lot of ability, but he just couldn’t put it together.”
Once his issues with steering were addressed with changes in equipment and his dislike of the dirt satisfied with impressive works on the all-weather track at Fair Hill, Trombetta called Palmer to let him know it was time to try again, this time at Woodbine in Canada.
Making the final start of his 3-year-old season in an allowance on Woodbine’s all-weather track, Wet Your Whistle won by 81⁄4 lengths going 7 furlongs. The success didn’t end there, as the gelding returned from a four-month winter break to kick off his 4-year-old season with another allowance win at Laurel Park in April 2019. As another month passed, Wet Your Whistle ended up in the winner’s circle for a third consecutive time as he won the Get Serious Stakes at Monmouth Park. And by June, he was returning to Woodbine, entered in the Grade 1 Highlander Stakes.
“I was just taking a shot,” said Trombetta. “We were looking for races that were three-quarters of a mile on the grass. Five-and-a-half [furlongs] tends to be a little short for him, since he needs a little bit of time to get rolling, so we took our chances.”
Wet Your Whistle won his graded stakes debut, as he moved from last to first down the stretch, by 1½ lengths over Extravagant Kid. Wet Your Whistle became Palmer’s first Grade 1 winner, a few months after becoming his first stakes winner.
“Whistle has given our family some of the most exciting moments of our lives and to be there when he won the Grade 1 Highlander was just an amazing experience for everyone involved,” said Palmer. “I mean not only was it our first Grade 1 victory, but it was also jockey Alex Cintron’s, which made it even sweeter.”
What goes up, must come down
After his score in the Highlander, Wet Your Whistle headed to Saratoga in August, where he finished fourth in the Troy-G3.
“[The turf] was incredibly speed favoring. He ran his race, but he just couldn’t keep up with the horses on the lead there,” said Palmer. “Mike called me the next morning and said Whistle was running a temperature. We’re not using that as an excuse, but you kind of look back on the performance and think maybe it was something like that or maybe it was the track being so speed-biased that day.”
From there the bad luck followed, as Wet Your Whistle dealt with a rough trip in the Runhappy Turf Sprint-G3 the following month at Kentucky Downs. Breaking from the inside post in a field of 10, he clipped heels with a horse in front of him and stumbled hard down the hill, before steadying and managing to finish seventh.
“Whistle gets very impatient when he’s down inside, it’s just not his favorite place to be. Watching the replay, you’ll see him tossing his head trying to get to the outside,” said Palmer. “It was just one of those races that wasn’t meant to be.”
From there, the team planned to regroup and give their horse some time between races. But Wet Your Whistle threw another curveball.
After posting a 5-furlong breeze in 1:00.20 on the Tapeta Sept. 28, Wet Your Whistle came up severely lame and basically would not put weight on his right front leg. Fair Hill-based veterinarian Dr. Chuck Arensberg examined the horse.
“There was some swelling in the knee that morning, so we took a close look, got some digital X-rays and saw a really, really interesting fracture,” said Dr. Arensberg.
Once the initial radiographic images were taken, Arensberg reached out to Dr. Michael Ross, a surgical consultant for New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa. Ross, a member of Penn Vet’s community for nearly 36 years, had removed a minor ankle chip from a 2-year-old Wet Your Whistle in 2017 but this was different.
When it came to this newest ailment, the flex lateral radiographic image (taken when the horse’s knee is bent) showed a fracture at the bottom of the intermediate carpal bone, which sits between the radial carpal bone and ulnar carpal bone, in the middle of the knee.
“I didn’t know why the horse was so lame, but it looked like it was relatively straightforward,” said Ross. “[I thought] that I’d be able to bring the horse in, put the horse under anesthesia, do a computed telegraphic [CT] examination with the horse under anesthesia and then put a screw in there at least and maybe take out little fragments if there were any.”
However, when Ross received the rest of the radiographic images, he realized he was dealing with something more complicated. It was then, with the support of Arensberg and Trombetta, that the team decided to utilize New Bolton’s standing CT unit, one of just a few in the country. The advanced diagnostic technology made all the difference, as it revealed the complexity of the fracture and reversed the initial plan for surgery.
“Having the ability to do the standing CT allowed me to look at the fracture and understand how difficult and what’s called comminuted, meaning numerous pieces, it was and understand that my initial thought about putting the screw in would have been a mistake, because I would have put the screw right through a fracture line,” said Dr. Ross. “In other words, the plane I would have put the screw in was another fracture line that I couldn’t see without having the added benefit of having the CT examination.”
Though it appeared to be a slab fracture (when the carpal bone splits vertically and the front part becomes detached), it was actually a unique T-shaped fracture. However, the pieces of the bone were closely clustered, meaning there were no loose pieces around the joint. Despite the location being unusual and rare, it was advantageous in a way for recovery, as the bone was held in place within the joint by the bone on the outside and the inside. In a sense, there was some degree of stability to help hold the pieces together and promote healing.
The radial carpal bone and the third carpal bone (below the intermediate carpal bone) are more prone to slab fractures, as they endure greater stress. The specific bone and location of this fracture gave Ross hope that Wet Your Whistle could heal better than a horse with the same injury in a more common, important bone.
Though the exact cause of the injury couldn’t be determined, Ross had seen modeling, meaning there was some sclerosis of the bone that indicated there was some pre-existing damage. The unlucky trip at Kentucky Downs may have been a factor.
“It used to be thought that the horse was happily running down the track, took a bad step, and cracked a bone. We now know of course that that’s not the case,” said Ross. “There’s almost always pre-existing damage that was there before the fracture happened. The horse may take a bad step, but the fact is he generally takes a bad step after he cracks the bone, not before.”
Analyzing the initial radiographic images, the three-dimensional views from the CT scans and the clinical findings, Arensberg and Ross worked together on the best treatment plan.
“A lot of people think when you have a carpal fracture, surgery is pretty much always indicated, but there are always options,” said Ross. “Rest is always an option”
In this case, conservative management with long periods of rest would offer the best outcome.
A long road ahead
Palmer sent Wet Your Whistle to Dr. Michael Harrison’s Willowdale Farm in Reisterstown, Md., for stall rest at the end of September. Willowdale is also home to the rest of Palmer’s breeding and young stock.
“Dr. Harrison’s son Justin had just opened up Farmacy brewing on the property so every Saturday and Sunday my wife Meghan and I would take the kids out to the barn to see Whistle and feed him carrots, along with a little bit of craft beer,” said Palmer. “We knew how difficult it was for him to be stuck in the stall, so we did our best to keep him healthy and happy.”
Despite his reputation for being headstrong, Wet Your Whistle was the perfect patient as he handled the confinement and eventually moved on to hand-walking. Healing was reflected in his follow-up CT scan at New Bolton in November and through radiographs Harrison took each month.
“The fracture lines tend to demineralize before they mineralize, so they almost looked more obvious on the follow-up CT, but the good news was there was no displacement, the structure of the bone was intact, there was evidence of healing on the margins of the bone and the horse was immensely more comfortable,” said Ross. “Even in hard flexion the horse was maybe only modestly responsive, so he had improved a lot clinically.”
Ensuring the rehabilitation process remained slow and steady, Harrison also started the horse on Adequan, an intramuscular treatment of joint dysfunction and associated lameness.
“To succeed, he had to be a horse that’s willing to stay in a stall and not get crazy, which he was,” said Harrison. “He was the best patient ever.”
Though most rehabilitation plans would have the horse confined to a stall, then hand-walked and later turned out in a small paddock, Palmer and Trombetta didn’t want to risk all the progress the knee had made if he were to get too excited outside. So after consulting with Harrison, hydrotherapy at Amazing Grace Rehabilitation and Conditioning Center in Parkton, Md., became the next step.
“He was very, very full of energy just from being cooped up, but he had no muscle tone, there was just nothing,” said Sandy Weinreich, owner and manager of Amazing Grace. “His mind was going a million miles an hour and his body couldn’t go a mile an hour.”
Amazing Grace’s aqua treadmill allowed Wet Your Whistle to regain his strength and muscle, without overloading his healing knee. Weinreich’s system can be adjusted from a dry treadmill to one with up to 5 feet of water, with the ability to adjust the weight-bearing load, temperature, and added benefits of epsom and sea salts. The straightaway of the aqua treadmill also helps produce a symmetrically sound and fit horse.
“The difference between our [treadmill] and swimming in a pool where they don’t touch bottom, is when swimming in a pool, they pull their head up and their back becomes inverted. So although you’re getting the endurance, you’re not strengthening the topline,” said Weinreich. “Ours is height adjustable, so we can adjust it to where that particular horse is minimal weight-bearing, so their topline gets strong and their chest opens up.”
Though he had to be continuously reminded to slow down, Wet Your Whistle flourished. “Every day he just wanted to give me more than I asked him to, and I just had to keep reining him in, which is unusual because I’m usually pushing them.”
The gelding responded so well that he only spent six weeks at the center. When his team came to pick him up, he passed every test, including flexion and sensory. By mid-April, he was back at Fair Hill.
Back on track
Team Trombetta took things slow, easing him into training by hand-walking around the shedrow, then jogging for a month on the track, before steadily working up to galloping. More X-rays of the knee were taken to ensure it continued to heal.
“At each stage he was assessed by the trainer and veterinarians involved, to make sure he could make it to the next step of exercise. You would never increase his workload without checking to see if he’s able to tolerate the current workload,” said Arensberg. “So you’d be looking for heat, looking for swelling, looking for lameness and he really has not missed a beat.”
On June 13, Wet Your Whistle recorded his first published work since last September, breezing 3 furlongs on the dirt at Fair Hill in :39.80. From there he continued to progress, working up to breezing 6 furlongs on the all-weather track as the team prepared him for his 5-year-old debut in the Karl Boyes. And once he made that, any previous doubts were erased.
“He just continues to amaze us,” Trombetta said. “He broke flat-footed and gave everybody a bit of a head start. Running down the backside, you tend to lose hope in those kinds of races because they’re all good horses that you’re running against and somehow, someway he found a way to get it done.” He won by a length, finishing 6 furlongs in 1:09.44.
“We were absolutely shocked when we saw the outcome,” said Palmer. “When he walked out of the starting gate, our hearts just sank, and to see him make that move coming up the stretch, it was just unbelievable. We were just so incredibly excited.”
Wet Your Whistle’s knee continues to appear healthy in X-rays, with no signs of lameness or discomfort. Since winning the Karl Boyes, he finished sixth in the Laurel Dash on the turf at Laurel Park Sept. 7, with his record standing at 6-0-1 from 15 career starts and earnings of $338,153.
Looking ahead, Palmer says there is a chance Wet Your Whistle could take on the Woodford Stakes-G2 at Keeneland or the Belmont Sprint Invitational-G3 at Belmont Park in October. If he were to compete well, the team will consider the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint-G1 at Keeneland in November.
A united front
In just 11 months, Wet Your Whistle overcame a potentially career-ending fracture in his right knee, nearly seven months of rehabilitation, and doubts he’d ever run at the stakes level again. But he didn’t do it alone.
“One of the things I’ve learned in my career is that what’s really important for all of this, and everybody involved, is to have a good team,” said Ross. “It’s a team effort that often determines whether the horse is truly successful or not.”
As Wet Your Whistle broke from the rest of the field down the stretch in the Karl Boyes, surging forward on his right lead no less, he carried the united front of Palmer and his family, Trombetta and his team at Fair Hill, Arensberg and the Equine Veterinary Care practice at Fair Hill, Ross and New Bolton Center, Harrison and Willowdale Farm, and Weinreich and Amazing Grace.
“What’s magical is that an owner was willing to go to the extent that [Palmer] did to give the horse a true shot,” said Harrison. “So many people get impatient or simply look at the bottom line, dollars and cents, and say ‘Eh, I’m not going to take that chance because he isn’t going to come back.’ Well, proof is in the situation here.”
Weinreich was the final step in the rehabilitation process, but passed along credit.
“They were [all] instrumental in making sure they got all the pieces of the puzzle and put them together,” she said. “They didn’t just rely on certain people to perform miracles. I think they did their homework and they wanted what was truly best for that horse. This is a horse that reflects what society needs right now, which is teamwork.”
When asked what he would have done if Wet Your Whistle hadn’t been able to race again, Palmer was firm.
“Just turn him out on Dr. Harrison’s property. I would keep him,” said Palmer. “He’s done so much for us and he doesn’t owe us anything. He’s part of our family, you know. He’s given us some memories that we’ll never forget. We’re very grateful for him.
“If you do right by the horse, they’ll do right by you. And he really came back to pay us in dividends.”