Jo McKinnon Column

Rothfire on the road to recovery

The comeback story of Rothfire (Rothesay) is the stuff we rejoice in, particularly in these tough and uncertain times where we could all do with something to give us a little bit of hope and inspiration.

Rothfire has always been the archetypal fairytale horse. Costing just $10,000 as a yearling, the plain bay gelding has scaled heights on the racetrack beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. 

As a two-year-old he won his first four races on the bounce and his juvenile year culminated in a Group 1 victory in the JJ Atkins Stakes (1400m).

He returned as a three-year-old to win the Run to the Rose (Gr 2, 1200m) and then, sadly, at his following start in the Golden Rose (Gr 1, 1400m) at Rosehill he fractured a sesamoid bone when running fourth.

Many feared the injury was catastrophic enough to spell the end of his career.

But after surgery and 11 months of rest and rehabilitation the horse popularly known as the ‘Thriller from Chinchilla’ announced he’s back on The Everest trail with an explosive trial win at Doomben last Tuesday.

“I needed to make a statement if I had any aspirations of being picked up by an Everest slot holder,” said his trainer Rob Heathcote. 

“A, the horse has to come back successfully and, B, show he’s not lost any of his genuine Group 1 qualities and I think we did that. 

“It was a definite relief in capital letters.” 

What happened in that trial last Tuesday proved that with plenty of patience and trust in equine professionals around you, horses can occasionally defy a grim prognosis.

“When I first saw the x-rays and I understood that two significant bone fragments had to be removed from his fetlock I thought the chances of him coming back would be very, very slim at best but being the eternal optimist I thought we will throw every resource at him we can,” Heathcote said.

After surgery was conducted on him at the Randwick Equine Centre, Rothfire was sent to recover at Emeran Park in the Dooralong Valley just north of Sydney.

There under the watchful eye of Shannon Betts he began his journey on the long road to recovery.

“It was a pretty slow process and the beauty of it and part of the success is the measures we took from that early time.

“He was confined to a box for a good couple of months initially until he got to a stage where it was light hand walking all very controlled and then got to a stage where he was walking on a treadmill and then a treadmill half full of water like a tread bath. 

“It was a gradual rise in the level of work intensity that he did for the first five months. Shannon is an excellent communicator who sent me regular updates.”

Eventually the time came for Rothfire to return to Heathcote’s racing stable in Brisbane and begin the next phase of his recovery.

“It was heart in the mouth stuff when he came back into work. It was a gradual process to get him up to a stage of 3/4 gallop and his joints held together with no heat and inflammation. 

“My vet Dr Phil Burguez has been a practising surgeon most of his life and he fully understood the complexity of the injury. He basically said yes you are lucky but it’s the type of injury he’s either going to come back from successfully or he’s not.It’s not the type of injury he might come back and be a good Saturday class horse he will come back a Group 1 performer or not at all.”

With regular ice therapy and therapeutic anti-inflammatories Rothfire made it safely through his initial return to training and was then given another break, this time at the renowned Washpool Lodge.

“When he arrived there and was out in a paddock it was the first time he was allowed his head and the freedom to run and jump and kick and squeal. 

“Monica who works there can watch the horses from her kitchen window and said he was very hesitant initially. He could not understand after being so controlled for six months that he could move about freely. It took him a little while to get confidence up but when he realised he could run, he felt fantastic.”

 After enjoying the wide open spaces with some Queensland sunshine on his back he returned to the racing environment once again.

“We got him up to some solid pieces of gallop work and then the vets said it’s time to give him his head and give him a serious gallop. 

“Three weeks ago he did and came through in great order and then we gave him a week in the paddock to let him settle down.

“I’m a big believer in a horse’s mental confidence particularly after a traumatic injury. It’s important to get them to a level and give them a break once you have reached the level successfully and let them come back up again.”

Heathcote has stayed true to that method and since last week’s impressive trial win Rothfire has been given another breather.

“He had 24 hours in the stable after the trial and the vet looked at him twice and we were happy there was no heat or inflammation in his joints. He’s been in the paddock for six days and he’s had the sun on his back and been able to run free every day so the signs are good at this stage.

“All we are doing is trying to stay optimistic. They are a wonderful bunch of owners in him and it’s been a great journey. We are back on the train and hopefully the journey can take us a bit further this time.”

That journey could well see them climb racing’s Everest.  

“If we go down that road it’s wonderful but it’s not the be all and end all. We want to get him back to the races sound and happy and be what he is, which is a bloody good horse,” Heathcote said.

All going well, we can’t wait for Rothfire’s return to the races next month when he has a shot at The Shorts (Gr 2, 1100m).