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Death of a racehorse: Strait of Dover’s handlers recall his final hours

That Sunday, July 14 would be Strait of Dover's last day on Earth became apparent to Catherine Martin over a spurned grape.

It was an attempt to cheer up the 2012 Queen's Plate champion, who was recovering from surgery and seemed to be on the mend. The veterinary assistant offered the horse a handful of the purple grapes that were his favourite food.

Strait of Dover ate just one.

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"He kind of spit it out and I said, 'C'mon Dover' and I pressed a grape up to his lips again and he finally ate it," Martin said. "He would only eat one grape and I knew at that point he probably wasn't going to make it."

Strait of Dover had come to epitomize the underdog in the year or so he enjoyed in the limelight, a spunky B.C. homebred, which never saw another horse finish in front of him in five career starts at Woodbine.

After two forgettable races on the dirt at Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver in the summer of 2011 as a 2-year-old, Strait of Dover's owners shipped him east to be managed by veteran trainer Dan Vella and run on the all-weather Polytrack surface at Woodbine.

"We're from the west, we're nobody out here," said Wally Leong, 78, who along with his wife, Terry, operate Canyon Farms in Kelowna, B.C., where Strait of Dover was foaled. "I know the sun rises and shines in Toronto and Woodbine is where it's at."

Vella was less than impressed when first presented with his new project.

"He was average size, average build, just almost kind of a plain brown wrapper to look at," he said. "He was physical but he didn't take your breath away."

But then things turned promising. Strait of Dover loved Woodbine's track and it loved him back

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On the previous Thursday, Strait of Dover began his day as he had every day for the past several months since sustaining a mild injury. He had breakfast and a walk. He was playful, happy, and once returned to his stall at the farm in Welland, Ont., devoured a second breakfast, attacking his haynet with vigour.

Trainer Tracy Hnatko heard Strait of Dover scream, which wasn't that unusual. He occasionally cried out when the neighbour's horses began nickering.

"But he did it several times, so I walked down to check on him," she said. "I just looked at his eyes and knew that he was in distress. Thinking he had acute gas, which horses get from time to time, I gave him some dispensables to help his stomach and the pain. I then put him on the walking machine as I always do with colicky horses. He did not want to walk."

Hnatko removed Strait of Dover from the walking machine and led him by hand instead, but she stopped after 10 minutes.

"After years of experience you just sense when something isn't right," she said.

She called James Crawford, the local veterinarian. The hour it took him to arrive passed slowly. Dover was in obvious, terrible pain. There was nothing to do but wait.

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Strait of Dover often wore a quizzical gaze and his cocky personality won over his handlers along the backstretch. He had an unusually large head, so they called him "Potato."

Vella's initial impression of the horse changed early, after he first ran Strait of Dover alongside a veteran horse in one of his first workouts after arriving at Woodbine.

"Dover just looked at the other horse straight in the eye as if saying, 'Let's do it,'" he said. "That first day I saw him breeze I came back to the barn and said, 'Boys, we've got a good one.' You could just see it."

Strait of Dover lived up to Vella's hunch, finishing first in his debut at Woodbine with jockey Justin Stein aboard, but was disqualified and placed third for interference.

Over his next four races, including three in 2012, Strait of Dover was unstoppable, culminating in a wire-to-wire victory that year at the Queen's Plate, Canada's premiere thoroughbred racing event for 3-year-old Canadian horses.

A B.C.-bred horse had never won the million-dollar event, the first leg of the Canadian Triple Crown.

"You just never know in the business where the next horse is coming from," said Vella, who has hung around race tracks for 41 years and has more than 700 wins to his credit.

The Plate would be Strait of Dover's final race.

Following the victory, he suffered a soft-tissue injury on his right foreleg during a training run, ending his 3-year-old season. He was stabled over the winter in Welland, where he was preparing for a return to racing.

When Crawford arrived at the farm, Strait of Dover was in extreme distress. The country vet gave him a heavy sedative, pain medication and three jugs of saline to rehydrate him and recommended he be transferred to Milton Equine Hospital, more than an hour away.

In Milton, veterinary surgeon Orlaith Cleary quickly determined he suffered from colic – what veterinarians call a severe colon torsion, and regular folks, a twisted colon.

"He was in immense, intractable pain," Cleary said.

Her concern was grave. Colic in horses is generally considered an emergency. The large intestine of a horse winds three to four metres long with many twists and turns. Depending on the cause and source of the problem, the animal can go into severe shock. Death can occur in a matter of hours from the onset of the initial symptoms.

Strait of Dover did not immediately respond to heavy doses of pain medication. He was still severely dehydrated, distended on both sides and his lungs and heart were under pressure. With Strait of Dover on the operating table, Cleary prepared to open him up. She gave him more fluids, administered anesthesia, and for the next 2 1/2 hours worked like hell to save the champion thoroughbred.

Cleary cut into Strait of Dover's abdomen then incised his large colon to remove the gas and his remaining breakfast so she could feel her way around. By hand she tried to locate the spot where the squishy organ was snarled.

Vella stayed by his horse's side. So did Martin, who is Vella's fiancé. They repeatedly telephoned the Leongs to keep them up to date on Cleary's progress.

It was an agonizing day.

Then Cleary found the problem, a 540-degree twist (1 1/2-times around) that had cut off the blood supply to the rest of Strait of Dover's colon.

She gently untwisted the knot, and the blood began to flow. Strait of Dover's colon quickly showed improvement. Then the veterinary surgeon bandaged him, and felt hopeful he would make a full recovery.

Strait of Dover, who posted a record of 4-0-1 from seven career starts and banked just over $765,000 in career earnings, displayed a demanding personality from the time he was a colt. A blacksmith arriving at Canyon Farms to trim and shoe hooves would cause him to raise a fuss in his stall. He wanted to be the first horse taken care of.

"Everything about him, he always had to be first," Martin said. "He carried that right to the end.

"He was just an amazing animal."

From a competitive standpoint, nobody appreciated Strait of Dover more than Stein, the only rider the thoroughbred carried in his five races at Woodbine.

Both horse and jockey come from B.C., Strait of Dover from Kelowna and Stein from Kamloops, but Vella paired the horse with the 33-year-old rider because, "They both have the same cocky personalities."

"I had a pretty good feel for the type of horse he was right off the bat," Stein said. "He definitely liked to strut his stuff."

Stein said the horse often showed his dominance by provoking the mounts the outriders were on when leading thoroughbreds onto the track for the start of a race.

"He would try to savage the pony a little bit, trying to bite and stuff like that," Stein said. "He always had to think he was the boss. It wasn't that he was a mean horse, he just always wanted to show he was the best."

In the initial hours after surgery, Strait of Dover appeared to be on the mend. He was placed in a stall at the hospital and was standing.

When Martin visited him on Sunday morning, she took him for a walk and tried to feed him some grapes, a snack he often found along the backstretch at Woodbine and in the pant pockets of his favourite grooms.

But he wasn't getting better after the surgery. He was getting much worse. An autopsy would later show the blood supply to a part of his intestinal organs that was too deep in the abdomen to be seen during surgery had "been compromised."

"All of us were just hoping for the best," Martin said. "This horse had a tremendous winning instinct in him and you're just hoping that instinct carried through into the recovery and he's going to come through with another brilliant move."

When a racehorse's life is at stake, only the owner can make the decision to put it down.

In Kelowna, Wally and Terry Leong had an emotional 15-minute conversation.

"We decided it was best for him to go to sleep," Leong said. "No more pain."

Ten hours after Martin had tested his appetite, shortly after 7:30 p.m., the sturdy dark bay colt with a splash of white marking his forehead was heavily sedated, eased into sleep with a general anesthetic, and then given a solution to induce euthanasia. Dover, as he was called by those who knew and loved him best, was in his fourth year. He passed "very peacefully," Cleary said.

Stein didn't learn of his beloved horse's death until the following morning. A media-relations official at Woodbine, working on a news release about the death, called the jockey for a comment.

Stein was devastated, so caught off guard by the news he let loose with a string of obscenities. Nearly two weeks later, he is more reflective.

"My kids are always going to know who Strait of Dover was," he said. "They'll tell their kids."

Wally Leong sent an e-mail out to everyone he knew whose lives had been touched by his horse.

"Many of us will miss him dearly but will always remember the joy he brought us – however brief," the e-mail concluded.

A flag bearing the orange and black stable colours of Canyon Farms flew on the infield flagpole at Woodbine for a year in recognition of Strait of Dover's 2012 Queen's Plate win.

It is now being sent to the Leongs' farm in Kelowna, along with the horse's halter and cremated remains.

Back to the farm that bred him, Strait of Dover's final homestretch.

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