Word came last week of the death 2015 Florida Derby winner Materiality, who went into that year’s Kentucky Derby with plenty of support. He was unbeaten until the first Saturday in May and, after starting poorly, finished well to be sixth. Nobody was likely to beat eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah that day, and Materiality left the race still among the best three-year-olds of the season.
Two months later, Materiality ran well in the Belmont Stakes but again, all eyes were on American Pharoah. Then, Materiality fell off the racing radar. In August his people announced that he had suffered “soft tissue injury” and wouldn’t race again. He then not only fell off the radar, he disappeared into some dark, deep hole.
Then, the last week in September 2016, it was reported that Materiality had died two months earlier. The cause was laminitis, the great scourge of horses, ponies, and some other hooved animals, from which Materiality had been suffering for a year. The disease causes a breakdown of the tissues of the hoof and is a painful, often incurable, and often fatal condition. Secretariat died of laminitis, and if the efforts put into treating him weren’t enough, imagine what happens with a lesser horse. Sometimes the treatment works, but often it doesn’t.
A severe case of laminitis can cause permanent damage to the bones of the foot. Even if the horse survives the critical phase, the disease often returns. We know a lot about causes—or rather, circumstances that lead to increased risk. Over-grazing in new grass, too much rich grain, infections elsewhere in the body—there are literally dozens of causes. What often affects racehorses is concussion and weight. We don’t really know why Secretariat came down with the disease. He was a heavy horse and although his pasture was grassy he may have suffered from excessive impact as he galloped.
In the case of Materiality, the soft tissue injury in one leg probably led to excessive weight-bearing and subsequent laminitis in the other—a situation that occurs with most young race horses who fall victim to the disease. It famously happened to Barbaro, the unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner who was injured in the Preakness and battled for nearly a year from the laminitis that soon appeared, ultimately unsuccessfully.
And that’s what happened to the unbeaten Lady Eli, who suffered a minor injury—she stepped on a nail—in July 2015 and came down with laminitis in both front feet soon after. People who follow racing watched the news from Belmont Park with increasing dread over the next couple of months. Her case was severe; her racing career was certainly over and there was limited hope that she would even survive. Unlike Materiality, Lady Eli didn’t fall off the radar. Her people did regular updates of her condition, and within a couple of months it seemed probable that she would live. It was very good news to hear that a horse could win a battle of the laminitis war.
But the story went from happy to miraculous in August when Lady Eli appeared, 13 months after contracting a career-ending and life-threatening disease, in the Ballston Spa Stakes at Saratoga. She lost her unbeaten record that day, losing by less than a length, but everybody who saw her knows she was a winner. As was her sport and her species.