Tough Sunday and the Importance of Never Giving Up

The Life
Tough Sunday and his dam, Sunday Dress. (Courtesy of Carrie Drake/Horse Haven)

In the darkness, it was a dire and desperate situation. No matter how hard the mare tried, her large foal was stuck and she needed help. Horse Haven farm manager Carrie Drake remembered each moment with striking clarity. “It started out and seemed normal. But he was so big that we could not get him out. We had everyone at the farm and the neighbors. We were pulling and pulling and pulling and he was not coming out. (It’s not good) when they go that long without oxygen. He was pressing on the little umbilical cord and still hanging inside his mother. I had oxygen on him. We finally got him out. There were at least 6 of us. By the time the doctor got there, we had him out.” Drake’s voice softened with the memory of what they did that night. “Giving him CPR. Giving him oxygen. I had the guys lifting him upside down because he had no heart beat and he wasn’t breathing. He was out of a mare that I knew and he looked just like his stud. Babies are my thing. And all I could say is, ‘You’re not going to die.’ ” With all the determination brought to her by a life spent with horses, she repeated it emphatically. “You are not going to die!” They pulled with ropes and managed to bring the foal out of the mare.

Tough Sunday with Dr. Erin Byrne
Tough Sunday with Dr. Erin Byrne (Courtesy Carrie Drake/Horse Haven)

The foal was large. Most importantly, he was breathing. His dam was temporarily paralyzed, which sometimes happens in difficult births when there is compression of the nerves within the pelvic area.  Farm foreman Frankie Rodriguez grabbed the foal and rode in the back of the van with both of them.  At 3 a.m. they went to the Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, Calif. Under the leadership of the neonatal care unit, the foal was quickly hooked up to a variety of IV fluids. Drake said he was pretty much in a coma. It’s called “maladjusted foal syndrome.” More commonly in the racing industry, they are referred to as “dummy foals.” He was blind and deaf. “Pretty much out of it.”  He had a feeding tube and oxygen. The list of things wrong continued to grow. He didn’t have any inclination to nurse. For any young foal, it was a brutal start to life. He was lucky to be at the clinic which is considered one of the foremost equine clinics in the world. 

Owner Nick Alexander arrived the next morning and went to ICU to see the foal. “He was a sorry sight. This was pretty severe. He had been out of oxygen for five or six minutes (before birth). He had no nursing instinct. His mother was torn up. They taped a bunch of IVs around his mouth from the ceiling. They divided a stall and put a diagonal barrier there with a small restricted area so he didn’t bang his head. First time I saw him, he was standing up. They were testing him to see if he could acquire the nursing instinct which was a failure.” On the second or third day, the mare abandoned him. On the fifth day, the veterinarian called Alexander and said “You are going to have to make a decision. ICU care is expensive and this foal is not getting any better.” He arrived early the next morning and went to the foal’s stall. He was standing there facing Alexander. “As I walked by, he looked at me. His eyes followed me. So I went to the vet and said ‘Hey, he can see! He was watching me. I know he was watching me. It’s progress that we didn’t have yesterday. You are going to have to try harder. We are not going to put him down!’ ” This was a very special home-bred horse to him. Alexander had also bred and raised his sire Grazen, who was his first graded stakes winner and is currently standing in Northern California.

Drake said that slowly but surely the foal came around. “He just didn’t want to die.” Alexander agreed that one by one, his problems began to disappear. He had a heart murmur and pneumonia but over a 30-day period he improved. He was getting bigger and stronger and was a strapping colt. He was 160 pounds when he was born. A foal is normally around 120 pounds. A vet at the clinic called him a big bruiser and the nickname “Bruiser” stuck. His hearing developed and his ears indicated that he was able to follow noises. He could also see and was no longer blind. He came home after 30 days in the ICU along with a whopping $40,000 bill.

Tough Sunday training in 2015.
Tough Sunday training in 2015. (Courtesy Gary Tasich)

They were determined to get the mare to take her baby back. Alexander explained that mares discipline and educate the babies. They put both of them in neighboring stalls with some bars between them so they could touch. After the second day, she came over and started hanging out at the bars. So they were turned out into a paddock with five other mares and foals. From that time out, they were totally normal except for the feeding which is where Drake took over. She fed him a mare’s milk substitute out of a bucket five times a day. 

When you invest that much in a horse, it’s easy to become emotionally attached. He developed a wonderful personality. Drake would spoil him. “He knows he is cute and special. He knows he is tough.  He loves apples. He is the first one to nicker in the barn. He is just kind of adorable. He’s kind of a character with a really good personality.”

Alexander agreed that he has a goofy personality. “He is a little spoiled because he had so much person contact the first six months. He is very friendly. He talks to you. If he is in the barn and somebody comes in the barn, he is the first horse to let you know that he would like a carrot or some attention. He is like a little kid. Everybody identifies with him. He just responds. I love that horse.” It was easy to name him Tough Sunday as he was born on a Sunday and it was a tough birth. His name also honor’s his dam Sunday Dress, who unfortunately passed away last year with a fractured pelvis.

Tough Sunday has been with trainer Steve Miyadi since he was 2 years old. He won his third race (a maiden special weight) at Santa Anita Park in December 2014. The chart says that he dueled four-wide and took the lead three-deep into the stretch and drew clear. He has continued to win a race for every year he has been in training. Now 6 years old, Miyadi affectionately calls him “The Big Horse” of the barn.  He says that he is a funny horse. “He is a spoiled horse. He demands to be the first one fed. He shouts.  He paws. We don’t dare feed any other horse first. He is number one!” His special treat is romaine lettuce. “You can’t believe how fast he eats it! Whenever I come around the corner, he is looking for it.” 

Tough Sunday proved his mettle when he recently won the Sensational Star Stakes at Santa Anita. Under a skilled ride by jockey Joe Talamo, he dueled three-deep then stalked off the rail. He then came three-wide into the stretch and gained the lead with powerful strides. His beautiful roan flecked tail streamed behind him in a photogenic moment as he responded to Talamo’s urging and held on gamely. 

Talamo fist bumped his friends and gave a thumbs up to the camera. Trainer Bill Spawr proudly gave the trophy after hugs were shared all around. Alexander told Britney Eurton of TVG “I’m shaken. I’m going to cry. Everything worked out. Joe rode him perfectly. This horse has a lot of human characteristics. He is a silly boy who likes to play with people in the barn. He is just kind of a goof but around the race track, he gets really serious. He is so cool!” Then with heartfelt emotion, he dedicated the race to his farm manager, Carrie Drake, and his foreman, Frankie Rodriguez. “This is for you. You saved his life.” 

It was also an emotional moment for trainer Steve Miyadi. He said “I’ve been doing this for so long and have won over 1,500 races. It never gets old winning a race regardless of where it’s at or the class of race. But this one? I was shocked. I was a little emotional. He surprised me.” He thinks it’s because of Tough Sunday’s story and that he has been so close to winning before. He also has a long history with Nick Alexander’s racing stable. He used to groom Alexander’s horses when he worked for Mike Mitchell. He laughed when he pointed out that you can follow his hair turning from black to gray in Alexander’s win pictures from the 1980s.

Up north at Horse Haven, Drake also watched the race. With an emotionally voice right on the verge of crying, she said “I couldn’t be happier. He’s pretty damn special. I’ll tell you that. He’s gone through so much and he’s had his ups and downs at the track. He’s very tough and he just wants to run. He means everything to us – Nick and I and everyone. He deserves the attention he is getting.” Indeed his attention is growing as he has a fan club and several Facebook pages devoted to him. Some fans have flown out from the East Coast to watch him race. 

Left to right: owner Nick Alexander, Bill Spawr, trainer Steve Miyadi, jockey Joe Talamo.
Owner Nick Alexander, Bill Spawr, trainer Steve Miyadi, jockey Joe Talamo after the Sensational Star Stakes. (BENOIT photo)

This is a horse that brings great pleasure to the people around him. Alexander reflects on the experience. “I am a lucky guy. I am doing exactly what I want to be doing and I am enjoying it. He’s certainly been a great experience for us and for the people around here. He’s brought out the best in some people. It’s rare that a horse stays in training that long. He’s won at least one race each year for five years now.

Sometimes Tough Sunday has a nagging issue with a shin and comes home to relax and recuperate. “He just makes me smile. He’s looking at me like he is playing with me. He is going to work me for a carrot or something. But mostly what he wants is attention. He wants someone to hang out in front of his stall. Pat him on the face and talk to him. He loves human contact. Some horses hang out at the back of the stall and not interested in people. And others want a piece of your arm. He is a big lovable boy.  A 1,275-pound kid. It’s the way he holds his ears or the way he looks at me. I feel like I am talking to a 12-year-old kid. We are very fortunate because we have had him home. He has been back often enough that we get our chance with him.”

This is a man who loves his home-breds. Now 75 years old, he retired from a thriving car import business and happily takes on the chores of the day whether it’s hauling manure or growing alfalfa. “It’s a whole new learning process and a humbling experience. You learn patience and humility in the horse business.  Those are good lessons. I needed to learn both of those as a younger guy. And it really helped me with both of those qualities.” It certainly came into play when he took the time to be patient with a dummy foal called Bruiser. 

Drake reflected on this journey. “Dummy foals. Not all of them turn out like he did. If you are willing to give the babies a chance, they can be normal. A lot of these old farm managers and trainers think they will never be a viable race horse. They are wrong.  Because they can be and he is the prime example right there. If you do it right and if you don’t give up on them. And that’s the whole thing. We don’t give up on them. It takes a whole team. Everybody has to want to save that foal. Not giving up is the key.  And the good thing is about Nick Alexander is that he will let you do that. He loves his horses and he is not going to give up either.”

A big bruiser of a foal had a rough beginning but along the way, he had a very special group of people cheering him on as he tackled every issue. With grit and determination, he has proven that he is a winner. Santa Anita track announcer Michael Wrona brought the crowd to their feet as Tough Sunday charged to the finish line saying “He’s tough any and every day of his life!” Walking calmly into the winner’s circle facing the people who love him, Bruiser perked his ears up and enjoyed the entire experience. He’s special. He’s tops in their eyes and he is loved. Just like life, this horse loves facing a challenge and winning.

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