Four days old, the foal at the mare’s feet is asleep. The mare nickers a warning. The humans understand, slow their pace and speak a few reassuring words.
The mare relaxes, the foal awakes. He stands, stretches and bleats a hello to John Hughes, the man who brought the bay colt into the world.
“He really bonded with me the other night,” Hughes says with an arm on the colt’s back.
Understandably so. The colt’s dam, Sweet Shani, died moments after giving birth and Hughes and the colt by Spring At Last spent the night together – the baby going through his earliest hours with Hughes instead of a mother. Broodmare manager for Jonathan Sheppard, Hughes has been here before. Mares don’t often die giving birth, but it happens and Hughes stores colostrum for such emergencies. He had plenty and, drinking eagerly from a bottle, Sweet Shani’s colt nearly cleaned out the supply.
“Every time I’d come by the stall he’d hear me,” said Hughes with a laugh. “He thought I was bringing another bottle. He was hungry. He sucked those bottles dry.”
Born at 10 Friday night, March 14, the colt made it through and met his new mother the next morning when the nurse mare arrived. Bay, a little rough around the edges, the Draft/Thoroughbred cross looks nothing like the long, gray New Zealand-bred Sweet Shani, but that doesn’t seem to bother the colt or the mare.
They connected immediately Saturday morning. She’s his mother and he’s her son, same as the other mares with their foals on the farm.
Wednesday morning, they were lazing in a paddock at Sheppard’s farm. The mare picked grass through the snow. The colt napped, strolled (not too far) and checked out his older (by about a week) next-door neighbors. If he knew anything about what happened on the night he was born, he didn’t show it.
“It’s one of those things,” said Hughes of Sweet Shani’s death. “It breaks your heart, but you know it’s a possibility. This is supposed to be about sitting back and helping the mares raise the babies.”
Until it isn’t.
America’s champion filly/mare steeplechaser in 2011, Sweet Shani was born in 2000 in New Zealand. She made her racing debut at 5 (with a win) in Australia. She won again on the flat, then three times over jumps including a victory in the classy Lachal Hurdle at Flemington. Imported to the United States for Sheppard client Calvin Houghland, Sweet Shani routinely tangled with the best horses in the game and placed in three Grade 1 stakes vs. males. Against her gender, she won three stakes and placed in two others for Houghland and his widow Mary Ann. Second in her final start, while conceding 19 pounds and eight years to the winner, Sweet Shani retired in 2012 with $339,000 in earnings and joined Sheppard’s broodmare band.
She was bred to Spring At Last, a son of Silver Deputy who stands at WinStar Farm in Kentucky, and returned to life on the farm in Pennsylvania. In January, she was fat, dirty, healthy and happy. Regal even. Because of her age (14) and this being her first foal, the pregnancy was considered something of a risk but Sweet Shani progressed and was ready to foal – as expected – in mid-March.
“Everything went well, real smooth,” said Hughes. “She relaxed fine, laid down and it was a fairly normal delivery. The vets said it was going to be a little tight, but we’ve had bigger foals. When the foal was born she sat up and looked at him, saw her foal, seemed fine.”
Ten minutes later, Sweet Shani hemorrhaged. Hughes knew what was happening and did all he could – gave her medicine, called the vet, kept her calm – but there wasn’t much to be done. Sweet Shani died Friday night, after giving birth. She left behind a “great foal,” according to the man who pulled him into the world.
“I know, I know,” said Hughes, cautioning himself, “but he really is a nice foal. When he was born he looked like he was a week old. I love his head. It’s that old, classic head. He’s meaty. He’s well put together and he’s got an aura about him.”
Hughes knows that’s no guarantee the colt will be able to run or jump or even live through the week.
“They are what they are,” he said. “But if he’s his mother’s baby he’ll give his best.”