Jeff Jardine

Stakes high when horses visit Oakdale rehab center

Saturday at New York’s Belmont Park, American Pharoah will try to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

As in virtually anything else, horse racing is full of woulda-coulda-shoulda, and this year is no different. What would have happened if a horse named Texas Red had stayed healthy instead of developing the abscess that knocked him out of the Kentucky Derby? Maybe nothing at all.

American Pharoah won four straight races heading into the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and won those as well. That’s six straight heading into Saturday’s date with destiny.

Texas Red? He showed promise by winning two of his last four races. He won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile G1 race in November after finishing third behind American Pharoah in the Frontrunner G1 in September. In fact, Texas Red won $1.2 million in just six career races.

Instead of training for the “Run for the Roses,” though, the horse found himself in a swimming pool just north of Oakdale. Seriously.

Texas Red isn’t the first derby-quality horse to rehab at Premier Equine Center north of town. Co-owners Pat and Amie Grohl are getting more and more referrals from veterinarians who treat injured race, equestrian and rodeo horses. Those horses go to the Grohls for rehabilitation or simply for rest and relaxation. You might even think of the facility as a Club Med for horses, a rehab clinic for some and a spa for others.

“Sometimes, (the horses have) been working so much they just need a break,” Amie Grohl said. “They send them to us.”

The Grohls met on the rodeo circuit – Amie a barrel racer and Pat a team roper. They were married, and started their first horse rehab center near Jamestown, where he grew up.

“But we realized we needed to be down in the Valley to make it,” Pat Grohl said.

Pat is quick to point out neither he nor Amie are veterinarians. Simply put, they’ve been around horses their entire lives. Amie grew up in Arcadia and spent many weekends at the Santa Anita racetrack.

“I didn’t know then I’d be dealing with lots of those horses now,” she said.

They administer the rehabilitation programs prescribed by each horse’s vet.

“The hardest part is developing the trust with the vets,” he said.

They did that by spending time at the racetracks, trying to make the connections needed to have quality horses sent their way. They finally made it when they met racing trainer Jeff Bonde, who sent them a horse named Twice the Appeal. The horse won the 2011 Sunland Derby to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, where it finished 10th that same year, but later suffered a leg injury.

“He’d just run in the Kentucky Derby,” Pat Grohl said. “It’s something to have a horse insured for $3 million at your place. And Texas Red was insured for $7 million when we had him.”

They’ve worked with seven-time stakes race winner Smiling Tiger. They worked with Social Inclusion, who finished third in the Wood Memorial, the Preakness and the Woody Stephens G2 in succession in 2014 before suffering a tendon injury.

“We rehabbed him and got him back to Gulfstream (Park in Florida),” Grohl said. The horse finished second on his return to the track in April, and is expected to compete in an allowance race at Belmont on Saturday.

The Grohls have also tended to four-race winner Majestic Stride, El Camino Real Derby winner Metaboss and 2011 Preakness entry Sway Away, who is now retired at stud. Considering the money invested in horses, it’s a huge responsibility to be entrusted with working them back to the point where they can begin training again.

They’ve added a swimming pool, aquatic treadmill and cold-water treatment equipment over the past couple of years, giving them more options to help horses rehabilitate or rejuvenate. The pool enables horses to get in cardiovascular work without putting undue stress on the injured feet or legs. The key, Amie Grohl said, is to get the blood flowing to the injured areas.

“There’s no muscle below the knee and hock,” she said. “It’s hard to get the circulation going. Everything we do is to get circulation going again. The better the (blood) flow, the better the environment to heal.”

The animals can spend anywhere from a few weeks to several months there, she said. The goal for active racehorses is to get them back to the point where they can train for racing again. That included Texas Red, who hasn’t raced since February but did well during his rehab stint in Oakdale. He’s expected to return in July with an eye on being ready for the Travers Stakes in late August.

But could he have been the horse to upset American Pharoah? It’s a thought relegated to woulda-coulda-shoulda status.

Where to watch

The Belmont Stakes will be shown at the Turlock Turf Club at the Stanislaus County Fairgrounds on Saturday. The off-track betting facility opens at 8 a.m. Post time for the Belmont will be 3:50 p.m.