Updated: Oct 9
Laminitis can be a devastating diagnosis for a racehorse. This extremely painful inflammation and damage of the laminae (layers of tissue) in the hoof causes lameness and may result in a horse needing to be euthanized if treatment does not improve its condition. Famed horses like Barbaro, Bernardini, Sunday Silence, Affirmed, and Secretariat all succumbed to laminitis. However, the battle with laminitis is not always lost. Some Thoroughbreds even recover well enough to return victoriously to racing. Brazilian Triple Crown winner Bal a Bali was lucky enough to be one of these success stories.
Life as Brazil's Superstar (2010 - 2014):
Brazilian banker Julio Bozano, owner of Haras Santa Maria de Araras, bred the Grade 3 winning mare In My Side to Grade 2 winner Put It Back to produce Bal a Bali. The dark bay Put It Back colt was a stunner from the start; he was described as having eye-catching conformation and a serene personality as a young horse (BloodHorse).
As a yearling Bal a Bali caught the eye of businessman Alvaro Novis, who purchased and would campaign him in Brazil. The colt’s talent became immediately apparent when his racing career began; he won three of four starts as a two-year-old, including the Classico Jose Calmon and Mario de Azevedo Riberio (G3). He was sensational as a three-year-old, finishing the year undefeated in eight starts including the three races that comprise the Brazilian Triple Crown: the Estado do Rio de Janeiro (G1), Francisco Eduardo de Paula Machado (G1), and Grande Premio Cruzeiro do Sul (G1). He captured the first race of the Crown in a race record and nearly world-record time of 1:31.36 for 1600 meters and the third race in the track record time of 2:23.25 for 2400 meters (Siena Farm). Bal a Bali followed up his record-setting Triple Crown wins with a victory in a Group 2 race. He then captured the Gran Premio Brazil (G1), a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Though Bal a Bali had secured himself a spot in the Breeders’ Cup, his owner Novis did not race his horses outside of Brazil. Thus, the calls from Americans interested in purchasing Bal a Bali started to come in.
Novis originally wanted $2.5 million dollars for his superstar, but no one was willing to pay such a high price for the horse at that point. After some negotiation through bloodstock agent John Fulton, Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farms partnered with Siena Farm and offered $1.5 million for Bal a Bali; Novis accepted and the horse was flown from Brazil to Miami, Florida.
Arrival to the States & the Start of a Long Battle:
Things weren’t well when Bal a Bali arrived for quarantine in Florida; he had a scrape and swelling on his leg. He was standing, but he did not want to move. Veterinarians knew immediately that this was not good and it was soon revealed that Bal a Bali had laminitis in both front feet, with the right being worse than the left (Thoroughbred Daily News).
The Brazilian Triple Crown winner was sent to Palm Beach Equine Clinic, where a makeshift quarantine section was set up and treatment immediately began. Siena Farm’s Anthony Mangarnaro suggested the use of a cold-water spa, which he said had been helping his own horses at the farm. The Palm Beach Clinic did not have one, so Porter found, purchased, and shipped one to the clinic from Orlando.
Bal a Bali was able to stand in the cold-water spa for eight hours a day over a few day period for cryotherapy, or intense cold application, which has been shown to decrease the severity of damage caused by laminitis (Hoofcare). “We also injected him with several doses of stem cells into the bone marrow, and harvested and grew more for further injections,” Dr. Dryden (Rood & Riddle) said in an interview with BloodHorse. “He had coffin bone displacement and rotation, the coffin bone rotating in a downward direction away from the hoof wall. It was pretty serious. I opened a big abscess on the bottom of his foot and saw the outline of his coffin bone. We treated that with sterile maggots to prevent him getting coffin bone sepsis. He also had some medical issues with his kidneys and dorsal colitis. He had a gamut of issues and was a pretty sick boy for a while. He was definitely a lucky guy to get through it.”
Thanks to the diligent work of the veterinarians at Palm Beach Clinic and to Rick Poter and Anthony Mangarnaro for doing everything they could for Bal a Bali regardless of the price, the horse seemed to have made a miraculous recovery in just two months' time. He left Palm Beach Clinic in a van and headed for Siena Farm in Paris, Kentucky for the rest of his recovery. Bal a Bali continued his cold-water spa treatments daily and received another dose of stem cell treatments at Siena Farm. Eventually, he was put on a walker with increasing weights to help him rebuild muscle.
Not only had Bal a Bali recovered from laminitis, but he had regained enough strength to return to race training. By the year's end, he was headed for WinStar Farm for training. Porter told TDN that Bal a Bali “caused quite a ruckus when he saw the horses on the WinStar training track”, so they took it as a sign that he was ready to get back to doing what he was best at - running.
Return to Stardom:
In May of 2015, Brazil’s Horse of the Year and Champion Three Year Old was ready to make his stateside debut in the aptly named American Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita Park for Richard Mandella. Bal a Bali was favored to win the race despite everything that he had been through.
Carrying Fox Hill Farm’s red and white colors, Bal a Bali broke on the outside and settled in the middle of the pack. He tore through horses at the top of the stretch and fought hard to prevail in his first race in almost a year. It was a rewarding and very emotional moment for everyone who had worked so hard to get the horse through his life-threatening laminitis.
[Video: Watch Bal a Bali win the American Stakes (G3)]
Bal a Bali finished 5th in his next race, the Shoemaker Mile (G1), and soon after a tiny chip was found in his ankle. He underwent treatment and returned for the Del Mar Handicap (G2) in August, but again finished 5th. The Brazilian horse won an Allowance Optional Claimer at Del Mar in October and then finished out the year with a second-place finish to Midnight Storm in the Seabiscuit Handicap (G2).
2016 began on a similar note for Bal a Bali. He was third in three consecutive graded stakes races: San Gabriel Stakes (G2), Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1), and San Francisco Mile Stakes (G3). After a fourth-place finish in the Charles Whittingham Stakes (G2) and an 8th in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) - the worst finish of the horse’s entire career - he finally got the chance to truly shine again.
The Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1) in March of 2017 was Bal a Bali’s first start since June 2016. Richard Mandella felt that the horse had “soured” in 2016 and suggested some time off to the colt’s new owners Calumet Farm, who already had him listed on their website for a stud fee of $10,000. "I gave him some time off, and they thought, if he didn't train well, he could go to stud," Mandella said to BloodHorse. "But he was training too good to go to stud." The betting public was not so sure that all Bal a Bali needed was some time off and they made him the longest shot on the board. Nevertheless, the Brazilian horse broke well from gate one and settled on the rail in fourth. Jockey Javier Castellano moved him to the outside at the top of the stretch and the pair set their sights on the pacesetter What A View, who was moving away from the field. In a sheer display of determination, Bal a Bali began charging down the stretch towards What A View, eating away at the distance between them with every powerful stride. Bal a Bali thrust his head past What A View just as they came under the wire - Richard Mandella was right, Bal a Bali was too good to be retired.
[Video: Watch Bal a Bali edge What A View in the Frank E. Kilroe (G1)]
The win gave Bal a Bali’s connections enough confidence to send him to Kentucky for the Wood Reserve Turf Classic (G1), but he could do no better than 5th. Bal a Bali was sent back to his home of California for the Shoemaker Mile (G1), a race he had tried to win (but finished 5th in) in 2015. He was the third betting choice with Heart to Heart favored to win the one-mile turf race. Bal a Bali broke out a bit and settled in 5th while the favorite Heart to Heart led the way.
Jockey Mike Smith angled Bal a Bali to the outside at the top of the stretch and they began making a drive towards Heart to Heart, who was beginning to open up an advantage on the rest of the field. Similar to his win in the Frank E. Kilroe, Bal a Bali chased after Heart to Heart with pure determination, lessening the distance between them with every stride. Just moments before the wire, Bal a Bali and Mike Smith made it past the favorite and won the race by ¾ lengths.
“He's always been a great horse," Mandella said in a post-race interview. "He's had some problems in his life and overcame them. He's very fortunate to have had two sets of owners that are the best in the business and were willing to let me do what's right for him, and the fruits of that are what we saw today."
[Video: Watch Bal a Bali win the Shoemaker Mile (G1)]
The Shoemaker win gave Bal a Bali an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), therefore his connections set their sights on the prestigious turf race. His next prep for the Breeders’ Cup was the Del Mar Mile Handicap (G2), but he finished last in a field of 6. Though the Calumet horse came out of the race okay, Richard Mandella didn’t think it would be fair to run the horse in the Breeders’ Cup without being at the top of his form. The decision was made to retire him.
Bal a Bali ended his career with a record of 26:15-1-4 and more than $1.2 million in earnings.
Retirement & Stud Career:
Bal a Bali was retired to Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I think the interesting thing for breeders also is to take a look at his conformation,” Calumet Farm quotes Richard Mandella. “He’s made like our American Horses. He’s got a deep strong shoulder, a very strong hip on him, stout as a bull. Surely he had the laminitis and the problem coming out of quarantine but this horse retired sound with legs as clean as a baby.”
Bal a Bali currently has two crops of racing age and 22 winners from 56 starters. He got his first win as a sire when Tapit Doux broke her maiden by 9 ¾ lengths at Horseshoe Indianapolis (Indiana Grand) on May 18, 2021. He got his first stakes winner when Corner Office won Belterra Park’s Hoover Stakes by two lengths on July 23, 2021.
Bal a Bali’s story is one of patience and determination. He was a sensational horse during his two and three-year-old season in Brazil, capturing their Triple Crown and being named the country’s Horse of the Year and Champion Three Year Old in 2014.
His battle with laminitis could have ended tragically, but his owners Rick Porter (Fox Hill Farm) and Anthony Mangarnaro (Siena Farm) would not give up on him. They spent every dollar necessary to get their horse back to optimal health. Their patience and love for him, alongside the hard work of all the veterinarians who cared for him, allowed him to return to racing victoriously - a feat that not many horses accomplish.
Bal a Bali’s courage and heart was displayed both on the track and in his fight with laminitis. For that, his story will be remembered and retold by racing fans forever.
Thank you to Nicole Meiner for the photos of Bal a Bali that accompany this aritcle. You can see more of Nicole's work on her Facebook page: The Girl With The Ball Cap
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