It's a cool, overcast August morning at Los Alamitos (Calif.) Race Course. Trainer Jake Cascio is sitting on a folding chair outside his tack room administering laser therapy to his 75-year-old left knee. A few feet away, in Stall 44, veterinarian Jeff Palmer runs a vibrator over the legs and body of a handsome chestnut quarter horse colt named Sail On Bunny. Horse owners have been known to resort to some far-out remedies, but the goings-on around Barn 21 are over the horizon.
What can you say about a 2-year-old colt who has been X-rayed, laser-beamed, acupunctured and "psychoanalyzed"? Well, you can say that he has won $908,837 in 10 lifetime starts. If he races again later this year, as expected, he could become—literally—a million-dollar baby. As it is, Bunny probably has 2-year-old quarter horse colt-of-the-year honors locked up. He has also been syndicated for more than $6 million. Not bad for a broken-down cripple, which is what Jake's son, Bubba, calls Sail On Bunny. Charles William (Bubba) Cascio, now 50, is also a trainer, and in August had his horses stabled on the other side of Barn 21. Invariably, before any race that both he and his father had horses in, Bubba walked by the old man and said, "Good luck, Daddy, I hope you run second." And invariably Jake replied, "Good luck to you, Son. I hope you get third."
A quarter horse race can be summed up as breaking well from the gate, running hell-for-leather down a straightaway and may the fastest horse win. Because the horses explode out of the gate, it isn't unusual for them to slam into each other at the start, which is what happened to Bunny last April in the Sun Country Futurity Trials at Sunland Park in New Mexico. Though bumped and injured, he finished second. When Cascio shipped Bunny the 800 miles to Los Alamitos, the colt was favoring his right foreleg and limping like an arthritic old man. And he had to get ready for the Kindergarten Stakes in June. Bunny was X-rayed fore to aft and top to bottom: Three track vets diagnosed his ailment as a primary shoulder injury.
Doc Palmer, however, was convinced the injury was a bone splint in the colt's right leg and proceeded to treat Bunny for that. Every morning Palmer would haul his Dynatron 820 Laser machine out to the barn, hook a ground wire to the colt's left leg and point a laser beam at the spot where he believed Bunny was injured. Palmer says the machine is an experimental tool. However, he says, "It seems to give immediate localized relief and reduce healing time by half." Palmer admits that when he first heard about the machine, he thought it was a bunch of hocus-pocus. In fact, he was about to send it back to the manufacturer when he sprained his wrist. So Palmer decided to try it out on himself. In no time the wrist was cured, he says.
Palmer, the colt's main vet, continued to minister to his charge every morning, and in addition to laser therapy, he devised an oxygen mask that fits over the horse's nose and mouth to combat the Southern California smog: "When it gets smoggy out here and I can't breathe, I figure the horse can't either," he says. He also injected the colt's knees with "rooster juice," otherwise known as hyaluronic acid, which is derived from rooster combs, among other sources. This concentrate adds hydrogen to the cartilage, Palmer claims, and increases the natural cushion for the knee joint.
What Palmer didn't know was that Cascio had also called in another vet, Ed Hill, to treat Bunny's shoulder with acupuncture in the afternoons. Acupuncture isn't unknown around racetracks. "I'd seen it work on other horses," Cascio said, "so I thought I'd give it a try." Well, the morning after his first treatment, the very sore Sail On Bunny was able to go for a light gallop. Hill practices what he calls auricular acupuncture, meaning the needles are placed in the ear. "That dilates the blood vessels," he says, "and releases the plugged-up qi, or life energy." Hill even seemed to have cleared up a skin rash on Bunny by sticking a few extra needles in the horse's ear.
The various treatments paid off. On June 19 Bunny won the $715,000 Kindergarten by a neck, covering the 350 yards in 17.74 seconds. The two vets, by now aware of each other, continued their treatments, pointing the colt toward the $1,075,000 Skoal Dash For Cash Futurity in mid-July. But was this enough protection for Cascio? Of course not. He called in a psychic, Beatrice Lydecker, 43, to commune with his horse. "She said he did have a sore shoulder," says Cascio, "and some leg problems, but that he would get better."
That was good news both for Cascio and for Jake Box, a 43-year-old wheat farmer from Portales, N. Mex. who's responsible for having brought Bunny into this world. In 1978, Box bought Bunny's dam, Miss Myrna Mix, for $500 plus a broodmare and a colt of hers and a yearling filly. Box bred Myrna Mix to Bunny Bid, who was standing in Vernon, Texas. Stud fee: $1,500. Result: Sail On Bunny. Then came the yearling sales at Ruidoso Downs, N. Mex. in September of last year. Box paid the $500 fee to auction Bunny off. "I figured he was worth around $14,000," says Box. Cascio, who was also at the sale, advised Box, an old friend, not to take less than $10,000. He thought Bunny's breeding, though not conventionally promising, was good. So when the bidding on the colt went to only $9,500, Box bid $10,000 and got his own horse back. Then he turned around and sold a half interest in the colt to a boyhood friend and fellow wheat farmer, Ray Starbuck.
No sooner did Sail On Bunny win the Skoal Dash For Cash than Oklahoma bloodstock agent and all-around mogul Don Tyner bought Bunny from the two wheat farmers for $4.5 million. It was Tyner who took charge of syndicating 150 breeding shares in Sail On Bunny, with Box and Starbuck retaining five shares each and Cascio getting two shares as a bonus. What this means in effect is that Casio will receive $45,000 a year for the next five years and to hell with Social Security.
But in the week leading up to August's $1,183,000 Fabergé Special Effort Futurity, Sail On Bunny was still sore. Palmer took to swigging Pepto Bismol, and nobody involved was getting any sleep. "You'd go to bed thinking about it," says Cascio. And then, on the Wednesday before the race, while being walked around outside the barn, Sail On Bunny started playing. On Thursday, Palmer declared the colt 80% sound. On Friday, Bunny was on the muscle. Cascio called out to his son, "You better get your dogs ready to catch the Bunny tomorrow."
Saturday night, before the race, Cascio was one of the first to get to the paddock, and here came Bunny, all full of himself and dancing.
At 11:13 p.m. the gates blew open and Bunny broke so hard he stumbled badly, going down on his right knee. His jockey, Gary Sumpter, quickly gathered the colt and they raced for the wire, making up so much ground that when they passed the halfway mark of the 440-yard race, Bunny was in second and gaining. When the leaders crossed the finish line 21.86 seconds after the start, what the photo finish showed was Bunny second to a 19-1 filly named Make Mine Cash. Although the official race chart reads that Bunny was beat a head, the margin was more like a couple of inches.
Cascio was a little depressed, but everyone went back to the barn and drank champagne anyway. Palmer said, "We feel the horse really did win. He showed everyone he's a true champion." Bubba's two horses, by the way, finished seventh and ninth in the 10-horse field.
Will Sail On Bunny win next time out and top $1 million? Will Bubba come back and beat the Old Man? Like all soap operas, this one has no ending, just the next episode. Stay tuned.