In the spring of 2012, a senseless act resulted in a gunshot wound to the neck of young a standardbred horse named Phoos Boy. What followed was a truly remarkable story of heroism, bravery and the will to live. Story by Norm Borg with contributions by Brittney Mayotte
Do you believe in miracles? If not, perhaps you might want to talk with Robert Montgomery. The veteran horseman can show you that miracles do happen and you only have to look at his miracle colt, Phoos Boy, for proof.
It’s a cold February night on the backstretch at Rideau Carleton Raceway, and Montgomory’s four-year-old brown pacing gelding, Phoos Boy, is preparing to race. After a second place finish the week previous, Montgomery has reason to be optimistic.
“Am I nervous?” asks Montgomery. “Not a bit. Not after what we’ve been through with him.”
As he says the words, memories come flowing back from a day far from the race paddock at Rideau Carleton. It’s a long way from those dark days when his colt was just a foal - a foal that no one thought would survive.
Rewind back three and a half years. It’s Sunday, April 22, 2012, and a beautiful brown colt from the first crop of the ill-fated Art Colony is born at Dr. Garth Henry’s Russell Equine Veterinary Service clinic in Russell, Ontario. As the colt took his first breaths and learned to stabilize his wobbly legs, owner Bob Montgomery decided to name him Phoos Boy, a perfect fit for the son of his tough race mare Miss Poole, who was fondly referred to as ‘Phoo’ around the barn.
Phoos Boy developed into a strong and healthy foal, but that strength would be tested in the first few months of his life and those friendly faces that greeted him into the world would ultimately become his saviours.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 6, Miss Poole and her frisky two-and-a-half-month-old foal arrived at trainer Rod and Patsy Zeron’s farm in Bishops Mills, Ontario, located about half an hour from Rideau Carleton Raceway. The pair was turned out in their paddock for the evening with the Zerons checking in every few hours to make sure they were adjusting well to their new surroundings.
“We dropped him off in the afternoon and we went back at four and we went back at eight and my son lives over there and he checked at ten and all was fine,” recalled Patsy Zeron.
But sometime between late Friday night and early Saturday morning, the foal was involved in a tragic incident.
“My sister-in-law lives down the road and she was driving past our place and stopped to see the foal because she knew he was coming home, and found it lying down with all this blood on its neck,” said Zeron, who was immediately called to the scene. “But he’s such a little fighter, he kept walking the field. He just kept walking and walking and the mom was right behind him keeping anything else away from him.”
The strapping homebred colt was felled by the unthinkable.
While out in the paddock, Phoos Boy was the victim of a random shooter, whose bullet blew through his neck, leaving him helpless and bleeding profusely. The shooting created an entrance wound close to one inch in diameter and a horrific exit wound nearly 10 inches wide. The blood loss was massive.
He was sent back to the clinic where he was born, where he was attended to by Dr. Tiffany Richards. “When he got here he was somnolent (very quiet) because he was in shock” recalled Dr. Richards. X-rays were taken to determine if any of the vertebrae were damaged which could drastically reduce his chances of survival. Once it was established that a) there was no shrapnel in the wound and b) the vertebrae seemed to be all intact with no spinal damage, the colt could then be stabilized on a regimen of IV fluids and anti inflammatories to help with the pain. His neck was about three to four times the normal size.
Following the incident Dr. Richards said Phoos Boy initially had difficulty nursing due to his injuries, preventing him from turning his head, and he was reluctant to bottle feed.
“I would say that he was kind of behind nutritionally for a couple of weeks until he discovered that hay and grain were also delicious. And then he actually did regain his ability to nurse.”
Montgomery was shocked at what he saw. “I didn’t think he was going to make it,” he said. “When I got to the clinic the hole on the right side of his neck was the size of an egg and the hole on his left side of the neck was the size of a football. I put a flashlight to his neck and could see his vertebrae. I kept thinking, he’s going to have to be put down.”
What happened next is the beginning of a relationship so unique to harness racing, and the stuff of which miracles are made. “I walked into the stall and he came over to me and put his head against my belly and I said, ‘that’s it buddy. We’re going to try and save you.’”
Montgomery put his money where his mouth is, spending tens of thousands of dollars in treatments, even offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person responsible. At first a coyote attack was suspected, but ammunition experts identified the bullet as an open tip rifle bullet, generally used for hunting large animals as they maximize tissue damage and blood loss upon impact. “We put it down to kids with a car, a case of beer and a gun. To this day, the perpetrators remain at large.”
And so the tenuous journey began. The surgery, the treatments, the disappointments; none of which have fazed Montgomery. “I’ve got thousands and thousands of dollars invested in this horse so when I made the decision to save him that was it. I keep track of every penny I spend on a horse and I’ve had many. Some were real good but I’ve spent more on this horse than any of the other ones I’ve had. He’s sort of my miracle baby and I’m giving him every chance in the world to try and become a racehorse.”
Montgomery says once the healing process was complete there were the ups and downs of training. “We went through his two-year-old and three-year-old years of training with no luck at all, and it’s really been just the last month or so that he’s turned around. The last time he raced was the first time he ever had an inside position. He finished second and paced his mile in 1:59.3. He did it the right way and came from behind, and that’s the first time he showed me that he can be a racehorse. As Dr. Henry says, he has a great will to live and he wasn’t going to lie down and die.”
Phoos Boy is currently trained and driven by Steve Norris, and Montgomery credits the conditioner for much of the success achieved in getting the colt to the races. “There isn’t too much we haven’t tried with him. We’ve tried magnetic blankets, I’ve ordered a magnetic brace from the U.S as well as a laser-type machine that he’s been wearing that seems to help.
“He had an awful time in his two-year-old season of not being able to get his head down to the ground to eat hay, but with all the work we’ve done with him, he can eat hay off the ground as good as any horse can. He also has near full mobility of his head. The only quirky thing about him is that we race him without a check which makes him go straight as a dime”
Trainer Norris says things are getting better for Phoos Boy but it’s still a lot of work. “He’s getting better with all the work that’s gone into him. Now we have an equine chiropractor seeing him and that has helped too. But it’s a job. He has one rib out of alignment along with a couple of vertebrae that are out of whack but the chiropractic treatments seem to be helping.
The one drawback is that the chiropractic treatments do leave Phoos Boy feeling a little stiff, but Norris believes he has a solution. “I’m hoping to get his chiro work done four or five days before he races to give him a chance to loosen up. Norris also says Phoos Boy is developing the desire to be a racehorse. “At first, he couldn’t finish the last quarter better than :32 seconds. He would just stop. Now he wants to go on with the other horses and compete. And overall, he’s just a joy to be around. I can do anything with him, heck I could send a kid out to jog him he’s so friendly.”
Phoos Boy still bears the scars of his ordeal but as far as Montgomery is concerned, the scars are a badge of courage. “If you look at him today on the right hand side, there’s an indentation there that’s the size of an egg. And if you look at him on the left hand side where the bullet came out [it was the size of a football] now it’s still a large indentation. If you rub your hand on it you stand back and say –oh my god! How did he survive?”
Montgomery says the spunk shown in that last effort brought back memories of the colt’s Cambest-dam, Miss Poole. “She was an honest mare, and always came from behind. She won me $183,000 and she did it the hard way - no stakes.”
What expectations does Montgomery have for Phoos Boy? “I’d really like to get a win with him. If I can get a win that would really be something.”
If that part of the miracle doesn’t happen, there are still better days ahead for Phoos Boy. Montgomery is fully committed to making sure the gelding has a great life in retirement regardless of when it happens. “If he doesn’t make it, I have a vet who will take him and find him a good home for the rest of his life.”
The love of a horse combined with the will to live; a combination that has made for yet another miracle story in the sport we love.