Seven years after Always B Miki’s paternal great-granddam ,Keystone Wallis, was rescued from slaughter, her daughter, Neverhaveneverwill, has karma to thank for the same fate.
by Dave Briggs
One month and a day after Always B Miki set the teletimer at Red Mile ablaze with the fastest mile in harness racing history, a serendipitous thing happened when his paternal granddam entered the sale ring at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, PA.
Neverhaveneverwill, a 21-year-old barren grey mare, was the third last horse to sell on Nov. 10 at the Harrisburg Mixed Sale and interest in the old pacer was less than tepid despite the fact she had produced 13 foals that that earned more than $1.5 million combined on the racetrack and racked up $431,000 in total sales at auction. Even the fact Neverhaveneverwill is the dam of Always A Virgin, the sire of Always B Miki, didn’t move the interest needle much except for one man whose staff insisted he buy her.
Always B Miki and Always A Virgin’s co-owner Mitchel Skolnick of Bluestone Farms of Hopewell, NJ laughingly said he was under so much duress from employees Kelly Detweiler and Emily Homan to buy Neverhaveneverwill that he bid on the mare twice before the gavel fell in his favor at $2,000.
“They are the two that got me in trouble,” Skolnick said, laughing. “Kelly saw her first (in the catalog) and told me I had to buy her. When I ignored her, she enlisted Emily’s support… Kelly has been working here for seven years and knows me well. She knows I get distracted pretty easily.”
When Skolnick was getting ready to leave the farm to drive to Harrisburg, Kelly told him, “Don’t leave without me” and jumped in Skolnick’s car. She wasn’t about to see Neverhaveneverwill fall into the wrong hands.
“We’ll feed (Neverhaveneverwill), keep her vet shots up and make sure her feet are trimmed properly and she’ll live out the rest of her life here,” Skolnick said.
The old grey mare already has a nickname at Bluestone. “They call her Willy Mare,” Skolnick said. “It’s because of Neverhaveneverwill.”
Rescuing Always B Miki’s granddam would be enough of a happy yarn, but here is where the story gets really interesting: The exact same thing happened to Neverhaveneverwill’s dam seven years ago. That mare, Keystone Wallis, was taken in by the woman that twice surgically repaired Always B Miki’s broken legs, putting him back on track, literally, to his 1:46 world record.
“When I found out it was Mitchel, I just couldn’t believe the irony there, that I had taken in the mother in 2009, because I was so touched by her story,” said Dr. Patty Hogan. “Then to have her end up being the familial line of a horse that was just a tremendous veterinary case for me… is really remarkable.”
Hogan said she didn’t realize until Skolnick bought Neverhaveneverwill that the mare was even related to Always B Miki or Keystone Wallis.
“I read about it in the Harrisburg News and I just couldn’t believe that someone would bring a mare down like that, at that age when barren, to sell at Harrisburg… She’s (now) a mare that is not very useful reproductively or economically and they can end up in a very bad place. That’s what happened with Wallis.”
Keystone Wallis, a grey daughter of Albatross out of Steel Wool, earned $618,256 on the track. With John Kopas at the helm, she won her Jugette heat in 1989 and finished fourth in the final won by Cheery Hello and John Campbell. More importantly, Keystone Wallis made an indelible impression on six-year-old Kate Miller that day. Twenty years later, when Miller saw Keystone Wallis’ name in a catalog for a mixed sale in Delaware, OH, the Pittsburgh woman cobbled together what she could and bought the mare for $150 to avoid Keystone Wallis from going to the killers.
“(Miller) knew, like most people know, that a horse like that is absolutely going to be bought by a person that is taking her to a slaughterhouse. There’s just no other purpose for this horse,” Hogan said. “So this 26-year-old girl went there on her own and, though she really didn’t have the means to do it, she just had to (buy Keystone Wallis).”
When Hogan heard the story, she called Miller and offered Keystone Wallis a home for life on the small farm she shares with her husband, horseman Eddie Lohmeyer.
“When I read it, I was so touched by the fact that this young girl just really made a tremendous gesture to save this mare,” Hogan said. “The year we got Wallis we put her in our clinic Christmas cards. She’s absolutely white now.”
Keystone Wallis is 31 today and happily living out her days in a paddock with Flat Foot Fluzy, the 29-year-old dam of Pacific Rocket ($2.33 million).
“She’s old, but she’s still in really good shape. She eats well and she’s attached to Fluzy and the two have just lived there for the last seven years since I’ve had her,” Hogan said.
Despite being a terrific racehorse, as a broodmare Keystone Wallis produced 14 foals with combined earnings of $464,863. Her 11 foals sold at auction fetched $345,000, combined, making Keystone Wallis’ total economic contribution just shy of $1 million, and that’s not counting what her progeny earned on the track.
“I just felt she deserved it. I didn’t know the horse before, but she had done so much, made $600,000 and she then had all these foals and was just dumped there. To me, it was representative of a lot of the issues we face with after care in this industry,” Hogan said. “It’s something that really bothers me about racing. I try to do the best I can, but it’s an industry-wide problem, thoroughbred and standardbred. I don’t have the total answer, but it just shouldn’t happen.”
Little did Hogan know at that time, but six years after taking in Keystone Wallis, the veterinary surgeon would be the person that not once, but twice, put the mare’s superstar great-grandson back together after injuries that threatened to end his career.
Hogan said she was watching the 2014 Breeders Crown at the Meadowlands when Always B Miki suffered a broken pastern in his left hind leg and had to be scratched from the final for sophomore pacers.
“It was a serious pastern fracture and we repaired it the next day with four screws. It was quite large and displaced,” Hogan said. “The repair went very well and I was confident, but I had to convince Mitchel (Skolnick) that the horse was going to be okay, because it’s very dramatic when you see it on the x-ray. He was such a good horse already, that this was so heartbreaking for his connections. But, those type of fractures, if the surgery goes well, they really do very well with them.”
Hogan said Always B Miki’s connections followed her instructions and by spring of 2015 the horse was back on the track and training well. That’s when he suffered a break in his other hind pastern.
“It was the right hind pastern this time, a similar long fracture, but not displaced,” Hogan said. “So, four screws again, and this time I really had to talk Mitchel off the ledge, because he just couldn’t understand if a horse with two broken legs could be anywhere as good as they expected him to be.
“But, in many cases I’d rather have a broken bone in a horse than a bowed tendon or suspensory injury or even some chips, because the bone tissue is one of the best-healing tissues in your whole body and those bones are the strongest bones in his body now that they’ve had the injury and been repaired. Bone is just an incredibly dynamic piece of tissue, so if you can get it together without any arthritis, you’re going to be golden… Veterinary medicine has progressed so well with fractures that in many cases it’s so routine, that if everything goes well, horses can be 100 per cent of what they were. That was the case with Miki.”
A year after Always B Miki was scratched from the Breeders Crown, Hogan said she cried watching Miki win the Crown for older pacers.
“Everyone else had raced all year and the fact that he got up to win that race convincingly… made me cry,” Hogan said. “It was a great feeling to be involved in fixing a horse with a really serious problem and then to be able to have him achieve what he was meant to achieve is really great. The (1:46) Lexington mile just blew my mind, but I was more impressed than sentimental… what an athlete.”
Hogan believes taking in Miki’s great-granddam years earlier may have been the karma she needed to successfully treat Miki.
“Years later to have this great interaction with this world champion horse that ended up being part of her lineage… Maybe it’s a good karma story,” Hogan said.
Karma was also on the side of Keystone Wallis’ daughter, Neverhaveneverwill, though she’s far from the only retired mare Skolnick has at his Bluestone Farms.
“I’m a big believer that most of us do it quietly and anonymously,” Skolnick said, adding he believes he has 17 retired mares under his care today.
“There’s many people out there like me, look at Russell Williams or Patty Hogan. I bet you almost everyone, Mark Mullen at Fair Winds, all of them, have plenty of retired mares. We feel if they have done something for us we have a responsibility to care for them for the rest of their lives. So we have a lot of retired mares here, and racehorses too. We have a couple that did well, but now have no use in the stallion barn, so we keep them.”
That said, Skolnick said the credit really goes to his staff.
“I can sum up my staff very quickly,” Skolnick said. “If I had kept every horse that they asked me to keep, I would have never sold a yearling, never sold a mare, never sold anything. They love every horse that’s on the farm… Every time I go to sell something they say, ‘I can’t believe it. You’re going to sell that mare?’ I’m going to put on my applications for employment in the future, ‘Have you ever heard of the Always A Virgin family?’ because, if you have, we’re not hiring you,” Skolnick said.
He’s kidding, of course, and punctuated his sentence with a deep laugh. Skolnick said doing the right thing, with or without the publicity, is well worth the $2,000 and the cost of Neverhaveneverwill’s ongoing care. Besides, the karma can’t hurt.
“It’s just incredibly ironic that Mitchel ended up to be the one to buy that mare,” Hogan said. “I spoke to him at Harrisburg and said, ‘Do you know that I have her mother from just the same scenario?’ And here we are, we basically got together because of Miki… The serendipity factor is tremendous in that story.”