A big heart is helping with Wheels On Fire’s recovery

The Saturday night Mohawk fan favorite, injured in an accident on North America Cup night, will not race again in 2023, said owner Brad Grant.

by Melissa Keith

On June 17 at Woodbine Mohawk Park, the wheels stopped rolling behind one of the track’s most popular pacers.

Although a 74-1 longshot in the $100,000 Mohawk Gold Cup Invitational, Wheels On Fire (p, 4, 1:48.1m; $907,873) and regular driver Doug McNair were well-positioned approaching three-quarters, right behind pacesetter Billy Clyde. When that leader jumped off-stride, under pressure from first-over Linedrive Hanover, a cascade of interference unfurled in his wake. After the race, driver Mark MacDonald told AGCO judges that Billy Clyde had hit his knee and cross-fired, resulting in the ill-timed break.

Every horse behind Billy Clyde was affected. Two went down: Whichwaytothebeach and Wheels On Fire. An ominous silence hung over the crowd as Abuckabett Hanover, in line to Dexter Dunn, went on for the 1:47.2 victory. Both of the fallen horses were able to get back on their feet. Whichwaytothebeach’s driver Travis Cullen went to hospital after being checked out by paramedics. Wheels On Fire collapsed to his knees, miraculously raised himself to all four legs, and walked off the track, along with McNair.

Whichwaytothebeach returned to the races after wiring the field in a Pocono qualifier on July 26, even winning his next Mohawk visit on Aug. 19 for Cullen and trainer Desiree Jones, in a prep for the Canadian Pacing Derby.

Wheels On Fire’s ongoing absence from the WMP free for all/preferred is another story. The largest horse at the Campbellville track left some big shoes to fill on Saturday nights.

Wheels On Fire profile appeared in the Dec. 3, 2022 issue of HRU.

On Friday (Sept. 15), owner Brad Grant updated HRU about his gelding’s whereabouts and progress. Wheels On Fire is back at trainer Richard Moreau’s stable, making a slow and steady return to health after the career-disrupting accident.

“The worst part was I wasn’t at the track that night,” Grant said of Wheels On Fire’s last, but not necessarily final, race. “I was away, but I was able to slip away and put it on the computer and watch it. It’s unfortunate. Could have been worse. Thankfully, Dougie wasn’t hurt, and the horse was able to get up and get off the track on his own steam.”

Now eight years old, Wheels On Fire was voted the 2021 O’Brien Older Pacing Horse of the Year after joining Grant’s stable in 2020. The former Ron Burke trainee won his Mohawk debut on Feb. 15 of that year.

“He was a consistent Saturday night horse,” said the Milton, ON-based owner. “He didn’t always win, but he was always in the race… I found out things after the accident, you know: I think he had a bigger fan base than we realized, because there was a lot of people who had reached out to the University [of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary Hospital], Equine Guelph, when he was up there, and reaching out to Richard and I, asking how he is. We appreciate everybody’s concern. I think he was a couple of weeks there, and then we were able to ship him back to Richard Moreau’s place.”

The gelded son of Somebeachsomewhere—Ab Fab has 47 wins from 147 lifetime starts, and has raced every year since eligible. He will be sidelined for the remainder of the 2023 season, however.

“He’s been doing pretty well,” Grant said. “From June until last week, he’s been basically stall-bound, and he is now out, being able to walk and jog very, very lightly. He still can’t be turned out in the paddock yet. We don’t want him running full-bore.”

Recovery has been gradual for Wheels On Fire, who hit the track hard in the Mohawk Gold Cup.

“Richard’s team, they’ve done a great job nursing him along and looking after him, keeping the wounds clean and bandages changed and everything else,” Grant said. “A lot of his getting back will be because of the care and the attention he’s got from Richard’s team.”

With the pacer’s absence from the track entering its third month, Grant said there’s no timetable for a potential return.

“It’s a long process,” he said. “He’s lucky that he’s hopefully able to come back, and you know, we keep our fingers crossed. To be very candid and honest, if he doesn’t come back to be the horse he was, he will not race again.”

The pacer’s injuries were severe, but not sufficient to warrant considering euthanasia, said Grant.

“Unless his vets said there was no chance of anything ever healing, or something like that, the thought of euthanizing him was never there,” Grant said. “If they said, ‘This horse is never going to race again; it’s going to cost ‘x’ amount to get him sound, to be just a horse,’ I would have been fine with that. That was never mentioned.”

Wheels On Fire’s future will include a dignified retirement, whenever the time comes. Next year, he will ideally qualify at Woodbine Mohawk Park and begin his return to high-level competition. Grant cautioned against overly-optimistic expectations.

“I don’t expect you’ll see him on the track, anywhere near the track, ready to qualify, if he comes back, any time before early next spring,” Grant said. “Richard knows my feeling on it is, ‘Take all the time you need.’”

It’s too soon to know what to expect next season, even if Wheels On Fire does make it back to his home track.

“I guess we’ll find out once we start back with him, whether he’s going to be the ‘Wheels’ of old, or through Joanne Colville [administrator/coordinator for the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society] and her team, we’ll find a great second home for him, if he needs it,” Grant said.

The only certainty is that Grant will be looking out for the gentle giant’s best interests, whatever they may be.

“His resume will not show racing in cheap claimers,” he said. “He’ll retire a preferred horse on the WEG circuit. I stay in touch with Richard and I know he’s in great hands over there… He’s more than a pet over there. He’s a part of the family.”

While his outsized physique didn’t spare him from injury in his most recent start, Wheels On Fire’s comeback is now being guided by it.

“I just know he’s got a big heart, as well as a big body,” Grant said. “He’s got a huge, huge heart, and I think that’s got a lot to do with it. I’ve just made the decision: The horse will tell us what he’s going to be able to do. If he can’t be the horse he was, then he’s retired.”

Note: Woodbine Mohawk Park will have earlier post times Sept. 19 and 21 for the RCMP Musical Ride performances those nights. Post time for live racing on Tuesday (Sept. 19) and Thursday (Sept. 21) is 5:35 p.m.