Racing fans over the past several years have held extended vigils, some lasting for months, for stricken horses such as Barbaro, Paynter, and most recently Rachel Alexandra. During those times, the internet was inundated with prayers for these courageous equine heroes who fought for life as hard as they fought for victory on the racetrack.
This past February, those prayers circulated throughout Facebook and Twitter, as thousands of anguished horse lovers and fans of Rachel Alexandra expressed their heartfelt feelings for the great mare whose life was in danger following surgery to repair her damaged colon suffered after foaling a strapping 140-pound filly.
As the masses followed the 7-year-old mare’s condition, a relationship was forming that would change the life of Brent Comer, medical technician at Rood & Riddle Veterinary Clinic, and very well may have altered the fate of Rachel Alexandra.
No one can explain the bond humans have had with horses through the centuries or the dedication of individuals in cases like those mentioned above. In Rachel’s case, the public was made aware of the heroic efforts of internal medicine veterinarian Bonnie Barr, who had been taking care of Rachel since she arrived at Stonestreet Farms, and surgeon Brett Woodie in helping to save Rachel’s life.
But behind the scenes was Comer, whose devotion to Rachel Alexandra went far beyond the limits expected of any person. Comer seemed to have found his niche in life working at Rood & Riddle, assisting Dr. Barr. He was happy doing what he loved and was appreciative of the six years of training he was provided by the clinic. For the past two years, his job entailed everything from neo-natal to emergency care.
Comer didn’t become a racing fan until later in life, but he and his wife of five years Robin have been involved with horses. In addition to Robin working at the sales, they own one broodmare and eight trail horses that they keep on their small farm in Georgetown.
After Rachel gave birth, Comer and Dr. Barr went to Stonestreet to perform their regular check-up on Rachel, but didn’t like what they saw.
“The foaling was uneventful, but afterward, she just didn’t look normal,” Comer said. “We weren’t happy with the way she looked, so we took her in to check her out and that’s when it was discovered she excessive fluid in the abdomen and needed to have surgery.”
Comer rode with Rachel back to Rood & Riddle and was with her through the entire six-hour surgery. For the next several months he would rarely leave her side. It was at the clinic that Comer met Stonestreet owner Barbara Banke for the first time.
“We took Rachel out of surgery around 12 or 1 a.m. and I lay with her in the stall, along with Dr. Eric Carlson, who was an intern at the time,” Comer said. “We stayed with her until she was able to stand on all four legs. We actually kept her in a stall near the surgery room for a few days to get her acclimated. We ran her fluids in there and I stayed with her for 72 hours straight, right through Valentine’s Day.
“I nearly got divorced over it,” he kidded. “Rachel became known as the other woman in my life. I just sat in a chair most of the time and I was happy as can be just being close to her. It was unreal how Rachel and I bonded. It was really something special. I sat with her 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I groomed her every day. I walked her every day. I was the one who administered every medication to her. It was unbelievable and unheard of that she even survived the surgery. It was very bad. She had ruptured her colon and had fecal matter in her abdomen. Horses normally don’t survive from that. I don’t know of any other horse would have lived through that. She’s such a fighter. She could tell we were trying to help her and she let us do whatever we needed to do. It was amazing. And it was amazing for me, because I was with her from the very beginning until now. It was something I wish everyone in the medical field could experience.
“It was hard, especially me knowing the background of this kind of surgery and the risks and the percentage of horses who make it. And me being with her every single day, it was not easy. I had really grown attached to her, and if something had happened I would have been devastated. I probably would have had to quit my profession. I mean three months being with one horse; that’s a long time.”
It wasn’t until Rachel was back at the farm for two months that it was determined she was out of the woods, because there is always the risk of complications from surgeries of this type. But they felt it was it was time for her to get back to the farm where they could take care of her in that setting rather than standing in the same stall all day long.
“When we brought her back, Barbara said to me, ‘Brent, she loves you. The two of you have bonded, and you have seen her and been with her from day one. You’ll be the first one who will know if anything changes.’ So, I ended up staying at the farm with Rachel every day for two months while still employed by Rood & Riddle. Instead of going to the clinic I went straight to the farm. I gave her all her medications and hand-walked her and then introduced her to the round pen outside and slowly made the round pen bigger until she was completely turned out in the paddock.”
It was during this time that Comer realized how much he loved being at the farm and around Rachel. And he enjoyed working with everyone at Stonestreet. That’s when his entire life changed. Banke offered him a job at the farm as medical care manager and layup care manager and he gladly accepted.
“I take care of all the horses that are sent there, set up medical treatment plans, and order all the medications,” Comer said. “And I work with the veterinarians. I also take care of any of the layups that come in from the track; horses that are injured or need surgery or are just sent there for a vacation. And of course, I visit Rachel every day and make sure she’s doing well.
“Because of Rachel, my path in life did a complete 180 for the better. I never could have imagined this; I’m loving every minute of it. Rachel was one of my favorite fillies on the track and I followed her and rooted for like everybody else. Just to get to look at her on the farm before all this happened was a special feeling. To be able to go in every morning and see her and get to pet her and talk to her is just amazing.”
Comer has met a number of Rachel fans and is a regular poster on various Facebook pages, most notably “Loving Rachel.” He has met a group of devoted fans who call themselves Rachel’s “Godmothers” and had breakfast with them at the Keeneland track kitchen.
What impressed Comer about Rachel in addition to her courage and will to live was how she has maintained that competitive spirit.
“So many of these horses come off the track and they quickly turn into the so-called old broodmare,” Comer said. “Not Rachel. You would think she’s still on the track. You still have to use a chain to handle her. If you put her back on the track she’d whip those boys all over again. It’s amazing to me. The first time I turned her out, she was just rippin’ around there. She’s a diva, I’m not kidding. When she sees a camera, she knows she’s on and she poses.”
Comer cannot heap enough praise on Banke, who has allowed the public to visit Rachel on several “Open House” days and has done so much for the industry and the horses since the death of her husband, Jess Jackson.
“Barbara is an amazing lady,” Comer said. “She cares so much about her horses. Every one of our horses who comes back from racing that is not a stallion prospect, we geld them and send them to New Vocations (adoption program), which finds them a new home and a new job. She doesn’t want anything bad to ever happen to any of her horses. It would be a whole different industry if there were more people like her.”
Comer and his wife plan to move to a new home on Stronestreet property in October. It is obvious that Comer owes so much to Rachel and vice versa. This is an example of how one horse can change an entire life. But it was Comer’s total dedication to that one horse that made it all happen.
“I’m still in shock to be honest with you,” he said.
If there is one moment that stands out for Comer, it was riding back to Stonestreet in the trailer with Rachel after she was released from the hospital. As they neared the farm, Rachel did something that Comer will never forget.
“It was one of the best moments of her recovery for me,” he said. “When we turned on to Elkchester Road alongside the farm, Rachel let out a cry like she was letting the other horses know she was home. It was unbelievable. When we pulled up to the barn, a banner from the fairgrounds track that the farm staff had made her was hanging on the barn, with thousands of signatures.
“All I can say is, Rachel is an amazing horse, and I thank Stonestreet Farms every day for letting me become a part of the team.”