An App for Winning - by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the August 4, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell

Racing fans who stuck around for the last race at Saratoga July 21 witnessed a miracle.

At a glance the race appeared to be an ordinary 51⁄2-furlong  $25,000 maiden claiming race for 3-year-olds and up on the grass. In the field, however, was Cozy App, a 3-year-old filly who a year ago was at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center battling for her life. Because she had been getting the best veterinary care available, her chances of surviving a severe case of fibrinous pleuropneumonia were decent, but the chances of her recovering well enough to resume training—let alone become a winner—were slim to none.

And yet, here she was at Saratoga, rounding the turn in her eighth start since Feb. 26, chasing down the leaders, and hitting the wire in front by a length.

“She is a remarkable filly,” said Dr. Michelle Abraham, a native of Australia who treated Cozy App at New Bolton. “The ones who pull through and get back into racing condition are rare.”

Cozy App is co-owned by Sharon Biamonte and Peregrination Farm, which is owned by Phyllis Sallusto, wife of the filly’s trainer Justin Sallusto. Bred in New York by Dr. Frank Ariosta and Peggy Ariosta, the daughter of Aptitude had been purchased by Biamonte for $9,500 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Fall yearling sale. Biamonte then sold part of the horse to her long-time partners, the Sallustos.

The filly first became sick in late June 2011. Despite initial treatments with antibiotics, her health spiraled downward quickly. Some tough decisions had to be made.

“I’ve never seen one with this survive,” said Justin Sallusto, who has had a trainer’s license since 1981. “Usually they die within the first couple of weeks.”

No one would have faulted the owners had they cut their losses and had the filly euthanized. She was facing months of expensive treatment and rehabilitation, a high risk of developing laminitis, and the likelihood she would never become any sort of athlete, even if she survived.

“Many horses with this will just go down, but she refused and would not go down,” Sallusto said. “I thought, ‘If she’s willing to fight, then I’m going to fight.’ Even if she didn’t make it as a racehorse, I thought she deserved to live.”

Abraham is serving her residency in internal medicine at New Bolton. She got Cozy App’s case because she was on duty when the filly was brought in. Cozy App had a severe bacterial infection and a lot of fluid in her lungs.

“There is a lot of pain associated with this disease,” Abraham said. “She had complications with a lot of lung abscesses. She lost a lot of lung tissue.”

Sometimes the treatment for this disease is as scary as the illness, according to Abraham. She eventually had to cut a 20 centimeter hole between a couple of ribs and insert tubes to flush out abscesses that had filled up the front half of one lung and allow fluid to drain.

“There is a more radical procedure that involves removing a rib so you can clean the area out, but once you do that, they can never race,” Abraham said.

The New Bolton vet said the filly’s tough mental attitude and the tremendous support she got from New Bolton’s pain management specialists contributed to Cozy App’s recovery.

“She was determined and could deal with a certain amount of discomfort,” Abraham said. “Some of the racehorses can be a handful. They are fit and then they get stuck in a stall. Some of them start to feel so rotten they may choose not to eat. She was very expressive, and we learned quickly what she liked and what she didn’t. She also seemed to understand that what we were doing was being done to help her.”

After a couple of months at New Bolton, Cozy App started gaining weight and her attitude brightened. She was shipped to Stockland Farm near the Sallustos’ home in Colts Neck, N.J., to finish her recovery. Angel Rosa, who works for Sallusto, took over the job of treating Cozy App around the clock, continuing the antibiotics and flushing out her abscesses. Being on the farm where she could be outside and grazing, the filly thrived, and by November the young warrior was back in training.

“You have to give the owners a lot of credit,” said Dr. Keith Evringham, who is Sallusto’s vet. “They were willing to give her the best treatment at tremendous expense.”

In all, Sallusto estimated they spent $30,000 on Cozy App’s treatment, but said it was money well spent.

“She has never shown any effects from the illness,” Sallusto said. “She showed me as we trained that she could do more. I’m telling you, from where she was, how sick she was, to that race at Saratoga, we saw a miracle.”

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