Near Mitchell, SD – For two years, Heliskier was the dominant Minnesota bred horse in training. There was simply no local horse who could come close to him. Though he eventually proved to be vulnerable, he was still very much a Canterbury Park fan favorite and on Minnesota Festival of Champions Day last August, the former champion met the aspiring champion, Bourbon County, in the Crocrock Minnesota Sprint Championship in one of the most anticipated races of the season.
Bourbon County took to the lead early while Heliskier was wide throughout. Though the youngster prevailed, the old champion did not go down without a fight, closing to a length and ¾ down the lane, giving every ounce of energy in the effort.
After the race, the old warrior came back a bit off. There was no pinpointing the cause and while he wasn’t lame, he wasn’t exactly moving right either. As in past years, Heliskier prepared to spend the winter at home with owner Marlene Colvin in South Dakota at the farm where he grew up. But as family friend Eric von Seggern prepared to transport Heliskier home, he knew something was just not right.
“Eric called me and said, ‘Marlene, he just can’t come home and get turned out. I’m going to bring him to home to Nebraska and get him checked out by Doc Brunk,’” recalled Colvin.
Dr. Douglas Brunk, one of the top equine surgeons in the region is based in Grand Island, Nebraska, not far from Von Seggern’s home. As it turned out, Heliskier had been injured in that last race with a hairline fracture and some knee chips in his right front leg.
“Dr. Brunk was going to do the surgery and he was very concerned about ’Skier hurting the leg coming out of anesthesia so we had to wait until the hairline fracture healed,” said Colvin.
When horses exit anesthesia they can panic when they come out of it, potentially hurting themselves worse than when they went under. The most famous example is that of the legendary filly Ruffian when, after extensive surgery to repair a shattered leg after her match race with Foolish Pleasure in 1975, she came out of anesthesia thrashing violently, shattering her cast and destroying her leg beyond the point of repair. It was best to wait until Heliskier’s fracture was nearly healed in order to provide the best chance of recovery.
“Eric hand walked him every day and we kept that up until December 5 when the fracture was healed enough for the surgery to be done.
“I told Eric, ‘you have to go there with him, I’m not going along!’” reminisced Colvin, very much like a concerned mother that can’t bear to watch her child get a shot. “Then Eric called and said that they came out of surgery with the thumbs up and everything went just great!”
He recuperated with Von Seggern until his 30-day follow up appointment. The follow up imaging showed not only a completely healed fracture and an absence of bone chips and as an added bonus, no sign of arthritis either. A clean bill of health all the way around.
“I give Eric all the credit in the world. He needed to be hand-walked before and after and he spent all the time and effort to make sure he was okay. I’m very grateful,” said Colvin.
Von Seggern took the time to help while working to rebuilding his own life, shattered by a tornado last summer.
Heliskier finally came back home about a month ago and for a couple of days was a bit wary of his owner.
“I think he thought I had the shots!” Colvin laughed. “But I’ve regained his confidence again. And he’s doing really well. He comes to me again when I go out to feed him. And he just loves it out here. It’s so nice and quiet we hardly ever hear a plane go by. I can really do anything I need to do with him again.”
He does miss having company though. His usual winter partner, Gypsy Melody, is off getting ready for the 2015 season with trainer Mac Robertson.
“Gypsy is the boss,” Colvin said. “He gets to do whatever she wants to do first and then what he wants! But he’s not used to being alone.”
“He’ll rest now until December,” said Colvin addressing the big gelding’s future. “Eric is building a new barn right now and maybe by then I can send him down to get legged up a bit before sending him over to Mac. But you know how this game goes, it’s just day by day and anything can happen.”
“My husband always said, ‘a year off after surgeries’”, she said, referring to Robert “Bun” Colvin, a longtime trainer and her husband since she was 16. “Mother Nature should do more, along with the vets, of course. Horses don’t get the time they need anymore and we’re going to make sure he gets all the time he needs.
“All the years we’ve been training horses, Bun said to me that this one was the one we’ve been waiting for,” said Colvin, her eyes tearing a bit. “You know how many springs I heard that? He told me that he may be the smartest horse that we ever had.”
“But this has been really something to go through all of this with him and not have my husband with me,” she sighed.
It’s Marlene and ‘Skier at the old place now but she keeps busy.
“My sisters are nearby and they keep me hopping,” she said as she excused herself to get ready for a nephew’s high school graduation.
While at Canterbury Heliskier may be the Big Horse and a fan favorite, at home he’s ‘Skier, family and the last equine connection to a long and beautiful love story.