NOC Freshman Champ Overcame Adversity

By Mike Paradise

As any trainer will tell you the path to a Super Night type freshman championship is rarely a smooth journey. It can often be a bumpy one, filled with ups and downs, and sometimes with a major health issue roadblock.

That was the case for last year’s Night of Champions two-year-old colt pace titleholder He’zzz A Wise Sky. Before the Don Filemeno owned and trained youngster won the battle for the Incredible Finale championship, he had to win the war and fight off a life-threatening disease.

While his chief rivals in the ICF juvenile male pacing division already competed in the stake series first leg and the Cardinal, He’zzz A Wise Sky was still battling to overcome EPM.

For those unfamiliar with EPM, it stands for Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, a “neurologic disease in horses caused by infection with the protozoan Sarcocystis Neurona (SN).”

He’zzz A Wise Sky (Bobby Smolin) overcame EPM and a Hawthorne sloppy racing strip to win the Incredible Finale freshman title on the 2019 Night of Champions. (Four Footed Fotos)

He’zzz A Wise Sky (Bobby Smolin) overcame EPM and a Hawthorne sloppy racing strip to win the Incredible Finale freshman title on the 2019 Night of Champions. (Four Footed Fotos)

According to the equine health experts SN infects horses when they ingest the organism in feed or water that becomes contaminated. SN is for the most part carried by outdoor animals that pass the “bacteria” through its feces.

EPM typically causes horses to slowly experience neurologic dysfunctions such as weakness in their hind legs and difficulty moving their legs with synchronization and EPM can be deadly if left untreated.

Health experts say about half of the infected horses that are properly treated will return to the way they were before the infection. The other half will improve but will have some lasting physical issues.

Fortunately for He’zzz A Wise Sky and his connections, the horse overcame the dreadful disease and fought his way to become an Illinois champion,

While his division foes began their racing careers in June or early July, He’zzz A Wise Sky didn’t even qualify at Hawthorne until last July 29. He made his pari-mutuel debut on August 2 where he showed potential, dropping a scant nose decision while pacing a 26.4 last quarter.

In a story I wrote here last summer, Filomeno explained why his prized home-bred youngster got a much later start than planned.

“The horse trained down perfect and was all ready to go when he got sick. The colt got a bad case of EPM. We had him treated at the track but that didn’t work. We decided to take him down to the University of Illinois vet school. They worked on him and got the infection cleared up.
“They told us the colt wouldn’t be able to race until the end of the year at the earliest. Instead he came back in six weeks and did it all on his own. I told Bobby (driver Smolin) in the colt’s first start to just use him at the end since the horse was coming off his sickness and he did just that. “

In his next start at Springfield He’zzz A Wise Sky finished fourth but came home in 26.3. Smolin gave the youngster a great trip in the horse’s third try, a winning 1:55.2 mile.

Next, was the Governor’s Cup, (raced at Hawthorne) where the youngster basically circled the field, coming from seventh at the half, some eight and one-half lengths behind, and drew off by one and one-half lengths over the heavy favorite Fox Valley Ren, in 1:55.2.
Since only the 10 freshman male pacers with the most series points gain a starting berth in the Incredible Finale final, the Triple ZZZ Stable’s late-bloomer had his work cut out to gain a spot in the championship.

Hezzz A Wise Sky missed the stake’s first leg and finished fourth at Springfield (that counts as a series start) in his second career effort, therefore the horse had only earned eight series points, good for 14th place, meaning a win or a second place finish was needed to gain the $102,000 Final.

He’zzz A Wise Sky left no doubt he was up to the task, pulling away with Smolin by more than a dozen lengths at the end of the September 14 series event, with a 1:54.1 clocking.

A week later He’zzz A Wise Sky blew away the opposition on the Night of Champions, some three-plus lengths the best with a 1:55 mile in the slop to end his first season with $78,987 in purse earnings.

Quite an achievement for a young horse that only a few months earlier was fighting for his life.