Something remarkable has happened at Widden Stud. Among the paddocks filled with attentive broodmares and their newly minted foals is an unusual sight and, if you listen closely, an unexpected sound. Off on their own, with a lush green pasture all to themselves, a mare and her month-old colt graze happily together. As the son of Zoustar dutifully follows mum around, a faint jingling provides a gentle backing track to this idyllic scene. The sound, perhaps evoking memories more akin to Christmas than the Spring, emanates from a collection of small bells hung around the foal’s neck. As he wanders a little away from his mother, she stops eating and alerts to his movement. Nothing so different here to the tableau played out in neighbouring fields. However, this mare is clearly reacting to the sound of the bells rather than seeing her offspring on the move.
That’s because this is the story of Cerda, the blind mare and one of the newest broodmares on the Phoenix Thoroughbreds roster.
As a juvenile, Cerda was a filly full of promise. Under the excellent stewardship of Gai Waterhouse and Adrian Bott, the daughter of Snitzel from the I Am Invincible mare Comprende looked to have a bright future. Runner-up in a city race at Randwick on her debut, she followed up with another excellent run to be only narrowly denied in the A$ 1 million Golden Gift. A great start to her career, so it was no wonder the Golden Slipper became her main target. Sadly, she never got to fulfil her potential. A freak accident in the yard and trauma to her head left her blind. At first, optimism reigned that the injury would be only a temporary affliction, but it soon became apparent this was her new reality.
Her owners had some tough decisions to make.
Only wanting what was best for the filly, Phoenix Thoroughbreds decided to explore the possibility of giving her a new lease of life within their vast broodmare band. The question they needed answering was, given her condition, was this even possible and if so, how could it be done so the mare was at no further risk of harm? With this firmly in the forefront of their thoughts, they approached Antony Thompson and his team at Widden, who bred Cerda, to see if their long-time partners had an answer to this unusual puzzle. He did. The solution was simple, elegant and, above all, effective.
“We put a bell around the neck of an old mare and put Cerda in with her,” Explains Thompson. “She quickly learned to listen for it, using her new mate as a guide. Cerda would follow her partner around and in the end, the pair would eat and drink from the same trough.
“I’d not had a blind mare in my time here, but I had heard of others elsewhere,’ Thompson recalls. “When I was a kid, I think we had a blind mare here, and that’s where the idea of using a bell came from.”
Having tackled the initial conundrum, the more significant brainteaser of getting her covered safely was the next big issue to consider. Without her sight, the team would need to turn to think outside the box to let her know what to expect when her turn arrived to enter the breeding shed.
“Even to cover her as a blind mare, I wasn’t sure,” admits Thompson. “As she was coming into season, we put her in a little yard next to a teaser where he had access through the rail to smell and talk to her. Pretty quickly, her hormones kicked in; she relaxed and listened to the teaser who nuzzled away at her. Within 24 hours, she was showing like mad and was one of the easiest maiden mares I’d ever covered! She has heightened senses so she could smell and hear the stallion, so was fully aware of what was going on.”
Although she was now safely in foal to one of the country’s leading stallions, an anxious wait began to see how she would eventually take to motherhood.
“I wasn’t sure how she would react to a new foal, but she was almost too motherly to start with,” says Thompson. “Because she couldn’t see the foal, she wanted to keep smelling him to check he was close, so I was worried she would accidentally tread on him as she moved around to locate him. We held her in the stable for a while until she realised the foal was still with her. One concern was if she couldn’t smell him straight away, she’d spin around quickly looking for him and accidentally knock him over. We put the foaling team on a roster and held her on a lead to ensure she wouldn’t bump into him. As she became more confident and careful, we were eventually able to leave them alone in the stall before we turned them out into a paddock, where they are now.”
“It’s great to see her become very trusting. We put some bells around the foal’s neck and she’s learned to listen for them to know where he is. She’s got so good at it that when I was recently going to change the bells, the foal was lying down and I had the new bells my kids had made in my pocket. They jingled as I entered their paddock, and she immediately approached me. She’s pretty remarkable”.
Despite the difficulties, Cerda has faced and the different processes Phoenix and Widden have put in place, the early indications are that this “remarkable” mare can become a valued member of the owner’s breeding operation.
“The foal himself, named Mr Bojangles, is very nice; he’s doing really well,” assesses Thompson. “I think Cerda could be a lovely mare going forward too. She’s from a good family and had plenty of ability. It doesn’t necessarily appear on her page because the million-dollar 2yo race she was second in was a new race with no black type yet. However, the form around her is very good. A couple of the horses that ran around her in both starts are now stallions at stud. She’s probably a bit of a hard luck story in that respect. She was a better race mare than her record suggests, but I’m sure people remember her.
“I have no hesitations about covering her again because I know she’ll be good to cover when she’s in season. Nor have I any worries about her raising a foal. It looks like she will be a great mum, giving her a great purpose in life.”
It is just the start of the journey for the mare who isn’t letting her disability get in her way. She will visit Portland Sky for her next cover, with all involved in her extraordinary story excited to see what the next chapter brings.