Everyone involved in horse racing knows the old saying: Don't get too attached to a horse, because you never know how long you're going to have him. But the plucky bay gelding in Tammy Domenosky's barn proves that sometimes, the head simply cannot overrule the heart.
Moralist was supposed to run in the Claiming Crown last year after hitting his stride with four victories in five races. Two weeks before the event, Domenosky found him ill in his stall at Canterbury Park, struck by a severe case of colic. As his trio of owners watched nervously, a medical team at the University of Minnesota performed emergency surgery that saved his life; as he recovered at a Lakeville farm, the three men visited daily to take him out for walks.
Saturday, Moralist will get his long-delayed crack at a Claiming Crown title when he runs in the $50,000 Express at Canterbury Park. Since returning to racing in March, he has won $62,469 while competing at the highest level of his career. His courageous comeback endeared him to many, which means there could be a very crowded winner's circle should the morning-line favorite prevail.
"You try not to get attached, but with him, you can't help it," Domenosky said. "When you send a horse to the U, they usually don't come back, especially with a twisted gut. He came back to the track better than ever. It's just a tremendous way for this to turn out."
The veterinarians and staff who treated Moralist at the U's Leatherdale Equine Center have taken him to heart as well. Some have come to Canterbury to watch him run, and some follow his races on the Internet. Owners Bill Kroska, Stan Krupke and Greg Peterson -- who race under the name of their trucking company, Miracle Logistics -- have sent copies of his winner's circle photos to the people who saved the horse.
Moralist's second act has been something of a miracle itself. Kroska, of Lakeville, decided to get into racing four years ago after attending Canterbury College seminars for prospective racehorse owners.
He convinced his business partners to join him, and Moralist was the second horse they bought.
Domenosky claimed the gelding for $10,000 in October 2008. The trainer liked his potential and his attitude -- "He walked into the barn like he owned the place," she recalled -- and thought he would benefit by taking a break from training in early 2009.
At that point, Moralist had won twice in his 18-race career. He returned that spring to win four of five, including Canterbury's Honor the Hero Turf Express, as he moved up the competitive ladder from claiming races to stakes. The natural speedball had found his form as a sprinter, until the July morning when he fell ill.
An ultrasound exam showed that a portion of Moralist's small intestine had twisted. He needed surgery immediately to have any chance to survive.
"I still get tears in my eyes looking at the pictures [of the surgery]," said Peterson, who held vigil with his partners through the 2 1/2-hour procedure.
"Afterward, one of the doctors came out and said: 'This horse is a winner. Once a winner, always a winner. He'll recover just fine.' It was a relief, because he really is a special horse."
During his two months of convalescence at the farm, Moralist's owners spoiled him with sugar cubes, and they brought their families to take him for frequent walks. Kroska came twice a day and three times on weekends. "It's like watching your kid when they're hurt," he said. "You have to get them back to health, so you do what you've got to do."
By November, Moralist was ready to resume training. Strong and rested, he won his second race back, earning him a move up to the elite company of graded stakes races.
His owners accompanied him to Kentucky's famed Keeneland track in April for the Shakertown Stakes, where he finished third.
Moralist ran a solid fifth in the Churchill Downs Turf Sprint the day before the Kentucky Derby, then defended his title in Canterbury's Honor the Hero.
About 60 people crammed into the winner's photo that day. Moralist's owners expect at least 80 to show up Saturday, to cheer for the horse they've all grown to love.
"What he's done is a huge accomplishment," Domenosky said.
"You never really know how they're going to come back after a surgery like that. Now he's running in graded stakes, a year after he was running in $5,000 claiming races. We couldn't ask for any more."