Horse Racing’s Greatest Comeback Stories
Everyone loves a comeback story, and I'm not talking about a horse that fluffs the start but wins either. There are many an inspiration in the horse racing world, and the horses, jockeys, and trainers I'm about to mention are no exception. Some were all but pronounced dead, but with careful rehabilitation were nursed back to health and won again. Others were battling various ailments and life problems but still achieved what many could only dream of. Without further ado, let’s look at some of horse racing’s greatest comeback stories!
A talented middle-distance horse for Bob Baffert in the US, Paynter has a story like no other. After an impressive debut, he took part in several top-class races, with his first graded stakes win coming in the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in July 2012. However, just two days after, he developed a fever, pneumonia, and diarrhoea. He was hospitalised, treated, and sent to Belmont Park on August 10th to train for a few days. Just two weeks later, when ready to be sent back to Baffert, he developed a fever and diarrhoea again. This time he was diagnosed with colitis, which deteriorated quickly and put him in a life-threatening position.
Further deterioration saw Paynter develop an infection and blood clots in his veins, causing him to lose weight. At the time, he was also dealing with an aggressive antibiotic treatment. 10 days after he arrived at the Upstate Equine Medical Centre in New York, he developed laminitis in three of his hooves, a painful inflammation of the internal structures. Casts were applied to his lower legs to support his feet, but it was feared his racing days were all but over, with even a risk of euthanasia if he didn’t improve.
Fortunately, although he still had low-grade fevers, on 21st September, his casts were removed. Dr Laura Javiscas, the vet looking after him, performed an ultrasound, located the problem area of his colon, and he was transported to Pennsylvania for surgery. Despite now only weighing around 900 pounds and surgery considered high-risk, a 15-inch growth was removed from his intestines. Just nine days later, it was confirmed he would make a full recovery.
Paynter was sent for rehabilitation at Fair Hill Training Centre’s Equine Therapy program on 15th October, initially starting with hand-walking alongside slowly increasing his food intake. On 29th December he returned to Baffert’s stable where he began race training again.
After extensive rehabilitation, he returned to the track on 14th June 2013, almost 12 months after his last run, winning at Hollywood Park. He would race a further four times, which included 2nd in a Grade 1, before heading off to stud. Baffert said: “He is just an incredible, phenomenal horse”.
After going through such an ordeal where he was pronounced all but dead, recovering to lead a normal life is an achievement itself. Paynter, though, had to take it a step further.
Bob Champion & Aldaniti –
The Bob Champion and Aldaniti story is perhaps one of the most famous in racing, no doubt down to the severity of the issues the pair suffered. In July 1979, after a fall at Stratford a few weeks prior, Champion was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Two specialists confirmed the news at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Chelsea and he was given only a 40% chance of survival, with a maximum of eight months to live. He returned to racing whilst still in treatment, having lost most of his muscle and about 30% of his lung capacity. By August 1980, though, Champion had returned as Josh Gifford’s stable jockey.
Aldaniti was in recovery mode, too. He was prone to injury and had sustained a serious tendon injury just over a year before he was due to run in the Grand National. His trainer, Josh Gifford, and his vet had considered euthanizing the horse because of the severity of the injury, but his owner, Nick Embiricos, was adamant he would recover and return to racing. Aldaniti spent the entirety of 1980 on box rest, recovering at Embiricos’ Barkfold Stables.
The thing that makes this story most impressive is not only the fact that both horse and jockey recovered from adversity and returned to racing, but that as a pair, they won the 1981 Aintree Grand National. Aldaniti’s only preparation run saw him winning the Whitbread Trial Handicap Chase, whilst Champion was lucky to be competing in the race at all. Together, their incredible story had captured the hearts of the public and racing fans alike, seeing them sent off as 10-1 2nd favourite in the 39-strong field. Despite over-jumping early, the pair got into a nice rhythm, eventually winning by some 4.5 lengths.
There was no expectation of the horse ever completing such a feat when he was purchased for just 4100 guineas back in 1974, particularly when it was found that he was prone to injury. Likewise, Champion had defied the odds to beat cancer. After losing 30% of his lung capacity, many felt they would be lucky to even compete in the race, let alone win, but win it they did!
Trained in Ireland by Joseph O’Brien, this son of Kayf Tara was a high-class national hunt horse. In 2017, he was contesting the JT McNamara National Hunt Challenge Cup at the Cheltenham Festival when he came to grief on the run-in. He was set to finish 2nd to the mighty Tiger Roll before collapsing a furlong from home. Initially, it looked unlikely that he would survive the neurological episode after suffering from an irregular heartbeat, affecting his oxygen levels and causing him to collapse. He was also suffering from a high temperature. He was tended to behind the green screens on the track before being rolled onto a large grip mat at the side once racing had finished. The on-course vets worked to save his life for almost an hour and a half before he was well enough to be walked into a horse ambulance and transported to the Three Counties Equine Hospital near Tewkesbury. Despite showing signs of blindness initially, by morning, it had subsided.
Following this, he spent 289 days away from the track recovering at owner J P McManus’ Martinstown Stud. After showing no ongoing ill effects, he returned to training with Joseph O’Brien and nursed back to fitness. Despite pulling up on his initial return to racing in the Grade 1 Leopardstown Christmas Chase, he won the Irish Gold Cup just five weeks later at 33-1. He continued to run creditably in Graded races before his retirement in 2020. Now, he is enjoying his retirement at Martinstown Stud.
To defy the odds and recover from such an event is one thing, but to return to racing and win one of Ireland’s biggest national hunt races is another! What a warrior!
A horse that captured the hearts of many, Seabiscuit is another to come back from an injury where many feared he would never race again. A small horse with poor conformation, not much was expected of him on the racetrack. After his first 40 races, he had won just 10. However, after moving from Jim Fitzsimmons to Tom Smith's stable in 1936, he started to taste success, winning several top handicaps over the next two years. However, an injury during a race in 1938 threatened to end his career for good.
George Woolf, the jockey riding Seabiscuit, said he felt the horse stumble, and it was later diagnosed that he had suffered a ruptured suspensory ligament in his front left leg. He was sent to recover at owner Charles Howard’s ranch, where he covered seven mares in the spring of 1939. He was nursed through his initial recovery, first learning to walk again, before increasing to a trot and then a canter. His fitness improved through the winter and he resumed race training by the end of the year.
Seabiscuit lined up for the first time on 9th February 1940 in the La Jolla Handicap at Santa Anita where he finished third. By his third race, he was back to winning ways. He continued to run well, winning the San Antonio Handicap and Santa Anita Handicap, before retiring to stud on April 10th 1940. He sired a total of 108 foals.
From looking as far from a successful racehorse as can be, to learning to walk again, Seabiscuit proved that nothing is impossible. Despite his injury, he continued to be successful both on and off the track, rounding out an impressive career as a top-class sire.
Perhaps one of the lesser-known names on this list, but by no means any less impressive, Tulloch was a champion thoroughbred in Australia and one of the greatest stayers ever. Purchased by trainer Tommy J. Smith for just 750 guineas in 1956, he set multiple records, including knocking two seconds off Phar Lap’s 28-year-old record in the AJC Derby. In April 1958, though, he was diagnosed with a mysterious stomach disease. He was kept off the track for just over two years, battling numerous infections throughout and losing a lot of weight. Despite being close to death, a young veterinarian named Percy Sykes didn’t give up on him. Like the inspiration he was, he bounced back to reclaim his health just a couple of years later.
Tulloch returned to the track in 1960, and whilst he had returned to fitness, there were doubts whether he would ever win again. He proved all the doubters wrong, though, winning on reappearance at Flemington to claim the VRC Queens Plate by a short head from the favourite, Lord. Continuing in the same vein, he won many other famous races, taking his total to 19 Group 1 races at the time of retirement.
A horse that was so close to death and away from the track for two years would never be expected to run again, let alone win, but Tulloch won a further 14 races after the Queen's Plate over a variety of distances. A true inspiration!
Sprinter Sacre –
One of the greatest steeplechasers the world has ever seen, Sprinter Sacre was a phenomenal racehorse. After making the move to Nicky Henderson’s yard in 2009, he won several top-class races, achieving a peak RPR of 190. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, after he pulled up in the 2013 Desert Orchid Chase with an irregular heartbeat. He had monitors fitted and was prescribed a period of rest, leading to him missing the 2014 season. After spending 386 days off the track, he ran a gallant 2nd in the 2015 Clarence House Chase but suffered a low-level bleed. He then ran again in the Queen Mother in March but was pulled up.
It seemed his glory days were behind him after two years of injury, heart problems, and suspicions he was finished at the top level, but his trainer, Nicky Henderson, never gave up. A dogged training performance saw him return to Cheltenham in November 2015, where he would romp to victory in the Grade 2 Schloer Chase. From here, he rounded out his illustrious career with three wins from three runs, which included him reclaiming the Queen Mother at Cheltenham.
After heart issues and injuries threatened to end his career, Sprinter Sacre showed all of his class to come back not once, but twice, showing he still possessed all the zest and class of his younger years.
Sir Henry Cecil –
Perhaps one of the most famous racehorse trainers known for his dominance in flat racing and association with Frankel the wonder horse, Sir Henry Cecil didn't always have it good. Crowned Champion Trainer a whopping 10 times, he trained 25 domestic Classic winners and was noted for his mastery at Royal Ascot where he trained 75 winners. Despite his success, he experienced a dramatic fall from grace. A fall-out with Sheikh Mohammed and the loss of many owner-breeders with whom he'd had long-standing relationships saw him encounter a period in the wilderness. His racing operation struggled, and business problems coupled with ill health meant he didn’t train a Group 1 winner in any race between July 2000 and October 2006. He saddled just 12 winners overall in 2005, with his stable being supported almost exclusively by the loyalty of Prince Khaled bin Abdullah.
A win in the 2007 Oaks marked a return to form for Cecil’s stable, with Light Shift becoming his 24th English Classic winner. From here, progress was steady, until the 2011 season when he achieved 55 winners, his best season for 10 years. Frankel was one of the main reasons for his success, winning many top races including the Dewhurst Stakes and Royal Lodge Stakes in 2010, 2000 Guineas, Sussex Stakes, and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes in 2011, and Queen Anne Stakes, International Stakes, and Champion Stakes in 2012.
Described as “The best horse we’ve ever seen”, Frankel ensured Cecil’s life finished with a flourish. Rolling back the years to the good old days, Cecil’s stable made one of the greatest comebacks ever.
Another Group 1 winner from Australia, Littorio was one of the best-performing middle-distance horses of his time. In 2010, aged 6, he took part in the Sydney Cup where he ran disappointingly in what would prove to be his last run for nearly 500 days. When undertaking some track work in the weeks that followed, he picked up a suspensory ligament injury, with many fearing the curtain may have fallen on a top-shelf career. His trainer, Nigel Blackiston, has other ideas. He slowly nursed him back to health alongside stem-cell treatment for the tendon injury and having a bone chip removed.
After trialling well a few weeks before his intended comeback, he was entered in the Group 2 Makybe Diva Stakes at Flemington. Despite being a dual Group 1 winner, he went off at 40/1 for the race, with his trainer just happy for him to return in one piece. He showed all of his previous qualities, though, and despite being last entering the straight and having not run for almost 16 months, he rocketed home to win. A precautionary scan just eight days later revealed some slight tendonitis in one of his ‘good legs’, and as a result, connections decided against more rehabilitation and subsequently retired him to stud.
After such extensive rehabilitation, the victory was simply getting him back on a racecourse, let alone coming home in front. A horse that endured much but still had a love for racing, Littorio is one of the best comeback stories ever!
Willie Carson –
Willie Carson is the fourth most successful jockey ever in Great Britain. He was crowned Champion Jockey five times, surpassed 100 winners in a season a whopping 23 times, and achieved 3828 wins overall. As a jockey, injuries are common, but Carson came back from not one but two serious ones. His first came in 1981 when contesting the Yorkshire Oaks aboard Silken Knot. The horse slipped on the home turn, throwing Carson to the floor and seeing him trampled by at least six other horses. He received multiple injuries, including a fractured skull. This was an injury that not only could've ended his career, but ended his life. Fortunately, he made a full recovery, and despite missing the rest of the season, returned to the saddle the following year. With much determination, he claimed the Champion Jockey title for the fifth time in 1983.
A second horror injury would occur 15 years later in September 1996. Whilst waiting in the paddock before the race, his mount kicked out after getting agitated, catching Carson in the stomach. This left him with a life-threatening liver injury which saw him placed in intensive care for some time. Again, Carson recovered, although this time he was 54 and his riding days were over.
Recovering from one injury is an achievement, but returning to riding with such outstanding success is another. One of the greatest flat jockeys to grace horse racing, Willie Carson defied the odds many times!
Lester Piggott –
Widely regarded as one of the greatest flat jockeys ever, Lester Piggott racked up an impressive 4493 career wins, including a record nine Epsom Derby victories. Throughout his career, Piggott suffered several accidents but came back fighting every time. In 1977, Piggott was almost killed at Epsom racecourse when a horse he was riding bolted, dragging him along the ground. Fortunately, he only received minor injuries and made a full recovery. Four years later, at the same course, he had his right ear partially severed in a starting stall incident. His horse, Winsor Boy, bolted, scraping his head against the framework as he was thrown from the horse. His right ear was effectively hanging off, which led to him receiving corrective surgery, whilst also suffering bruising on his back, chest, and right foot. Again, he made a full recovery.
His final serious injury occurred in 1992, just two years after returning to the saddle from training. When riding in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Gulfstream Park, his mount, Mr Brooks, suffered a broken right foreleg on the home turn. As the pair hit the deck, the horse rolled onto Piggott, breaking both his collarbone and his ribs. He also suffered lacerations above his right eye, bruising to his abdomen, and a partially collapsed lung. Paramedics put a brace on Piggott's neck and rushed him to the ER before being moved to Hollywood Memorial Hospital. He was kept in intensive care for approximately 48 hours but was awake, alert, and stable. He returned to the saddle a few months later, continuing to win until his retirement.
A jockey with immense talent, it wasn’t all plain sailing for Piggott. Despite his various gruesome injuries, he always made it back to the track, winning 30 British Classic races and being crowned British Flat Racing Champion Jockey 11 times.
Gary Stevens –
Someone who was no stranger to injury, Gary Stevens was an American jockey with over 5100 career wins worldwide. He even earned the nickname "The Bionic Man" due to his multiple joint replacements and the number of significant injuries he suffered.
His first major accident came in 1985 when he was thrown into the railing by his mount, causing serious shoulder and knee injuries alongside being comatose for 16 hours. In 2003, he was again thrown from his mount when it spooked at the finishing line, resulting in him being trampled. This time, he suffered a collapsed lung and neck injuries but returned to racing again just 19 days later.
Fast forward to 2018 and he was in the wars again, this time suffering an injury that would put an end to his career permanently, aged 55. A fall at Del Mar racecourse resulted in Stevens’ cervical vertebrae being pinched up against his spinal cord. Whilst in the hospital, the doctors informed him if he was to fall again, it could lead to a far more serious issue. He retired straight after.
Throughout his career, and with various injuries, he also had multiple joint replacements and surgeries. He's had approximately six medical procedures on his right knee, three on his left knee, assorted surgeries on his right wrist and both shoulders and hip replacement surgery on his left hip. In 2014, he required a total knee replacement, and following surgery, he developed an addiction to the painkillers he was using. He went cold turkey and three months after the surgery, returned to riding again.
Throughout his career, Stevens won a great deal of Grade 1 races, amassing a whopping $258,213,868 in earnings. Despite his extensive list of injuries and procedures, he is 11th on the list of all-time American thoroughbred leading jockeys based on earnings, and 33rd on the list by wins. Not bad for a man that spent so much time on the operating table!
That’s all for my list of horse racing’s greatest comebacks. Are there any horses, jockeys, or trainers that you would’ve included? Be sure to let me know in the comments below! If you'd like to read more on the Aldaniti & Bob Champion story, you can read my article on it here: https://www.understartersorders.net/post/aldaniti-bob-champion-against-all-odds