Commentary: Saving Potesta, an Unlikely Story

Claire Novak, staff writer for The Blood-Horse, shares the story of a record-breaking racehorse who was saved by veterinarians after sustaining a life-threatening injury during training. Share your thoughts on the blog page.

Her name means "power," and in four starts the seal-bay filly they call Potesta exuded just that.

After a runner-up finish in her March 22 debut, she took the Hollywood Oaks off a maiden score, set a track record while blazing a mile in 1:34.86 in the Torrey Pines Stakes at Del Mar, and was prepping for a start in the Zenyatta Stakes with her connections flying high on the possibility of a Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic run. They thought she could win it.

"She was so classy around the barn and track," recalled bloodstock agent Craig Rounsefell, son-in-law of trainer Mike Mitchell. "From the first time Mike first galloped her, he knew he had something special. Breezing, she could pretty much do whatever time you wanted to do. On the racetrack, too, horses don't really do what she did."

But here's the thing about racehorses and horse racing in general: not much goes according to plan.

And so it was that 80-year-old owner Joe Scardino found himself listening to the news no one connected to a promising Thoroughbred wants to hear, standing at home in California on an early Friday morning in September as Mitchell worked with vets to stabilize the 3-year-old daughter of Macho Uno, who had sustained a condylar fractured in her left foreleg in a training accident.

"I have to tell you, that was one of the worst calls I've ever gotten," recalled Scardino, who campaigned Potesta with 70-year-old partner Anthony Fanticola. "She was prepping for the Breeders' Cup. She had broken the track record and was doing extremely well. Then we got that awful call when she hurt herself. I was at home. I just remember going numb."

Compound fractures such as the one Potesta sustained--where bone breaks through the skin--are tough to repair in humans, let alone horses. Thousand-pound animals aren't good at standing on three legs for long. Infection can set in. And where racehorses are concerned, it takes a special patient to survive such an injury. Bred to run, conditioned to levels of peak athleticism, Thoroughbreds put on sudden hold are prone to complications and, if they manage to survive surgery, can further injure themselves during the lengthy recovery process. The prognosis is always grim.

Still, there was something remarkable about Potesta, the star of Scardino and Fanticola's then-two horse stable. As veterinarians at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center worked to stabilize the injury, which was high above the ankle, she complied perfectly.

"She was such a good patient," Rounsefell remembered. "It was pretty grim when she was injured, but she got up there and really helped herself through the whole process. They put four screws in to bring it back together. The vet said the whole way through it couldn't have gone any better, from the actual surgery itself to the recovery process. Each day she just exceeded their expectations--her whole career, she always exceeded expectations. She's just a special horse."

Scardino and Fanticola, who have been partners for the past 15 years, are purely in the racing business, and don't maintain breeding stock. At the time of Potesta's injury, their only other contender was Breeders' Cup Mile runner Obviously, who finished third behind Wise Dan and Animal Kingdom.

"We don't have that many horses, and when we get a runner like that, well, it's not like we've got a barn full of stakes contenders," Scardino said. "With Potesta, it was really exciting because she was getting better and better and we didn't know how good she was going to be, really. The excitement was at its highest peak."

The owner said saving the filly at all costs was a top priority after her injury.

"The cost was not on our minds at all," he said. "She was so good to us, my gosh. Anything we could do, we wanted done. I told Mike Mitchell and so did my partner, 'We don't care what it costs, we want to save her."

Rounsefell made multiple trips to Alamo Pintado to monitor Potesta's progress. She recovered well enough to ship to Three Chimneys Farm near Lexington, Ky., where she will be consigned to the Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale as hip no. 134.

"The whole way through, we just wanted the best thing for the horse," Rounsefell recalled. "It was incredible how quickly she healed, and when they took the final X rays the doctor gave the all-clear to leave and come to Kentucky. The actual injury site itself looks fantastic. It's quite remarkable that the whole thing only happened a few months ago."

Rounsefell said Potesta's untapped potential, a career cut short by injury, could live on in her foals.

"When you look at her from a physical standpoint, you'll struggle to find a better type at the sale," he remarked. "She's got size and scope and she's correct and you'd struggle to put a hole in her, really. She's just a first-class type. She had that freakish ability and nobody really knew where it would end."

This update on Potesta, bred in Kentucky by Maynard Farm and B.A. Man out of the Furiously mare Katzen, was issued for the benefit of the many racing fans who followed her brief but illustrious career.

"There were always people coming around the barn, sort of fans wanting to see if they could give her a carrot or take a picture with her," Rounsefell recalled. "She did have a following, that's for sure. For a filly that only had a couple of starts, she struck a chord."

Originally published on

About the Author

Claire Novak

Winner of the 2011 Eclipse Award for Feature/Commentary and the 2008 Louisville Metro Journalism Award for Sports Writing, Claire Novak has melded her love for human-interest journalism and the equine breed into a successful Turf writing career. Since her first freelance article on racing was published at in 2005, her byline has appeared in the New York Times, ESPN The Magazine, and on, among others. She lives near Lexington and, when not writing about racing, can often be found jumping her Thoroughbred, Bob.

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