As Mike Pratt languishes month after month on a ventilator in the intensive care unit of Massachusetts General Hospital awaiting a double organ transplant, his team of world renowned medical experts can’t explain why he is still alive.
Mike’s wife, Lisa, said she has the answer: 15-year-old pacer, Hero’s Cavalcade.
|Photo courtesy Lisa Pratt|
|Hero's Cavalcade and Mike Pratt during happier times in the barn|
“Mike’s biggest thing is that he has to see Hero again,” said Lisa, who met her husband at a horsemen’s picnic 20 years ago and is the mother of their two children. “This horse has bonded with us in ways I don’t have words to describe. He’s a miracle.”
Lisa is the owner of record and Mike trained the Michigan-bred gelded son of Keystone Raider out of the Armbro Cadet mare Ticker Tape Parade. He is the only horse in the stable and while racing at tracks in New England, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Indiana throughout his long career, the hard-knocking Hero’s Cavalcade won 48 times and bankrolled $328257 in 32 starts.
“He was never a stakes horse, but he won every year he raced and he did it the hard way,” said Vita Yakin, a longtime racing official at harness tracks on the East Coast and in Kentucky. “Mike took such good care of him and they were always inseparable. They shipped everywhere and did everything together. There is no question that he’s keeping Mike alive.”
Now 59, Mike Pratt has been battling serious illness and assorted complications for years after being involved in an auto accident that necessitated him receiving a transfusion of blood which turned out to be tainted and compromised his liver. While in a rehabilitation facility earlier this year, he fell out of bed and shattered his hip.
“His other hip had been broken and replaced two years before,” Lisa explained. “Since Mike was waiting for a liver transplant at this time, the doctors decided to leave the new break shattered in the hope he’d only have to undergo surgery once. But then after two weeks they had to take him in for a total hip replacement because he was in agony, and that’s when his heart failed. So they had to revive him and put in a pacemaker.”
An organ match was finally found and on May 15, 2012, Pratt received the long-awaited liver transplant. But it was from a donor classified as high-risk.
“We had to take that risk,” said Lisa. “Mike was in such bad shape at the time that there was no way he was going to make it without it. The alternative was not an option. But that liver had hepatitis-C. Not only was it rejected by Mike’s body after the surgery, it also destroyed his kidneys and he’s been on dialysis five hours a day since.
“On Nov. 11, he went into complete liver failure. Now we’re on the transplant list again, but this time he needs a [simultaneous] liver and a kidney transplant and that makes it so much harder to find the right donor.
“So many times the doctors have told us that he’s not going to make it. They can’t even believe he’s still here. But here we are, all these months later but right back where we started from.”
The Pratts and Hero’s Cavalcade started their remarkable journey when he was a 4-year-old in the barn of Joe Guarino, who is based on the New York and New Jersey circuits. At the time, the Pratts were trying to survive by racing lower-level claiming horses and eke out a living at the New England tracks.
“In the late ‘90s, our best horses were the $3,000, $4,000 and $5,000 claimers, but that was when the game was changing,” Lisa said. “You used to be able to buy a $500 horse and race him in the claiming ranks and do good, but then the cheap horses couldn’t make it anymore.
“Mike and I decided that it was time to step up, or we wouldn’t be able to survive in this game anymore. We decided that we had to get a horse who could take us somewhere.”
Lisa has been involved with Standardbreds since she was 5 years old. Her sister married trainer Brian Tisbert, so she started hanging around the Tisbert family barn as they raced across New England. As the former simulcasting director at Plainridge Racecourse, she had plenty of time to watch and study those who were competing at other tracks.
“I love the good horses and the big races, but there are more cogs in the wheel,” said Lisa. “I knew Joe Guarino had this $10,000 claimer racing at Yonkers, so I called him. Joe had claimed this horse at the Meadowlands for $20,000, but he couldn’t do a thing with him. He even told me he hated this horse. So Joe said that if we wanted him, come get him.”
Finding Hero’s Cavalcade and getting Guarino to sell him was the easy part.
“The $10,000 price tag wasn’t just a lot of money for us; it was everything we had. We had to scrape it together,” Lisa said. “This was a total leap of faith. Mike said that it was our time and Hero was the one. It would be all or nothing for us.
“For me, I put my complete trust in Mike because I know how he is with the horses and how he pours his heart and soul into each of his horses. We drove right down to Joe’s farm in New York and brought Hero home [to their two-stall barn in Rehoboth, Mass.].”
It didn’t take Hero’s Cavalcade very long to show the Pratts they made the right decision.
“We inherited Hero with a knee problem, but Mike knew how to take care of him,” said Lisa. “After the first time he jogged him, Mike came back and he was so excited. He said that Hero was a really nice horse. Not only was he a good one, but he had a very sweet personality and a great attitude.”
|Photo courtesy Lisa Pratt|
|Pratt with a winner's circle shot from one hf Hero's Cavalcade's 48 lifetime wins.|
As soon as the horse made it to the track, the Pratts knew that their dream of having one good horse who could take them to places, both figurative and literal, never before realized was coming true. When he was 6, in 2004, they entered him in a race at the Meadowlands.
“That was the first time we’d ever been there and as we were unloading the van, I said ‘Mike, I can’t believe we’re here!’” said Lisa. “Then, just walking into the paddock and seeing all of the drivers and trainers who I had idolized my whole life and watched on simulcast was incredible. I couldn’t stop staring at them. Now, because of this little horse, those people have become my friends.”
Pratt said that outstanding drivers David Miller and George Brennan and Hall of Famers Cat Manzi and John Campbell are in that group, along with many more of the sport’s brightest luminaries.
“George was always so supportive of us and he always came over to say hi whenever we were there,” she said. “I still can’t believe that Dave did drive my horse. Cat drove Hero, too. He told us what a nice little horse we had and even asked where we got him. Really, everywhere we went people would come up to us and say, ‘Oh, yeah. That fat little horse who doesn’t wear a head check is yours. Hey, he’s pretty good.’”
When the Pratts purchased the horse during his 5-year-old season in 2003, he had about $100,000 in earnings. In his 4-year-old campaign alone, Hero’s Cavalcade won $50,240 after winning four of 26 starts. Although that is the most he would earn in any single season, the year 2009 when he was 11 may be his most memorable. That’s when he set his personal best time of 1:51.2 at Colonial Downs on Oct. 24. Back in 2004 he far off the pace to miss by just a neck behind Spastic, who raced on the front end for the entire trip to tie the world and Colonial Downs track record of 1:49.3 for older pacing geldings.
“We got photoed out that day and I still think we won the race because it was so thrilling,” Lisa said. “The next day, this guy from Delaware showed up and offered us $65,000 on the spot for Hero. I thought ‘Now what do we do?’ but Mike looked at me and said ‘How could I sell him for something better?’ He’s the one who took us to a lot of places we never could have gone without him and through him we made a lot of friends we never would have known. He’s been awfully good to us.”
Hero’s Cavalcade has been better than good.
“The respect and loyalty that this horse and Mike have for each other is extraordinary. Hero knows how much he is loved. Definitely,” said Lisa while battling back tears. “[In 2011] Mike was really sick and he was getting pretty bad. After Hero’s last race, Mike took the bike off him and was walking him back to the barn. That’s when he fell right in front of Hero and he didn’t have the strength to get up. Hero just stood there, and then put his head down and started sniffing Mike. Finally, Mike was able to put both hands on his halter. Hero stayed perfectly still while Mike pulled himself up.”
After that, Mike Pratt had to give up training Hero’s Cavalcade and he was turned out without even being jogged. Yakin, who is one of Lisa’s closest friends, decided that this would not be the end of the Pratts’ love story with the horse and it was not yet time to pull off his shoes and send him into retirement. She called Lisa and told her that if the horse was sent to her and her longtime partner, trainer-driver John Gilmour, at Monticello Raceway, another chapter would be written.
|Photo courtesy of Lisa Pratt|
|This start at Rockingham Park of Hero's Cavalcade is one of 332 that the gelding made in his 12-year career.|
“I knew that Mike wasn’t doing well and what this horse means to him, so I wanted to do this for them,” said Yakin, who took over the training duties. “When I got Hero in March, he’d been turned out for about four to six months, but I didn’t realize how long it had been. He hadn’t even seen a harness in all of that time. Getting him back racing at 14 was a huge undertaking.”
Yakin and Gilmour, who recently retired as a driver, but is still working as a trainer, met the challenge. In 2012 Hero’s Cavalcade made 27 starts with one win, four seconds and two thirds with his final start in the Au Revoir Pace on Dec. 27.
Hero’s Cavalcade finished fourth to close out a career totaling 332 starts, 48 wins, 47 seconds and 39 thirds with total earnings of $328,257.
“He’s not a half-mile track horse so for him to get around these turns, especially at his age, is hard for him,” Yakin said. “But he gives it his all and he does everything you ask of him. He is the sweetest animal and he’s a good animal. He really is.”
The way Hero’s Cavalcade has performed has proved to be a lifeline for Mike Pratt.
“It’s been very difficult the whole time Mike has been in ICU,” said Lisa, who made the round-trip drive of more than two hours into Boston five days per week to be by her husband’s side. “But Mike would always respond to my voice even if it was only to flutter an eyelid a little. Whenever I’d tell him that Hero raced today, he’d manage to squeeze my hand. I’d bring in the audio tapes of his races so he could listen and I’d play them for him over and over again so he could be right there with John or Rick Harp driving him home. That was wonderful for Mike. I really believe it kept him going.”
Nonetheless, listening to the replays of his horse while confined to his hospital bed was bittersweet for Mike Pratt.
“Mike was heartbroken that he couldn’t be there for Hero,” said Lisa. “He feels that he let him down. He asked how he can let Hero know that he didn’t leave him. He said that they are a team and are supposed to finish this together. But I truly think that Hero knows that Mike would never leave him and he couldn’t be there. I swear to God, this horse is a part of him.”
The long ordeal has also taken its toll on Lisa, who has single-handedly taken care of their children Mike Jr. (16) and Kasey (11), her 90-year-old father, and a 24-year-old retired pacer named Rastus who lives in the two-stall barn on the Pratt property. She also holds down a job in human resources at the local Toys ‘R’ Us and puts in work days in excess of 12 hours, especially during the holiday season. Every minute spent at Mike’s side is precious.
“I don’t know where I get my strength but I have the rest of my life to figure it out,” she said. “I don’t have the time or energy to do it now. I feel guilty saying it, but I am exhausted and it is very hard on me just to keep going. So I focus only on what has to get done right now.
“I don’t stop. It scares me to think what could happen if I do. If I ever stopped to take it all in, the flood gates would open. I always stay positive because I have to. I focus on my kids, the other blessings in my life, and all I have to be grateful for. But I do wish that I could get a few hours more of sleep. What I want most is to be able to close my eyes and take a nap without worrying where I have to be next, what I have to do next, and who I have to take care of next.
“Part of why I am so drained and exhausted is the sadness I feel about Hero. With Mike and him it seems so unfinished,” she said. “I don’t want this to be the ending, but it has to be. Hero allowed us to catch a wave and grab onto a star. We didn’t get rich, but Mike made a living doing what he loves. We never made a million dollars, but we didn’t want to. With Hero, we always made just enough and no price tag could ever be put on him and the journey he took us on. It was all possible only because of him.”
Even though his racing career has ended, Hero’s Cavalcade will be treated as a hero for the rest of his life. That empty stall next to Rastus in the Pratt barn has his nameplate on it, and Lisa hopes and prays that Mike can also come home soon.
“I am bound and determined that Mike and Hero are going to see each other again. We can’t go through so much, fight so hard and come this far without making it,” said Lisa. “I’m so excited that our horse is coming home and Mike has to be there, too. He’s a tough son of a gun. He’s just like Hero. There’s no quit in either of them.”
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