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Double Blessing
Thursday, July 18, 2013 - by Charlene Sharpe

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Delaware trainer Jim Atkinson had just finished jogging when he noticed broodmare Miss Dreamboat lying down in the field the first Sunday in May. Upon closer inspection, he realized she was in labor even though she wasn’t due for another 10 days.

He quickly alerted his wife, Carol, and brought the pacing mare, who was in foal to Delaware stallion Brian P p, 1:50.4f ($328,039) into the barn. He wasn’t too worried, as she’d had no problems with her first foal, a strapping Art Director colt.

Once she was in her stall, Atkinson watched a foal emerge as the mare pushed.

“The filly came out right into my hands,” he said. “She seemed to be pretty healthy.”

Photos by the author
Bonnie checks her little brother at the Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center in New Jersey. Upon their arrival, the foals were immediately put on fluids and oxygen. Clyde also received intravenous nutrients and medication for low blood pressure, and both later received blood transfusions to combat anemia.

His wife, however, said, “Don’t you think she’s small? Maybe there’s another.”

“No way,” Atkinson said.

Now he calls those the “famous last words.” Within minutes of delivering her filly, Miss Dreamboat started rolling. Atkinson feared colic, but very quickly saw a second placenta emerge from the mare.

Inside it, a tiny, dark brown colt.

“I was dumbfounded,” Atkinson said. “I didn’t know what to do.”

He only paused a second, though.

“I took the sack off and felt his heartbeat,” Atkinson said. “He was really small.”

Although nothing was obviously wrong with the colt, after nearly an hour of watching, waiting and then working to help him stand, the little Standardbred made no progress, even though his sister was up and nursing.

As his wife was calling a local veterinarian, Atkinson was mulling whether or not to put the colt down.

“But then I thought if he’s fought this much I’d do whatever I could to keep him alive,” Atkinson said.

Today, the little colt can be seen chasing his sister around the field at the Atkinson farm in Harrington. In spite of the odds—the chance of a mare delivering twins successfully is about one in 10,000—Miss Dreamboat and her babies are doing fine.

The Atkinsons credit that to the work of the staff at the Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center. After consulting with their veterinarian shortly after the babies were born May 5, the couple decided to make the 2-1/2-hour trek to New Jersey in an effort to do everything they could for the twins.

Carol Atkinson, left, guides Bonnie into the trailer for the 2 1/2-hour ride home to Harrington, Del., while Dr. Rodney Belgrave handles Clyde.

Vets and nurses were waiting outside to meet them as soon as they pulled up the drive.

“They threw him on a gurney and brought the other two inside,” Atkinson said. “We were in the facility in less than a minute.”

He then watched no fewer than five staff members begin working on the foals. Both were immediately put on oxygen and fluids, according to Dr. Rodney Belgrave. The colt, of course, required even more care.

“He was more compromised from the get go,” Belgrave said. The colt, he pointed out, weighed in at 48 lbs. while his sister tipped the scales at 65 lbs. An average Standardbred foal weighs about 100 lbs. at birth.

The colt, Belgrave said, had low blood pressure and couldn’t suckle. A feeding tube was put in place.

“He was critical from the standpoint that he was pretty hypotensive,” Belgrave said. “We were fortunate that he responded well to the blood pressure medication.”

After just five days in the clinic, the colt had improved enough that he was able to be taken off the blood pressure medication and, as he’d started to suckle, had his feeding tube removed. After a week, he was taken off oxygen.

Both foals, however, were kept on continuous fluids for nearly two weeks. Although the colt was improving daily, Belgrave said the filly was always a few steps ahead. Because they were hooked up to fluids, a nurse stayed with Miss Dreamboat and her babies 24/7.

Clyde (blue halter) and Bonnie make for a rare sight as they follow their mother around; the chance of a mare successfully delivering twins is about one in 10,000.

“It was more difficult for the filly because she was ambulatory before he was,” Belgrave said. “We have pictures of her standing on her brother.”

Even though the foals appeared to be doing well, a blood count revealed that they were anemic and both were given blood transfusions.

“Their protein levels were low and we wanted to give them a boost,” Belgrave said. “The least expensive route is to get blood from the mare and give it to the foals.”

By the time the Atkinsons arrived to bring their trio of horses home, both babies were nursing and following their mother around. While the Atkinsons were thrilled to have the foals—now nicknamed Bonnie and Clyde—home, they faced a substantial vet bill and a surprising amount of pessimism.

Jim Atkinson said whenever the subject of the twins came up in talks with fellow horsemen, he was constantly reminded how unlikely it would be for both of them to survive to adulthood and then how even less likely it would be for them both to make the races. Several people even told him the filly would be sterile.

“There was just so much negativity,” he said.

The sight of Bonnie and Clyde flanking their mother as they walked in from the field was enough to convince him it didn’t matter.

A perky Clyde shows no signs of the trauma he underwent as a newborn, except for the shaved area on his neck where the clinic inserted an intravenous port.

“I can’t even explain how much joy it is for me to watch them and play with them,” Atkinson said. “They’ve been a lot of fun.”

At six weeks old, Bonnie and Clyde look like average foals, albeit a bit smaller than the handful of other babies at the Atkinson farm. They are still on oral antibiotics—which they’re so good about taking Atkinson doesn’t even need to put their halters on--as Belgrave said it was better to err on the side of caution. They are also subjected to a blood count once a week.

“Clinically they’re doing well,” said Belgrave, who is in contact with the foals’ Delaware veterinarian, Paul Hannebut.

He commends the Atkinsons for doing all that they did for the foals.

“They didn’t have to,” he said. “I know a lot of people wouldn’t have gone through the expense.”

Belgrave said in 10 years at the clinic the Atkinson foals were the first set of living twins he’d seen. More often, he said, he’d treat a foal that had been the only one to survive from a set of twins. Since the advent of the ultrasound, the occurrence of twins has decreased, Belgrave explained, because upon ulstrasounding the mare following a breeding a vet can simply “pinch off” any extra embryos discovered. Although Miss Dreamboat was ultrasounded, only one embryo was seen, Atkinson said, adding that the veterinarians involved now believed one must have been directly behind the other, out of sight.

Belgrave said that even if one embryo is not pinched off and a pregnancy proceeds with two embryos, often one will be overcome by the other and will die on its own at an early stage. In other cases, one of the twins will die late in the pregnancy, causing problems for the mare.

“We’ve had mares at eight months start lactating prematurely because one of the twins has died in utero,” he said.

Bonnie makes a new friend at the Atkinsons' farm.

And when that does not occur, there is a chance the mare will deliver twins. One is almost always more advanced than the other, however, as was the case with Bonnie and Clyde.

“Despite the size of the broodmare,” he said, “the uterus doesn’t provide the best environment for two foals to coexist.”

Belgrave said Miss Dreamboat’s colt was doing remarkably well considering he had been the smaller twin.

“He really developed,” he said. “They’re close to being the same size.”

While they know they have a ways to go, the Atkinsons are hoping that in a couple years they’ll be racing the twins. Belgrave says there’s no reason that’s not a possibility.

“I know a lot of small Standardbreds that are racing,” he said. “I’d think there’s a very good chance they could both race.”

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