Her trainer found the filly lying in her stall, thrashing in distress. Her legs jackhammered against the cinder block wall; her head flailed recklessly about. The pain in the horse's belly felt like a predator clawing at her gut, and she was desperate to flee.
The trainer suspected Mary Bo Quoit had colic, the No. 1 killer of horses. It was half past noon on Monday. Acting swiftly was a matter of life and death for the 4-year-old Carroll County thoroughbred, nicknamed Miss Piggy, whose life is being chronicled in The Sun.
Trainer and part-owner Joanne Hughes slipped a rope around the animal's neck and eased her away from the wall at the Bowie Training Center in Prince George's County. Mary Bo Quoit stood up, crashed down. She staggered up again, like a newborn foal, slapping her front feet against the unseen creatures tearing at her abdomen.
"I knew her stomach was hurting," Hughes said. "I've never been a horse, but I imagine the pain feels like a wild animal biting them. They have no idea the problem is coming from within. Their instincts are to keep fighting - until they break a leg, neck or back.
"It [colic) can be a horrible death. Horses don't lay down and shut their eyes and go to heaven. They fight it."
Colic is a general term for the abdominal pain that strikes one of every four horses. The condition can include everything from a bit of gas to a twisted intestine. Though seldom fatal - about 7 percent of colicky horses succumb to it - the mortality rate jumps dramatically (25 percent) when it involves an intestinal obstruction, or impaction (food blockage.)
"Colic is a worrisome disease seen in horses of all ages, shapes and sizes," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "It happens at racetracks and on farms. Many horses have their little stomach ailments, but some can get really severe."
Bally Ache, winner of the Preakness in 1960, died that same year of complications from colic. A horse named Golden Fleece, who won the English Derby in 1982, succumbed to colic while standing at stud.
No one is more attuned to the hazards of the disease than Mary Bo Quoit's trainer. Two weeks ago, a 2-year-old thoroughbred died of colic at Liberty Run Farm in Winfield, where Hughes lives.
With that experience fresh in mind, Hughes sought medical aid quickly. She paged a veterinarian making his rounds at the track, who took the filly's vital signs, gave her painkillers and administered fluids via a stomach tube inserted through the nose. Hughes and several other horsemen then loaded the sick animal onto a van and whisked her off to the nearest equine hospital, 90 minutes away.
It was the longest ride of their lives.
En route, Hughes said, "I was afraid the drugs would wear off and Piggy would lay down and die. When I saw her nose bob up at the window, I was really relieved."
At the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center in Leesburg, Va., emergency staff members were standing by. Mary Bo Quoit was shepherded into the hospital for an exhaustive battery of tests. She received intravenous fluids from a bag hung from a hook in her stall. Her trainer hovered nearby, holding her lead and stroking her head.
A rectal exam confirmed what doctors suspected: a blockage at a hairpin turn in the lower intestine - "a common place for an impaction," said Dr. Patty Doyle, the veterinary surgeon who treated her.
Because Mary Bo Quoit appeared to be responding to fluids and to her treatments that calmed her, the decision was made to wait and see if she passed manure without need for surgery.
By Tuesday morning, the filly's intestinal tract had begun to return to normal. She passed manure. Encouraged, they began feeding her small amounts of hay, the equivalent of a soft diet of gelatin and broth for a human convalescent. Yesterday, her diet was expanded to include grain, with the expectation that she might recover enough to go home today.
For Mary Bo Quoit, that's her stall at Bowie where she has been quartered since April. After racing five times at Laurel last year and finishing no better than fifth, she was returned to the Carroll County farm last winter "to eat grass and get her head on straight."
The goal was for the steel-gray filly to race again next month, though her trainer has now ditched all timetables.
"I'm just glad to have her back," Hughes said.