At the top of the hierarchy for world's most famous race horse, you'll find names like Secretariat, Seabiscuit, and Man O' War.
A couple of years ago, no equestrian name was more famous in East Tennessee than "Amigo." The Arabian endurance race horse obtained champion-level celebrity status without winning a single competition. However, Amigo victoriously triumphed over an obstacle arguably more challenging than any triple crown.
In January 2010, owner Gary Sanderson found Amigo at his barn after the endurance racehorse somehow stabbed himself through the chest with a limb measuring three feet in length. Doctors at the University of Tennessee's Large Animal Clinic initially gave Amigo a two percent chance of survival.
"I've seen some pretty bad things, but he [Amigo] was definitely the worst
traumatic injury I've ever seen," said Carla Sommardahl, large animal specialist at the UT Vet School. "The amount of infection from that kind of internal injury was just devastating. But every day that he kept going, we started feeling like maybe we're going to save this one.""
Amigo, his doctors, and Sanderson successfully fought the odds with the support of thousands of people around the world. More than 10,500 Facebook users became fans of Amigo - One Amazing Horse and helped cover more than $40,000 in medical bills. Fans even gave Amigo a going away party when he was healthy enough to leave UT's Large Animal Clinic. Amigo became such an internet sensation, Metro Pulse named him its best local online celebrity for 2011.
Hola Again, Amigo
Two years after the captivating fight for survival, life goes on for Amigo inside an old red barn in Corryton.
"He is missing about a third or a little bit more of the left lung," said Sanderson. "You can see an indentation on his left side where they removed a rib, but he is really healthy. Amigo does not have to take any kind of medication."
Amigo not only survived, he is able to be ridden.
"His stamina gets better every day. We don't push him too much and are really careful with him, but Amigo has gone on some 36-mile rides over the course of a weekend at Norris," said Sanderson.
In Amigo's prime, he ran 50-mile races and ranked in the top five in the South for Arabian endurance horses. Today a ride of any distance or speed surely counts as a victory lap.
"You look out and see him and he looks like another horse in the herd, but then you think about everything he went through," said Sanderson.
Things have changed for the Sanderson family since 2010. Gary and his girlfriend Kara are now married. Kara was Amigo's original owner. She now completely takes care of Amigo and a home full of four-legged friends while Gary's job forces him to travel out of state.
"She [Kara] deserves all the credit in the world. She has been with Amigo through it all, but you don't ever hear about her because she is camera-shy. People only saw me during most of the stories back then because I'm always running my mouth," joked Sanderson.
Amigo's Amazing Payback
Amigo was given the gift of life by so many loyal supporters. Now Gary wants to return the favor by "paying it forward."
"If people wouldn't have gotten to know his [Amigo's] story through the media and Facebook, I'm not certain he would be here. You had 10,000 people praying for one horse. Those prayers helped," said Sanderson. "Now we want to make sure nobody else has to go through what we did from a financial standpoint."
Sanderson teamed up with UT's vet school to create Amigo's Legacy of Hope Fund, also known as "Amigo's Fund." The fund aims to provide a financial safety net for future cases of competition horses with critical injuries.
"It's bad enough when an animal you love is hurt critically and you think he may die. But it's worse when financially you're having to worry about that, too," said Sanderson. "Without the help people gave us, Kara and I would be bankrupt right now. Amigo's fund will hopefully help someone else like people helped us."
"Having a fund like that to aid a horse owner in caring and doing the treatments is just invaluable," said Sommardahl.
"Once the fund builds up to $35,000 it can be utilized," said Sanderson. "One of the stipulations of Amigo's Fund is that the recipient must agree to have the horse photographed and updates posted on Facebook so people can follow its progress the same way they supported Amigo."
The parameters of Amigo's Legacy of Hope Fund are outlined in this PDF while additional information about making donations to the College of Veterinary Medicine can be found at UT's website.
Sanderson wrote a book about Amigo's experience. He said most of it was written during Amigo's treatment as a form of therapy via documentation. Sanderson is now searching for a publisher and says all initial proceeds will feed Amigo's Fund.
Amigo is already giving back to the vet school as a rare living case study.
"We don't have a lot of cases like his to follow, so it will help us medically as a profession to see how he does with all of the other normal obstacles in life," said Sommardahl. "Amigo is just a hero to us. We see so many bad cases of injured animals, and to see one like him inspires us to never give up."
Amigo's Facebook page has also changed its focus to other cases of injured horses.
"People come to Amigo's page and talk about their injured animals. It really helps to have a support system. I know the prayers people sent us were just as valuable as the donations," said Sanderson.
Sanderson says Amigo's stamina grows every day. The amazing horse may even compete again in some shorter endurance competitions.
"The fact that he was given a two percent chance to live and pulled through it and is able to be ridden and is actually able to compete again is amazing. That is a miracle," said Sanderson. "But just as much a miracle is that so many people cared about a horse in East Tennessee. That is just as incredible as his recovery."