Horse medicine: Veterinary care for race horses [Breeders' Cup]

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This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

Some 100 yards from the finish line of the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, champion filly Go For Wand shattered her right foreleg and crumbled. The filly, which ran neck-in-neck with Bayakoa through the entire race, struggled to her feet, stumbled a few uncertain steps, and collapsed in a heap.

Spectators and racing veterans wept. It was the second fatality that day at Belmont Park. The first occurred in the Sprint, when Mr. Nickerson lost his footing. Five-year-old Shaker Knit tripped over the fallen colt and injured his spine. He was euthanized that night.

The day forever changed veterinary supervision at the Breeders’ Cup, and made a lasting impact in veterinary care at racetracks around the country.

“We started looking very introspectively at the event after that,” former BC executive director D.G. Van Clief says. The Cup convened a panel of owners, trainers and veterinarians to find ways to prevent a recurrence of the tragedy. The group agreed to move the adrenaline-charged three-quarter-mile Sprint to later in the program, hoping the delay might tamp down the intensity of this hell-bent-for-leather race, Van Clief says.

But the more profound change was the creation of a veterinary inspection team made up of vets from each region of the country and from Europe. They play an active role in evaluating the racers the week before the race. The idea was to bring in veterinarians familiar with contestants, says Dora Delgado, Breeders’ Cup senior vice president. “When you have 100 to 160 horses at the track, the local vets are overwhelmed,” she says. The Injury Management Team vets watch the horses work out, and they conduct a hands-on inspection as well.

“They’re inspecting from the time the horses arrive on the grounds to the post,” Van Clief says. “The horses are observed at rest and jogging.”

The high caliber of the horses can contribute to their vulnerability, according to Dr. Larry Bramlage, equine surgeon with Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington and the veterinarian who addresses media veterinary questions during the Breeders’ Cup. “These are world champions. These are athletes that can run through pain — the same thing you see in people,” he says. “Often the difference between a great athlete and an average one is the ability to push themselves. . . . We call it heart.”

And therein lies the problem. A horse willing to race through pain, and a racing team perhaps blinded by excitement and ambition, could potentially contribute to injuries, Bramlage says. “You need an outside opinion. The judgments of people involved are often colored by their desire to run. They’ve gone all the way to the championship. They want to participate. That’s why you have to guard against the rose-colored glasses.”

Because every state establishes its own rules for racing, including veterinary care, the Breeders’ Cup has to announce and enforce its strict veterinary standards wherever the meet is held, demanding a fully equipped trauma center as well as two state-of-the-art equine ambulances.

“It’s provided sort of a model,” Bramlage says. The Cup took the best practices from all over the country and created a coherent package that has had a lasting influence in many jurisdictions, he says.

Photo: Breeders' Cup

About Jenni Laidman
I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.
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