Derby Vets Ensure Safety for the Horses

Derby Vets Ensure Safety for the Horses
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
On call veterinarian Larry Bramlage looks over horses on Kentucky Oaks Day.

They wear bright yellow saddle blankets and cause all manner of chatter and intrigue with every gallop down the backstretch, head toss in the barn area, and regal glance at the surrounding paparazzi. These are the darlings of Derby week that will captivate millions tomorrow afternoon. More subtle are the two-legged, tablet PC-wielding regulatory veterinarians working in the background, conducting checks to ensure these horses get to the track and home safely.

The goal of these vets is to keep a close eye on hopefuls', and then contenders', conditions, catching any lump, misstep, or hint of malaise that could compromise performance ability in the days prior to the big race. 

Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director for the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, points out that such checks aren't just for the stars in the sport; every horse that races in Kentucky undergoes a race-day exam. But, "for specific targeted events like Kentucky Oaks, Derby, and Breeders' Cup, where we have a large population of horses coming in from around the country that we may not have been able to familiarize ourselves with over time as part of the resident (racetrack) population, we will start looking at those horses in the week preceding the event.

"So, for this year's Oaks and Derby ... all those horses will have been examined in their stalls at least twice before race day, and we've also had veterinarians trackside observing them under tack at varying gaits, so jogging, galloping, and hopefully speedwork ... to make sure that we're satisfied with their condition at all of those stages."

Heat, Lumps, and Gait Irregularities

At the center of these checks is a close examination for signs of general illness, injury, or lameness. While legs are certainly a focus, the veterinarian first looks at the horse holistically. Scollay describes this process, which generally occurs in the stall: "We assess the overall condition of the horse, we look at demeanor, we look to see if the horse is bright, alert, interactive ... we look at the horse's behavior in the stall before we go into the stall with it, look at the horse's stance to see if it's showing signs that it's comfortable or uncomfortable, and try and observe it before we interact with it.

"We check both eyes to make sure that at least one appears to be functioning normally; horses are allowed to race with one eye, so we want to make sure that at least one eye is clinically normal" she adds. "We check the horse's tattoo to confirm we're looking at the correct horse, and then we perform a hands-on evaluation that involves palpation, manipulation of the front legs; then we'll have the horse out of the stall, and we'll see the horse jogged in hand, going away from us and back toward us. If there are any questions at that point, then we can increase the depth and scope of the exam, depending on what our questions might be."

This exam doesn't include vital signs, which include temperature and pulse and respiratory rates. Horses can experience "white coat syndrome," just as people do. So typically the trainer or his or her staff performs this type of health monitoring. 

What are the red flags? Dr. Scollay describes these as "the cardinal signs of inflammation," a doctor's catchphrase that includes heat, redness (not as applicable to horses as humans, since you generally can't see redness beneath their hair coats), swelling, pain, and loss of function. "So, a horse that shows evidence of swelling or inflammation, resistance to palpation, the horse that is painful if you put pressure on a tendon, we're going to look at that horse harder; we're going to want more information."

This also applies to animals that resist flexion of a leg or show abnormalities jogging or traveling beyond a walk, she explains. A head nod or gait asymmetry could indicate the horse has an underlying problem causing lameness.

If a horse is very obviously lame, the regulatory veterinarian will "call it there," recommending the horse not race, but not every case is cut-and-dried. Just as two marathon runners might have very different running styles, some horses simply travel in a wonky way. That's where good recordkeeping and a panel of vets can help.

Dr. William Farmer, racing veterinarian for the KHRC, and also an AAEP member, has a tablet PC in hand most of the time, tapping away at the screen. No, he's not playing Angry Birds. Rather, he's checking horses' composite veterinary regulatory health records using an online "pre-race module," based on Jockey Club's InCompass records of each horse's starts and regulatory findings in other states. If he or his veterinary colleagues see something out of the ordinary in a pre-race exam, "We can pull them up again, see how things are changing, and if all the sudden there's a difference we're noticing in a large tendon or a change in an ankle, we can go back and see, 'OK, two weeks ago that was there, or no, it wasn't there.'

"This is very helpful when these horses have not been racing in Kentucky and we see them for the first time, (especially if one of them has an idiosyncrasy in its gait, and we have to decide quickly is it lame or is it just odd," he continues. "And odd can be OK. It's helpful to see what other regulatory veterinarians have observed over time. If they didn't notice any oddness, then now, that's a concern to us. It's a limited health history (in that it doesn't include information from the horse's private veterinarian), but for us it's still very helpful because it does show the exam findings over time."

If the records don't help explain a potential problem, the vets turn to each other. Dr. Scollay explains, "If there's a question that needs to be answered (on whether this is) a significant finding relevant to the horse's soundness and safety on the racetrack, we'll convene the rest of our veterinarians, we'll inspect the horse as a panel, and then if we still feel that we need additional information to make the appropriate decision, then we can request X-rays, ultrasound, or whatever additional information we need to feel confident in either allowing the horse to race or making the decision to prevent it from racing."

Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup Horses

For the hallmark races of the industry, regulatory veterinarians begin serial examinations a week out. They must complete two exams in the prior week, although Farmer says most horses are examined every other day for the penultimate week.

The first exam has a workout component: each trainer makes an appointment with the KHRC vets, letting them know what day and time the horse will be breezing on the track. A regulatory vet performs a standard pre-race exam before Dr. Scollay or other veterinarians watch the horse breeze on the track. A racing fan at an early age, she asked her parents for a stopwatch for her 10th birthday. And while she readily admits she "still doesn't really know what to do with a stopwatch," she does have an eye for problems the horse might be experiencing during speedwork: again, asymmetric gaits, any odd movements, and also any problems with fitness or condition.

She takes notes "in her own little shorthand" on the horses' workouts to be compared to the notes from the morning exam.

"There are some horses who travel short and choppy in the shed row in the morning," Dr. Scollay points out, "and I guess I can appreciate that a little bit because when I first roll out of bed, I don't travel all that well, and sometimes I need 15 minutes of walking before I look fine. And so the ability to see the horses in the barn and also on the track gives us a balanced perspective of the horse."

An unbiased approach is important, so the regulatory vets--up to seven pre-Derby, for example--rotate through the contender exams. "Each individual's assessment of a specific finding is influenced by past experience with the same or similar condition. There is benefit in convening the panel and looking at the horse together and achieve consensus on what the right thing to do is."

"I think our job is to clearly draw the line in the sand as to what is and is not acceptable in terms of the condition of a horse participating in a race," Dr. Scollay says, "And if we've been effective in doing that and trainers know that if their horses on the wrong side of the line it's going to be scratched, then they don't enter the horse. If we've been effective in doing our job, we should really have very few horses to scratch because everybody should understand what our expectations are. If they know that the horse isn't going to get past the vet, then why enter?

"I think part of the success of our program is when we have few scratches," she adds. "And that's not because we're not looking hard, and it's not because we're not vigilant in examining these horses and having high standards as far as our expectations, it's that the horsemen understand and recognize that compliance is their best answer."

Go Time - Derby Day

"We understand that this is a big day for the horse as well as for all the connections, so we try to get in early, do our job, and then let people relax and horses relax to the best of their ability until it's time," Dr. Scollay explains. This means a 6 a.m. start time, whereas on normal race days exams extend from 8:30 a.m. until noon.

Once it's time for the walkover, the parade of horses from the backside to the paddock, there's yet another instance of close observation. "From the time the Derby horses step on the racetrack at the assembly area until they exit the racetrack after having run, they're under direct observation of at least one commissioned veterinarian at any time," says Dr. Scollay, "It's sort of like having an emergency room physician following you at 20 paces, because we are prepared to provide a pretty high level of emergency care if something goes wrong."

This includes veterinarians and ambulances at the quarter and three-quarter pole, in case of an emergency. "We have set up a triage tent on the backside and we have digital radiography back there, so if, for instance, we're concerned about ... a fractured vertebra in the neck, we can go back to the triage tent, we can actually X-ray the horse in the trailer without moving it."

An equine hospital in Simpsonville and hospitals in Lexington are on call in the event a horse requires a more detailed assessment or surgery. "Hopefully, we don't have to use them, but if we do, they're ready for us," says Dr. Scollay.

Equine surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Santschi of The Ohio State University is posted at the quarter-pole to respond rapidly and assess any front-side injuries with an experienced eye, and equine anesthesiologist Dr. John Hubbell (also of OSU) is on-hand to put any horse that might require general anesthesia so it can be transported off site without disturbing an injury. These veterinarians and each of the veterinarians on the KHRC team are armed with a commission radio to facilitate instantaneous communication and coordination of a care plan in the untoward event of an injury. "We're prepared to go great distances to recover an injured athlete," Scollay says, noting that equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital serves as the AAEP On Call veterinarian who is in communication with the Commission veterinarians in the event of an equine injury. He is prepared to broadcast information about horses to keep the public informed with accurate information.

Once horses have crossed the wire, the veterinarians do not yet heave a collective sigh of relief. All eyes remain on the horses until each animal exits the racetrack. "And if at any point there is a question about the horse's condition, we'll go back to the barn and follow up on the case there to make sure the horse is okay, and we may also check on the horse the following day."

If the veterinarians determine a horse is injured or unsound--whether the horse was scratched for unsoundness or demonstrated evidence of lameness or injury during or following a race--they place it on the veterinarian's list, meaning the horse is ineligible to enter a race until it's been proved that the trainer and veterinarian have addressed the animal's condition satisfactorily and that he has returned to racing soundness. Among the additional checks the horse undergoes is a post-breeze follow-up. "We'll go back to the barn, watch the horse cool out, and we will draw blood to make sure that what we're seeing is what we're going to get on race day and that there's no medication impacting the presentation of the horse the day that it races," Dr. Scollay explains.

"We try very hard to be rigorous in making sure that, for the horses we send out to race, we are confident it is a reasonable thing to send them out there to do."

With the battery of exams and demanding schedule Dr. Scollay and her team face, she regrets that there's not a lot of time to get to know each Derby contender's personality well, although sometimes the veterinarians have had the opportunity to watch a horse climb the ranks at their home tracks.

Still, she does feel an attachment to these animals to whose well-being her team has invested a lot of time and energy promoting.

So who's her favorite? "Somebody asked me which horse was 'mine' once, and I said they're all mine, and I want them all to get around safely. I'll be proud and happy for whoever does win," she says, "but my biggest accomplishment, the biggest accomplishment of this team will be to ensure that everybody gets around safely."

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