Seize the Moment

By Dr. Joan C. Hendricks

This has been a transformational year for the racing industry and for the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's New Bolton Center campus.

The superb performance of Barbaro in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) won hearts and lifted hopes. The eyes of a hero-hungry world were on him when he broke down in the Preakness (gr. I) and continue to focus on him throughout his long, complicated recovery. If anything, he has gained fans -- certainly ardent animal-loving fans -- as time goes on.

Surely none of us in the industry or at Penn Vet could have anticipated the breadth and endurance of the public's interest in this horse's story. The wide public interest, far beyond the "horse world" or veterinary medicine, has put a public spotlight on the industry and the veterinary profession.

As dean of Penn Vet, I want to use this opportunity to convey three thank-yous and pose a question.

First, I thank the members of the veterinary industry for their steadfast willingness to educate the public by being available to respond to the media's probing questions. The industry has shown a public face of honesty, flexibility, and hope. We veterinarians are heartily grateful for the expressions of confidence in the care we provide and are proud of our profession's role in improving the racing industry.

Second, we are grateful to the media for working tirelessly to convey information about Barbaro, veterinary medicine, New Bolton Center, and equine health and disease to a curious and intensely emotional public. It has been a pleasure to work with such knowledgeable partners in feeding the world's insatiable appetite for information on Barbaro, and on horses and horse racing generally.

Finally, we all appreciate that the key players in this story are such generous, open, articulate people: Roy and Gretchen Jackson (his owners), Michael Matz (his trainer), and Dr. Dean Richardson (his surgeon). And of course, that the horse himself -- with grace and adaptability and a sense of mischief -- has persevered, has enjoyed himself within the strictures of the Intensive Care Unit, and has convinced us all that we are doing the right thing.

It has been an honor for Penn Vet to represent the veterinary profession -- likely hundreds of individuals have been involved in Barbaro's care or in the response to the media interest. Of course, the story behind the story is that New Bolton Center was prepared: staffed and equipped for 24-hour expert care with specialists in anesthesia, critical care, infection prevention, shoeing, and nursing. We are grateful, again, that the media have helped tell the story of the high-level technical and scientific expertise that veterinary medicine has to offer. Clearly, the refinements of veterinary medicine are news to most of the world.

Finally, how can we work together to answer the inquiries we have now all faced so many times: Why did Barbaro suffer his fracture? What is laminitis; why did it develop; how can it be treated?

We must use this opportunity -- we may not get another -- to raise funds to move forward on equine diseases such as laminitis. We must focus and invest more time, science, and funds in preventing and treating performance injuries. For complex animals with complicated diseases, we have only a tiny amount of money; despite historic highs, the total amount available at the two major equine charities is still less than $4 million. While everyone involved in raising these funds deserves applause, let me put this in perspective: These amounts are less than one National Institutes of Health award granted this year to the University of Pennsylvania for human clinical research. No one can expect to make progress in fighting a complex medical problem with this kind of insufficient funding.

We have a unique chance now to build on the current positive public perception. As quickly as the broader public has turned toward the sport, it could turn away if the industry appears harsh and cold. Let's use this opening to encourage more investment, attendance, bigger gates, wider viewership and sponsorship, and perhaps even a broader base for philanthropy -- expanded opportunities for community and political support are very possible.

We must work together -- for the benefit of horses, sport, and medicine -- to seize this moment's special opportunity.

Dr. Joan C. Hendricks is the Gilbert S. Kahn Dean of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.