Dr. Dwayne Rodgerson may be considered an expert in equine surgery, but he's quick to point out he's hardly one to follow the path most often traveled.
As the lone speaker at a veterinarian's presentation that served as the closing session Nov. 1 at OwnerView's Thoroughbred Owner Conference, Rodgerson voiced skepticism while speaking about popular treatments for bucked shins and stem cell therapy.
In addressing the recent rise in stem cell therapy for treating soft tissue injuries, Rodgerson said he was "on the fence" about regenerative practices such as using bone marrow to treat tendon injuries, because the use of stem cell therapy is at its "infancy" and there is much to learn about its applications and benefits.
"Veterinariary medicine is being hit hard by stem cell therapy and it's being pushed very strong," Rodgerson said Wednesday at the Del Mar Hilton. "Owners are going to be hit with all these claims that it will fix it, fix it, fix it; but I'm on the fence. They say it's abracadabra and the problem is fixed, but I'm a big skeptic. I tell my interns and residents, 'Be a scientist. Question everything. Don't be a magician.'
"I'm not convinced anyone has figured it out yet. People run million-dollar labs and that's all they do all day (and they haven't figured it out yet). It's OK to try. They typically don't do any harm, but you have to question stuff. I agree it's going to be the future, but certain things that are being used on horses don't work."
Rodgerson, who works out of the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute near Lexington, also questions a long-standing belief on shin problems. He said simply accepting the fact that young horses get bucked shins and then treating them for it with decades-old remedies is ill-advised and can lead to problems down the road.
"The old rule was that horses have to go through bucked shins, but you do that at the risk of the horse being pulled out of training and losing racing days," Rodgerson said "You also run the risk of a stress fracture. About 12% of the horses that get bucked shins get stress fractures."
Rodgerson advises conservative management as a treatment, pointing out that "sometimes you have to let Mother Nature do her work.
"She does a very good job. You want to give them 60-90 days of rest to let the bones settle down," Rodgerson said. "Treat the inflammation with anti-inflammatories and cold therapy (icing). That's the basic. People will sell you alternatives such as shockwave therapy. It doesn't do any harm and it helps with the pain, but does it stimulate healing? I'm a skeptic."
Rodgerson also is not a fan of blistering or pin-firing to promote healing to treat a problem that impacts 70% of young horses in their first six months of training. He added that exercise is very essential in building strong bones and stimulating growth.
"Weanlings that are out there getting exercise, their bone density is 30% higher than weanlings who are kept inside. Bone is dynamic and it is constantly remodeling to the forces applied it," Rodgerson said.
The equine surgeon favors short, quick works for young horses as opposed to long, slow gallops.
"If you look at a horse getting fit, getting trained; the cannon bone is under tension. But when you get into speed works, that tension changes and the bone has to adapt to those changes. So long gallops increase the chances of bucked shins," Rodgerson said. "Research has showed that high-speed exercise can be protective against bucked shins."
Rodgerson also presented an overview on laminitis, discussing the warning signs and current treatments for the illness.
Prior to Rodgerson's talk, TVG analyst and former trainer Simon Bray was the host for a session on the claiming game that featured owner Ken Ramsey, owner Robb Levinsky of Kenwood Racing, and California-based trainer Peter Miller.
The proper placing of a horse was a key theme voiced by all three panelists.
"Most horses will have a chance to win, if you spot them properly," Levinsky said. "If you claim a horse for $25,000 and your trainer says it wasn't a good claim and you have to run for $10,000 to win races, people hate to hear that. New owners say they paid $25,000, but the horse doesn't know that. Your job is to make it easy on the horse to get to the winner's circle and when you do that it becomes easier for you to make money.
"If you put a horse in the right company, he will be a completely different horse. You can't handcuff the trainer. If you keep getting the horse beat, by the time you finally drop him, he won't be able to win anything."
Ramsey, who races horses with his wife Sarah, recently captured his 19th leading owner title at Keeneland and has owned horses at all levels of the game, said his primary goal is to spot his horses "where they can win."
"Right now at Churchill Downs, I and (trainers) Mike Maker and Wesley Ward have gone through the condition book for each horse so we know where each horse will run. No matter what we claimed him for or what we paid for him, we'll put him where we think he can win," said Ramsey, who according to Equibase has won 1,992 races (through Oct. 31) with earnings of more than $88 million. "That's why I'm a leading owner so often."
The four-time recipient of the Eclipse Award as outstanding owner also said a key to success in the claiming game was looking for a reason to explain away a bad performance—such as running on the wrong surface or at the wrong distance—and not being fearful of pulling the trigger and dropping a claim slip.
"You can't be afraid to make a bad claim," said Ramsey, who will turn 82 Friday when he runs Hemp Hemp Hurray in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T). "It's a risky game. If you have short pants, you shouldn't be in it."
Pointing out how difficult it can be to win a race even with the best of bloodlines, Levinsky said that statistically claimers can provide owners with a much better chance of getting to the races and winning a race than with a yearling.
"Fifty-one percent of the horses sired by Seattle Slew never raced," he said. "You can pay $250,000 for a yearling and he may never race. Through claimers, you can spend less for a horse and get quicker results."
Miller, who has won 859 races and earned $37.7 million since becoming a trainer in 1987, stressed the importance of communication; and of owners and trainers having the same philosophy.
"Communication is key. I talk to my larger clients almost daily. I like having them in the loop, knowing what goes on so we can make decisions together as a team. This way we can avoid finger-pointing situations," said Miller, who claimed Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1T) starter Stormy Liberal for $40,000 on Oct. 16, 2016 and has won four stakes and earned $233,700 with him this year. "Most of my owners have the same philosophy so it makes it everything easier. When I have owners that don't believe in my philosophy they're wasting my time and their money and I don't want to do either.
"It can be difficult to break the news to owners about their horses. It's like telling a parent their child is ugly, but you want to keep yourself in the best company, and your horses in the worst."