During a Jan. 16 teleconference about his Breeders' Cup-commissioned report on the catastrophic breakdown of Mongolian Groom in the Longines Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), acclaimed veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage reiterated challenges in assessing the gelding's condition before the race and offered ideas on improving pre-race exams.
A day earlier, Bramlage, an orthopedic surgeon at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, unveiled a 25-page report with support from outside counsel Stoll Keenon Ogden. It concluded Mongolian Groom had a preexisting condition of bilateral lameness, the nature of which proved difficult to detect in pre-race examinations leading up to last fall's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park.
Mongolian Stables' Mongolian Groom, a 4-year-old son of Hightail trained by Enebish Ganbat, was pulled up in early stretch of the Nov. 2 race by jockey Abel Cedillo with a hind left leg injury, which Bramlage determined through veterinary, training, and medication records and a necropsy report was the result of a chain of events. Mongolian Groom possessed lesions in both hind distal cannon bones. During the race, a stress fracture in the bottom of his left hind propagated through the bone—a condylar fracture that was the first major fracture. It led to the catastrophic injury.
The gelding exhibited stiffness before the race and showed choppiness during training, leading the large team of Breeders' Cup veterinarians to flag him as one of 24 horses for added evaluation. Though other horses were scratched by veterinarians, he was not, nor did regulatory veterinarians require him to be X-rayed.
"Mongolian Groom was so similar to how he had been over the last six months of racing that he didn't stick out as having anything particularly different going on," Bramlage said, noting four other horses had been X-rayed. "It's potentially possible that if he had been radiographed that they might have found something. But (they) may have found nothing. The picture I showed (in the report) is a small lesion, and that's a lesion we look for, but you have to have exactly the right radiographs to find them."
Asked whether use of evolving computed tomography or positron emission tomography scanners might help diagnose such conditions of concern, Bramlage sees potential but doesn't anticipate those machines being used with every entrant.
"Those technologies are just coming of age. They are not quite mature yet," he said. "I think in a year or two we will be using one or both of those to look at the horses that we think need to be looked at in some fashion. I don't think you'll ever be able to image every horse that is entered. It's just not practical. The right way to do it is to trust the regulatory veterinarians to pick out the horse that meets the threshold (for examination)."
Bramlage is hopeful for progress in other safety areas. He issued numerous recommendations in his report, including one that he hopes can be applied to everyday racing: providing the means necessary for regulatory veterinarians to view selected horses jogging in a 60-foot circle before competition. His report emphasized that when a horse is jogging in a straight line and is lame in both front or hind limbs, it can appear symmetrical.
After fielding questions, Bramlage dismissed the possibility that Cedillo's use of the riding crop on Mongolian Groom might have affected the injury and said he was untroubled that 24 horses—or approximately 10% of the Breeders' Cup participants—were deemed in need of repeated inspection by veterinarians.
"(At) the end of the season, people have wear and tear; horses have wear and tear," he said. "That's why they get the increased scrutiny, plus you add to that the fact that these are the best equine athletes in the world and they can play with pain, as I put it in the report. It's like a football player—you have to take his helmet away to keep him from making his concussion worse.
"Those horses want to run. Whenever you put them in a situation where their adrenaline goes up, it is difficult to see the true horse."
He feels a key for success for the Breeders' Cup and the racing industry is with regulatory oversight, which he is pleased to see tracks and commissions embrace.
"Those guys do a good job; they want to do a better job," he said. "If we give them a little more to work with, we should continue to move forward."