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Track Tech: Medical Marvels Not Always Affordable

Over the last three years, The New York Times reports, some 36-hundred race horses have died at the nation’s tracks.  Modern technology might have saved some of those animals, but, in an industry that must worry about the bottom line, healing a horse is often too expensive. 

From the ceiling of a surgery suite, an 800-pound thoroughbred, slumbering under anesthesia, dangles upside-down from a crane. Techs and nurses carefully lower the colt to a doublewide gurney. Then he’s hooked up to a ventilator delivering oxygen and anesthesia.

Dr. Katie Garrett of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, does an ultrasound, showing intern Sarah Peters where to inject an expensive stem cell treatment into the colt’s pasterns. 

Thoroughbred racing is a multi-billion dollar industry and equine veterinary care has become extremely sophisticated. In the past few decades, the Jockey Club’s research foundation has spent $19 million funding equine medical research projects.

Two of the world’s top horse hospitals are in Lexington. Dr. Katie Garrett says medical advances are opening up new terrain for equine vets.

Says Garrett, “It’s very rewarding to try something new and have it actually work, or think about something you can diagnose that you couldn’t diagnose 10 years go, or save an animal’s life that you’re pretty sure you couldn’t have saved 10 or 15 years ago. I mean, it’s very exciting.”

Veterinary care in thoroughbred racing today is competitive. Thoroughbred owners expect a lot and get it. Things like MRI results and bloodwork are often delivered within 24 hours, unlike the days and weeks that a human patient may wait.

Over at Lane’s End Farm near Lexington, a chestnut mare is greeted by two stallions as she walks into the breeding shed. Lane’s End spent $2 million last year on vet care. Farm manager Mike Cline says the days are long gone when farms had a single vet who handled everything.

Says Cline, “We have a repro guy that comes every morning and helps us figure out when we’re gonna breed mares and what days we’re gonna breed them on. And then we have a medicine person that takes care of sick foals and sick yearlings. And then we have an orthopedic vet that takes care of orthopedic issues.”

Racing’s small-timers can’t afford to buy the highest-quality horses. But they all dream of winning a major race with a dark horse, and more than one has done it. Top veterinary care is a crucial step toward fulfilling that dream. Sarah Wells is a retired state and county health environmentalist who breeds a handful of mares and has one filly in training to race. Wells spends $10,000 to $12,000 of her roughly $60,000 yearly income on vet care. And that’s if all her horses stay relatively healthy.

Says Wells, “There are a lot of new rehab facilities, lot of new treatments available to racehorses, stem cell therapies hyperbaric chambers …These are very effective, they’re also very expensive.

“And if you have a major surgery, like I had a colic surgery three years ago, that’s another $5,000. You sacrifice a lot. You don’t have steak dinners or drive fancy cars.”

Back at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, tech Sheri Miller leads a coffee-colored gelding toward a waiting van. His name is Arson Squad. He’s leaving the hospital after six weeks. The bottom third of his right front leg is wrapped with a green bandage, and the horse walks well if a bit stiffly.

Says Miller, “Forty years ago he wouldn’t have had a shot. He would have been euthanized at the site.”

On U.S. tracks each year, hundreds of horses die from race-related injuries. But for owners with the money and the will, options exist for saving some of them.

Nine-year-old Arson Squad broke down training in Florida. His owners immediately shipped him up to Rood and Riddle for a procedure that fused his fetlock. That’s the joint above the hoof that acts as a shock absorber when a racehorse’s legs hit the ground at 35 to 40 miles an hour.

Arson Squad’s surgery, called fetlock arthrodesis, was invented by Rood and Riddle’s Dr. Larry Bramlage around 1978 and has become more refined over the decades. You could call Dr. Bramlage the Bono of equine medicine. He is so well known for inventing this life-saving surgery, performed now all over the world, horse people travel to the clinic just to get his autograph.

Unlike humans, injured horses can’t lie in bed to recover, or use crutches and wheelchairs. They have to stand to keep their vital systems working.

Says Bramlage, “The fortunate thing about the arthrodesis technique is it allows them to be so stable, it absolutely allows them to be pain-free in a matter of days.

Back in the parking lot, tech Sheri Miller loads Arson Squad into the van. The horse won’t race again but live out the rest of his life at an equine retirement home nearby called Old Friends.

Miller gives Arson Squad a rub right before the trailer door is closed. “Be a good boy,” she tells him, “and I’ll come see you.” 

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