10/29/2008 11:00PM

An annual checkup's only a start


After two days and 14 races worth of Breeders' Cup action, television viewers were left with one nagging question:

Where were Larry and Wayne?

As the on-call veterinarians provided for major racing events through the American Association of Equine Practitioners, Drs. Larry Bramlage and Wayne McIlwraith have had the grim duty in recent years of explaining the various traumas sustained by Eight Belles, Barbaro, Pine Island, Funfair, Landseer, and Fleet Indian, as well as the mystifying performance of an apparently healthy Big Brown. This is not the kind of TV exposure they needed.

This time around, much to their relief, Bramlage and McIlwraith had more to worry about from their own exposure to 90-degree temperatures while wearing the obligatory coats and ties. Of the 156 horses competing in the Breeders' Cup events - 70 on very firm grass and 86 on Santa Anita's synthetic main track - a total of 156 came home under their own steam. The ambulance was a nonstarter.

"I was impressed." said McIlwraith, director of Colorado State University's Equine Orthopaedic Research Center. "All we can say is that we had a really good couple of days. I'm even unaware of any nonfatal injuries at the moment."

No question, the public relations department of the racing business finally caught a break. At the same time, the tough life of the racehorse goes on. McIlwraith was doing surgeries all day last Sunday at the Equine Medical Center in Los Alamitos, and he had six more scheduled for Monday when he paused for a brief conversation.

While the fatalities make the headlines, it is the nonfatal injuries that tell the real tale of attrition in racehorses. McIlwraith noted that the use of properly maintained synthetic surfaces, such as Pro-Ride at Santa Anita, is only one of a number of measures that need to be taken to reduce the thinning of the racing herd.

"Synthetic surfaces were overhyped at the start," he said. "They were going to be the panacea for injuries, and they didn't require maintenance. Neither is true.

"I've always considered that the keys to preventing injuries are early diagnosis of the damage and then protection from the surface," McIlwraith went on. "I thought the surface at Santa Anita was terrific in the fact that a lot of the horses ran so well. I walked down the track on Friday after the races. It's beautiful to walk on, compression-wise, although it wasn't like I could imagine the hoof sliding like it should. On the other hand, it wouldn't be cupping out, either, so it might be a good compromise."

"Breeders' Cup starters have a better chance to survive because of the prerace inspection program that was instituted after the fatal breakdown of the British horse Mr. Brooks in the 1992 Sprint at Gulfstream Park.

"There were six veterinarians in teams of two," McIlwraith explained. "Two people looked at every horse, multiple times during the week, then compared notes at the end of the day. Obviously, when you have 14 races that's a lot of horses to check. But it needs to become the norm, and not just the day before, because then you can see how they change."

The synthetic surface has been given credit for the success of such European performers as Raven's Pass, Henrythenavigator, and Muhannak in main-track Breeders' Cup events. Dr. Rick Arthur, the California Horse Racing Board's equine medical director, stirred in another factor.

"I certainly wouldn't want to ascribe their success to the fact that they didn't have to race against horses using anabolic steroids anymore," Arthur said, referring to the recent California ban that was adopted by the Breeders' Cup. "But how much is something like that compared to a fair racing surface is hard to say. There were a lot of things going on at the same time."

Arthur, formerly a practicing vet, also warns that synthetic surfaces alone do not provide all the answers.

"The track surface issue is a way to ameliorate other factors that have overtaken horse racing," he said. "Whether that is the way horses are trained differently, medication regimen, breeding, or other things we haven't been able to figure out, I don't know. But I don't think surfaces are any more dangerous today than they were 30 years ago.

"At the very least, synthetic surfaces are very promising," Arthur added. "I certainly wouldn't argue with anyone who says it's a novel technology, and that we got a little bit ahead of ourselves here and there. But there are some exciting aspects in terms of horse safety."

One safe Breeders' Cup in a row is hardly a trend, but other racetracks with widely viewed events (hello, Churchill, Pimlico, Belmont) should at least take notice. Heightened inspections, investment in safer surfaces, and more conservative medication rules should be the priority.

"I do think people have recognized that it's a new time in horse racing," Arthur said. "We do have to do things differently. Hopefully, people have realized that when you put the horse at risk, you put horse racing at risk. And even if you don't care about the horses, you need to care about your financial future, and that future derives from the welfare of horses."