02/07/2003 1:00AM

Gill: Vet took leg to find the cause of breakdown


Michael Gill, the owner of Casual Conflict, the gelding who was euthanized Monday after a breakdown at Gulfstream Park and subsequently had his right leg amputated by a veterinarian, said on Friday that the veterinarian had taken the leg to do his own examination into the fatal injury.

The amputation has sparked an investigation by state regulators, who said the veterinarian did not have authorization to remove the leg. The limb has been confiscated and sent to the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine for pathological testing.

Gill, the runaway leader at Gulfstream among owners with 33 winners through Thursday, said that Philip Aleong, a Calder-based veterinarian who does work for Gill's primary trainer, Mark Shuman, took the leg shortly after the euthanized horse arrived at a receiving area. Gill said that Aleong told him it was common for veterinarians to amputate legs for study.

"He told me, 'I've got two other legs in my freezer. Everyone does it,' " Gill said. "They all have legs. They're all taking them off. It's a common practice. It's called science."

Shuman also said that it was a common practice to amputate legs from horses who have had catastrophic breakdowns and that Aleong's only purpose was to study the joint.

Aleong, reached by cell phone on Friday, declined to comment.

State regulators, equine surgeons, and other veterinarians have said that it is highly unusual for a veterinarian to remove a leg without authorization from track officials or state regulators. David Roberts, the director of the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, the state's regulatory body that is conducting the investigation, called the amputation "out of the ordinary."

"My track vet was very concerned about it," Roberts said. "My state vet said it was not something he had ever seen. And as far as we are aware, this is not something that is commonly done."

Roberts said that veterinarians at the University of Florida are conducting tests on the leg to determine "what condition the leg was in, why it was amputated, and whether the horse should have been racing in the first place."

Gill and Shuman have been the targets of criticism by some rival trainers at Gulfstream for an aggressive claiming strategy that has helped them rack up wins. Both have served suspensions for medication violations in recent years, raising suspicions about their success at the meet. But both deny any wrongdoing.

Casual Conflict, a 9-year-old gelding who had made 19 starts in the past 12 months, broke down about midway through the seventh race at Gulfstream on Monday and was euthanized by the track veterinarian, Dr. Mary Scollay, who said the injury occurred initially at the right fetlock and ultimately resulted in a fractured cannon bone.

Gill said that Casual Conflict was "one of the soundest horses we owned." Both Gill and Shuman said the horse had not received any injections or treatments immediately before the race. They did say that Casual Conflict had a mild case of arthritis that required periodic injections of hyaluronic acid, a naturally occurring lubricant that is given to many arthritic horses.

"He had the average aches and pains like any other horse, and probably less than most," Gill said. "An unsound horse doesn't run 19 times in one year, and an unsound horse doesn't win races."

Peter Fortay, a retired trainer who owned and trained Casual Conflict from May 1999 until October 2001, said on Friday that the horse had chronic problems in his right ankle, including "a lot of cartilage damage." He said the problems prevented him from training and racing the horse hard. From January 2000 to June 2001, Fortay rested the horse because "the ankle just wouldn't heal," he said.

"We were always very careful with him," Fortay said. "We iced the ankle daily, sometimes two times a day. I didn't know any miracles to keep him running. I figured if no one took him after the Meadowlands meet, we'd retire him."

Shuman disputed the contention that Casual Conflict had any problems in his right ankle. "Obviously, that guy had no clue what he was doing with the horse," Shuman said. "You're talking about a guy who was embarrassed that he couldn't do anything with him."

Casual Conflict made 13 starts for Fortay. He was later claimed for $6,500 by Aimee Hall near the end of the Meadowlands meet in 2001. Three months later, he was claimed by John McCaslin, who had the horse for another three months before losing him to Gill and Shuman for $16,000. Efforts to reach Hall and McCaslin were unsuccessful on Friday.

John Robb, a Maryland trainer who also trains for Gill, had Casual Conflict in his barn for one month last year.

"They all have problems," Robb said. "Did he have anything that indicated he might break down? No." Robb said that Casual Conflict's right ankle did not present any problems in training.

Gill said he welcomed the investigation into Casual Conflict's death. "They've got the leg, they've got the body," he said. "I insist on the investigation. Test the horse for everything and anything."

- additional reporting by Mike Welsch