12/06/2013 3:20PM

Jay Hovdey: Horses lucky veterinarian has at least two lives

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Greg Ferraro was ready to pack it in. The ordeal already had lasted for months, as he slowly recovered from liver transplant operation he received at Louisville’s world renowned Jewish Hospital Transplant Center in the spring. Then, while recuperating at the home of his close friends Jon and Sarah Kelly back in California, infection set in and the transplanted organ began to fail. His doctors wanted to do a second transplant, but Ferraro didn’t like the odds.

“I was ready to say no,” Ferraro said. “When you already know something about medicine, you know how sick you are.”

What Ferraro knows about medicine has made him one of the most respected veterinary surgeons in the annals of the discipline. In 1998 he retired from private practice to become director of the Center for Equine Health at the University of California-Davis. In 2011 he was appointed associate director of the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at Davis, where took charge of the school’s Large Animal Clinic. To have lost his talents at the age of 67 would have left an unfillable void in the ongoing battle to improve the lives of horses everywhere, especially those creatures bred to be racehorses.

But Ferraro was also tired, discouraged, and in terrible pain. You do not mess with the liver without dire consequences. The idea of going through a second transplant procedure gave him little solace.

“I said this is a waste of time and money and everybody’s efforts,” Ferraro said. “I said just pull the plug, give me some more morphine, and I’ll see you later. My doctors and a few other people gathered around my bed and said, ‘Listen, pal, you’re going to go forward with this whether you want to or not.’”

Ferraro didn’t have the strength to resist.

“I said okay, but I told them they were pumping uphill,” Ferraro said. “I knew my chances were between slim and none. To be honest with you, I was just plain lucky to make it.”

Ferraro has made it, and then some. On Friday morning, reached in his office at the university, he was completing a miraculous first week back on a job that very few are qualified to do. Ferraro was asked if, during the darkest hours of his ongoing prognosis, the pretenders to his throne were circling. He laughed.

“They might have been, until they realized how difficult it was,” he said. “So I’m stuck with it.

“We’re in the planning stages of building a new, 21st century hospital,” Ferraro continued. “We’re also making changes in personnel, and in services we offer – a real transition period – and I was supposed to be the guy to guide that transition over the next two or three years.”

It would be a mistake to think of Ferraro’s position at Davis as strictly academic and administrative. His staff at the Large Animal Clinic spends much of their time with sleeves rolled up getting hands dirty in the practical application of what decades of their research has mined.

According to the university’s prospectus, Ferraro’s office oversees emergency, inpatient, and on-farm veterinary services for horses, food animals, camelids, and backyard livestock. He directs the hospital’s training program for veterinary students to develop clinical skills in equine and livestock surgery, medicine, reproduction, intensive care and other areas. Ferraro also supervises the residency program for veterinarians seeking to specialize in large animal or equine medicine.

It was only last January that Ferraro turned over his position as director of the Center for Equine Health to his former assistant there, Dr. Claudia Sonder, so that he could concentrate on the transitional challenges of the Large Animal Clinic. Then his liver failed, and failed again.

“If it hadn’t been for Jon Kelly getting me back to Jewish Hospital in Louisville, I wouldn’t have made it,” Ferraro said.

Ferraro was among the early pioneers applying arthroscopic surgical techniques to racehorse joint damage. He became known as surgeon to the stars, with a list of patients that could fill a wing of the Hall of Fame.

He also was among the first wave of veterinarians to identify exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in racehorses, studies that led to the use and legalization of diuretics such as Lasix on a regular basis. Ferraro broke ranks from most of his colleagues in a 1992 essay in the North American Review, called “The Corruption of Nobility (The Rise & Fall of Thoroughbred Racing in America),” in which he criticized the increasing use of prerace medications and worried that veterinarians had become economic facilitators rather than advocates of equine health. Six years later, Ferraro went to Davis.

“The reason I left the track and came here is that I could do more from this end,” Ferraro said at the time. “Regardless of anything else, the business can’t survive with the current attrition rate of horses. If you can figure out ways to avoid injury, ways they can be trained differently so they can’t get hurt, eventually we may end up helping more horses than I could have as a practicing vet.”

Now, Ferraro seems determined not to waste the good luck that got him home from Louisville and on the road to recovery.

“It was a long, hard struggle,” Ferraro said. “But I made it. I made it.”

Cindy Gilmore More than 1 year ago
A nice article for a very nice man and devoted veterinarian. Who says we don't have guardian angels? So glad to hear he is back. Cindy Gilmore former co worker Santa Anita
Tiffini Brinson More than 1 year ago
Jay, another wonderful article as always! As you know, Doc was the vet of our barn, that of my step-father, Joe Manzi. Doc Ferraro not only was the vet for the daily needs, but performed numerous surgeries to not only our superstars, but to many others that did not come carrying the history of stakes graded wins. Their is none finer than that of Dr. Greg Ferraro in Equine Medicine. I am thankful to hear that he came through this scare and has returned to a job that is lucky to have him!
Billy Miller More than 1 year ago
Wonderful story from a great writer about a good man and a pioneering veterinarian. Well done, Jay. Pleasantries aside, it is high time that: A) There is end to on-track private veterinarians. Stop the insanity!!! Bar ALL private veterinarians immediately. B) Place all ENTERED horses under 24 hour video surveillance (Hong Kong Jockey Club system.) This small concession is owed to both bettors and horses. C) Institute out-of-competition testing D) Lower the takeout to 15% across the board E) Restrict betting after the FIRST horse has entered the gate. The impression of past-posting permeates the sport. 3/1 to 6/5 odds moves when five in front at the 1/4 pole is.....no bueno. F) Ban steroids at horse auctions. They come in on Monday looking like Concord Grapes and leave on Friday looking like Sun-Maid Raisins. Not referring to Ocala Stud...they are a first class organization. G) Across the board fee (Breeder/consigner/sales company/racetrack/owner/trainer/jockey/agents/transport companies) to fund a slaughter-free retirement. Lest we forget, Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand wound up on a bed of wasabi mashed potatoes. When the sport treats the stars of the sport like that, the sport will go the way of greyhound racing within 15 years. "You'd have to be an idiot to bet on a horse race." ---So said a leading California trainer when discussing nefarious activities around the backstretch. The sport is circling the drain quickly. Just last week three horse trainers (rapid Redux's conditioner) were arrested by the FBI. Enough of the happy talk. "America's Turf Authority" The Daily Racing Form needs to start demanding changes. You owe it to your readers. Best, Bill Miller
Scott More than 1 year ago
Bill- A) Public vets will be as desirable as public toilets. B) Agreed. C) How much extra are you willing to pay for this? D) I see. Where does the money come from if not from the bettor? E) Wouldn't help. Tracks are taking bets from hundreds of locations simultaneously- even the fastest communications lag "real-time". You would have to cut off betting at two minutes before post time to have any effect. F) No insulin for type 2 diabetics or statins for the high cholesterol types- it's bad for our breed... G) How many ex-racehorses have YOU bought? I noticed your "across the board fee" did not include bettors. I was at the State fair this year, and they had a "champion" cow, a "champion" lamb, a "champion" pig, and a "champion" chicken- all of which ended up as either DINNER.... or simply compost after their breeding career. You want a free lunch that doesn't include horse steak.
rahman Williams More than 1 year ago
Retort of the Year. +1
Vinod Jhangimal More than 1 year ago
Sighhhh, why am I not surprised?
Vinod Jhangimal More than 1 year ago
Mr. Scott, I am not going to defend Mr. Miller because I am sure he has enough material to defend himself, but: A) It is my track, I get to put make the rules. If you want to race in my track, you follow my rules and leave your vet at the door. It is not a question of whether the public vet is desirable or not. Look at it like this: you are involved in a serious car crash and have to be taken, by ambulance, to the hospital. Your doctor shows up at the crash scene and says "I am this man's doctor I want to ride in the ambulance." 1. It is the paramedics decisión whether the dr can ride with them or not and 2. If he does ride in the ambulance he is nothing more than an informed passenger (who can give them medical info on the patient) because final responsibility goes to the paramedics. It is the same scenario, the track has to have full responsibility and to make certain that they are doing their utmost to level the playing fields. That being said, if public vets are negligent, the track has to make examples of them. No sweeping mistakes under the carpet or pooh-pooing about it. B) Agreed C) Out of competition testing is done in Europe all the time. How do you think they caught the Godolphin horses? It wasn't in-race testing procedures. Mechanisms can be implemented through the next point: D) Are you seriously telling us that you don't believe lowering takeouts will lead to higher income due to the PROVEN FACT that lowering takeout rates leads to increased wagering and higher overall amounts of monies being collected by the tracks. If you don't agree with this then your idea would be to increase takeouts to 60-70-80-90% and that would lead to more collections? See how many people agree with that sentiment. E) I absolutely agree with you that there is a lag time in order to register all the incoming bets, but technologies are improving. Starting the betting restrictions the moment the first horse loads into the gate gives a mínimum of 30 seconds and, if horses are acting up, at least a minute or two before the gates open. F) I am pretty sure you are being sarcastic on this one because you wouldn't seriously compare giving insulins and statins needed to keep humans ALIVE through serious medical conditions with giving unnecessary steroids to animals to make them LOOK PRETTIER G) So let me get this right: are you implying that if you don't adopt animals it means that you don't care enough to try to better a flawed system? Don't get me wrong, I am not naive enough to think that every horse will get a fairy-tale ending at the end of its career, but we owe it to THEM to try to help as many as posible to achieve that ending once they have given their all to entertain us. I, and most people for that matter, understand that there is an industry for horse meat, whether for animal food or for human consumption, but thoroughbreds aren't bred for their food values otherwise they wouldn't be pumped up with so many meds for so many years making them inedible for consumption anyways. There are programs in place to find homes for these athletes or secondary careers as jumpers. The problem is that many horses aren't even given that opportunity because they are sent directly to horse auctions where they are sent to be bought only to be slaughtered. That has become a first response instead of a last option. BTW bettors are paying their "fair share" and some would even argue that they are paying too much already because of the high takeout rates. In closing, let me tell you that I agree with you IF your underlying response in that it is going to be extremely hard to implement the necessary changes in order to better the industry. Yet the fact that it is going to be extremely difficult shouldn't mean we shoudn't do anything and should just keep the status quo. It means we have to be even more vocal about demanding changes before the entire sport/industry collapse all around us. If, on the other hand your response was simply about being smug, retaining the status quo or not wanting/seeing the need to take any accountability for our actions then that State Fair you atended not only had a champion cow, pig, lamb and chicken, it also had a champion jackass.
Vinod Jhangimal More than 1 year ago
Mr. Scott, I am not going to defend Mr. Miller because I am sure he has enough material to defend himself, but: A) It is my track, I get to put make the rules. If you want to race in my track, you follow my rules and leave your vet at the door. It is not a question of whether the public vet is desirable or not. Look at it like this: you are involved in a serious car crash and have to be taken, by ambulance, to the hospital. Your doctor shows up at the crash scene and says "I am this man's doctor I want to ride in the ambulance." 1. It is the paramedics decisión whether the dr can ride with them or not and 2. If he does ride in the ambulance he is nothing more than an informed passenger (who can give them medical info on the patient) because final responsibility goes to the paramedics. It is the same scenario, the track has to have full responsibility and to make certain that they are doing their utmost to level the playing fields. That being said, if public vets are negligent, the track has to make examples of them. No sweeping mistakes under the carpet or pooh-pooing about it. B) Agreed C) Out of competition testing is done in Europe all the time. How do you think they caught the Godolphin horses? It wasn't in-race testing procedures. Mechanisms can be implemented through the next point: D) Are you seriously telling us that you don't believe lowering takeouts will lead to higher income due to the PROVEN FACT that lowering takeout rates leads to increased wagering and higher overall amounts of monies being collected by the tracks. If you don't agree with this then your idea would be to increase takeouts to 60-70-80-90% and that would lead to more collections? See how many people agree with that sentiment. E) I absolutely agree with you that there is a lag time in order to register all the incoming bets, but technologies are improving. Starting the betting restrictions the moment the first horse loads into the gate gives a mínimum of 30 seconds and, if horses are acting up, at least a minute or two before the gates open. F) I am pretty sure you are being sarcastic on this one because you wouldn't seriously compare giving insulins and statins needed to keep humans ALIVE through serious medical conditions with giving unnecessary steroids to animals to make them LOOK PRETTIER G) So let me get this right: are you implying that if you don't adopt animals it means that you don't care enough to try to better a flawed system? Don't get me wrong, I am not naive enough to think that every horse will get a fairy-tale ending at the end of its career, but we owe it to THEM to try to help as many as posible to achieve that ending once they have given their all to entertain us. I, and most people for that matter, understand that there is an industry for horse meat, whether for animal food or for human consumption, but thoroughbreds aren't bred for their food values otherwise they wouldn't be pumped up with so many meds for so many years making them inedible for consumption anyways. There are programs in place to find homes for these athletes or secondary careers as jumpers. The problem is that many horses aren't even given that opportunity because they are sent directly to horse auctions where they are sent to be bought only to be slaughtered. That has become a first response instead of a last option. BTW bettors are paying their "fair share" and some would even argue that they are paying too much already because of the high takeout rates. In closing, let me tell you that I agree with you IF your underlying response in that it is going to be extremely hard to implement the necessary changes in order to better the industry. Yet the fact that it is going to be extremely difficult shouldn't mean we shoudn't do anything and should just keep the status quo. It means we have to be even more vocal about demanding changes before the entire sport/industry collapse all around us. If, on the other hand your response was simply about being smug, retaining the status quo or not wanting/seeing the need to take any accountability for our actions then that State Fair you atended not only had a champion cow, pig, lamb and chicken, it also had a champion jackass.
Vinod Jhangimal More than 1 year ago
Mr Miller, very well said. Although I believe that there are some things that need to be finetuned in your proposal I absolutely think that DRF, what with being "America's Turf Authority" should be the strongest voice in helping to put out an articulated call-to-change from the people who say that they love this industry by getting all relevant actors to the table and giving that consensuated voice access to world media.
Vinod Jhangimal More than 1 year ago
Mr. Scott, I am not going to defend Mr. Miller because I am sure he has enough material to defend himself, but: A) It is my track, I get to put make the rules. If you want to race in my track, you follow my rules and leave your vet at the door. It is not a question of whether the public vet is desirable or not. Look at it like this: you are involved in a serious car crash and have to be taken, by ambulance, to the hospital. Your doctor shows up at the crash scene and says "I am this man's doctor I want to ride in the ambulance." 1. It is the paramedics decisión whether the dr can ride with them or not and 2. If he does ride in the ambulance he is nothing more than an informed passenger (who can give them medical info on the patient) because final responsibility goes to the paramedics. It is the same scenario, the track has to have full responsibility and to make certain that they are doing their utmost to level the playing fields. That being said, if public vets are negligent, the track has to make examples of them. No sweeping mistakes under the carpet or pooh-pooing about it. B) Agreed C) Out of competition testing is done in Europe all the time. How do you think they caught the Godolphin horses? It wasn't in-race testing procedures. Mechanisms can be implemented through the next point: D) Are you seriously telling us that you don't believe lowering takeouts will lead to higher income due to the PROVEN FACT that lowering takeout rates leads to increased wagering and higher overall amounts of monies being collected by the tracks. If you don't agree with this then your idea would be to increase takeouts to 60-70-80-90% and that would lead to more collections? See how many people agree with that sentiment. E) I absolutely agree with you that there is a lag time in order to register all the incoming bets, but technologies are improving. Starting the betting restrictions the moment the first horse loads into the gate gives a mínimum of 30 seconds and, if horses are acting up, at least a minute or two before the gates open. F) I am pretty sure you are being sarcastic on this one because you wouldn't seriously compare giving insulins and statins needed to keep humans ALIVE through serious medical conditions with giving unnecessary steroids to animals to make them LOOK PRETTIER G) So let me get this right: are you implying that if you don't adopt animals it means that you don't care enough to try to better a flawed system? Don't get me wrong, I am not naive enough to think that every horse will get a fairy-tale ending at the end of its career, but we owe it to THEM to try to help as many as posible to achieve that ending once they have given their all to entertain us. I, and most people for that matter, understand that there is an industry for horse meat, whether for animal food or for human consumption, but thoroughbreds aren't bred for their food values otherwise they wouldn't be pumped up with so many meds for so many years making them inedible for consumption anyways. There are programs in place to find homes for these athletes or secondary careers as jumpers. The problem is that many horses aren't even given that opportunity because they are sent directly to horse auctions where they are sent to be bought only to be slaughtered. That has become a first response instead of a last option. BTW bettors are paying their "fair share" and some would even argue that they are paying too much already because of the high takeout rates. In closing, let me tell you that I agree with you IF your underlying response in that it is going to be extremely hard to implement the necessary changes in order to better the industry. Yet the fact that it is going to be extremely difficult shouldn't mean we shoudn't do anything and should just keep the status quo. It means we have to be even more vocal about demanding changes before the entire sport/industry collapse all around us. If, on the other hand your response was simply about being smug, retaining the status quo or not wanting/seeing the need to take any accountability for our actions then that State Fair you atended not only had a champion cow, pig, lamb and chicken, it also had a champion jackass.
Patti Greene More than 1 year ago
What a great story, Greg. Glad to hear you are doing so well. Long time, no see. Cousin Patty