05/05/2010 11:00PM

Q&A: Larry Bramlage

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Barbara D. Livingston

Noted equine surgeon is the go-to guy for veterinary updates on nationally televised racing shows such as the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup

Birthdate: July 12, 1951, in Marysville, Kan.

Family: wife, Marilyn; daughter, Joey Marie; son, Matt

Got into racing because. . . "The first time I ever saw Thoroughbreds train, at Fonner Park in Grand Island, Neb., I was hooked on their athleticism and their sheer energy. I was already in college at Kansas State. It was the backside that hooked me."

Many people watching racing shows on television only know you as the guy who comes on when bad things happen. How do you feel about that? "Since my day job is to know about these injuries, I just look at it as an extension of my day job. Each of us in the industry must do our part to help the fans, many of whom do not have first-hand horse-side experience, understand the horse."

What is your typical day like when working on a TV show? "I usually arrive the day before, touch base with the producers, find out who will be the on-air personalities, where we will be stationed, then just enjoy the backside while the horses are on the track the morning of the event. I answer any background questions for journalists that I can help with on the day of the telecast. Then be available in case I'm needed for the races."

You work on the TV shows for free through the American Association of Equine Practitioners' On-Call Program. How did that program come about? "After two major injuries on national telecasts, Go for Wand (in the 1990 Breeders' Cup) and Mr. Brooks (in the 1992 Breeders' Cup), discussions began among veterinarians in racing about having people available to provide more medically based information for the broadcasters. Dr. Tom Brokken of Florida was the first person who called me during the discussions. The AAEP picked up the ball and developed the program. Initially, TV didn't really embrace the concept, but after a little experience with the concept they began to see the potential usefulness. Curt Gowdy Jr. of ABC and Tom Dawson of ESPN at the time were the early producers who really incorporated us as an asset in their production for background information and for injury reports. Producers each have their own style, but the program has a good foundation, and we have become a standard asset for all national telecasts. I was lucky enough to start with the Derby, then be asked to do the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup the third year."

How do you think the On-Call Program is viewed by people in the sport now that it has been in place for so long? "I think they have come to view it as an asset for the good of the sport, as well as the individual telecast. The awarding of an Eclipse Award to the program last year is high praise for our efforts."

Now that you can look back with two years' hindsight, what were your emotions like when you had to deliver the news about Eight Belles? "Horror at the time, sadness now. Not only for the horse, but for the owner, the trainer, and the fans. When the outrider relayed on the radio that a horse had collapsed after the race, I could not actually see her. At first I thought it was one of the rare but occasional instances where a horse will go down from one of the exertion-related causes, like heat exhaustion. They will normally rise in a few minutes. When the veterinarians on the ambulance relayed that she had fractures in both forelimbs, I couldn't believe the facts. Her injury is unheard of, but there it was. We had to face the facts and relay them to the fans, but it didn't make it easy to explain, especially to an audience where every female in the country was pulling for her to catch Big Brown. In a curious way she sort of set the stage for the female dominance of last year with Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. It sort of completed the circle."

What drew you to racehorses as opposed to being a veterinarian for other types of animals? "I grew up in a family that was part of a cattle operation. My father managed a sale barn, so there were always horses around. My grandfather had a pensioned racehorse we would ride. I always preferred horses, but it wasn't until I visited the backside at Fonner Park that I knew I wanted to work on racehorses. I didn't know if I would ever make it, but I knew what I wanted to do."

You are an orthopedic surgeon at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. How many surgeries do you do per week? "Roughly 30 procedures per week."

Do you ever get nervous when you are operating on a prominent racehorse? "Not really. We try to treat every horse using the very best methods we know, so the treatment of a major horse doesn't vary from the treatment of an average horse. If you change the treatment for a prominent horse you are much more likely to make a mistake. You need to adapt the treatments to the horse's injury, not to the horse's name."

Who do you consider your greatest success story in terms of a horse who came back from a serious injury to race again or be a prominent broodmare or stallion? "This is easy - Personal Ensign coming back from a fracture that required five screws to repair is a milestone for me, and was a milestone for veterinary medicine and racing. She marked the start of the era when we began to expect horses to recover from many fractures and return to peak performance. Recently, Rachel Alexandra has obviously been pretty rewarding. She did not have a major injury but a significant one. What we were able to do with her was get her back to form with a minimum of delay, making it possible for her to produce her eye-popping performance in last year's Kentucky Oaks. I have had quite a few horses come back and be champions after surgery, but she is my first Horse of the Year post-surgery. That is also special."

In the nearly 30 years you have been an equine surgeon, what are the best advances that have been made in terms of veterinary care? "The most significant advance did not involve surgery. The virtual elimination of parasitic causes of colic and death with current anthelmintics is perhaps the main reason that horses routinely live to their late 20s now. That's something that rarely occured when I graduated 35 years ago. Colic surgery is now routine, and arthroscopic surgery is the first line of defense in many joint diseases. Dependable general anesthesia was necessary for this to occur. Fracture fixation is now possible in many injuries, and in some the horse comes back to the pre-injury performance."

What are some of the advances in which you've been directly involved? "If I leave a legacy, it will be my development of the surgical technique that we routinely use for fetlock arthrodesis, fusion. This procedure has been used to save literally hundreds of horses that formerly would have died of laminitis in the opposite limb while their injuries were trying to heal. Almost all major disruptions of the fetlock joint are now circumvented using this procedure. What still limits us is the blood supply damage, and the vulnerability to infection that are a peculiar part of the horse's anatomy."

Best horse seen - in a race, that is; not on your operating table? "Without sounding self-serving, I think the best two horses I have seen race I have seen both places - Personal Ensign and Rachel Alexandra. The 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff is the best race I have ever seen personally."

Future ambitions: "My dream is to do what I can to help restore the luster to Thoroughbred racing. I doubt we will ever return to the glory years of the distant past, but I refuse to believe we have seen all of our best days. I just hope we don't have to go all the way to the bottom before we learn to work together. The Racing Compact is the best opportunity we have had since I have been involved in racing. I hope we don't let it pass."