07/13/2001 11:00PM

In search of the perfect yearling

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - As the select yearling season opens Monday with Keeneland's two-day July auction, enormous pressure will be on sellers to provide outstanding horses, both in pedigree and conformation. Buyers will be ready to spend astronomical sums - last year the average price was a record $621,015 - but they will be quick to reject a horse they feel is less than perfect.

Not surprisingly, the art and science of equine cosmetic surgery has become increasingly fashionable as sellers try to respond to the demand for a perfect horse. More and more, sale preparations will include some form of cosmetic surgery to straighten leg joints. The two most common procedures require general anesthesia and careful post-surgical care, but the end result can be a straighter leg - and, many consignors and surgeons say, a sounder horse.

But not everyone agrees. Opponents say there is no proof the surgeries improve soundness and that they might even cause problems. These buyers would like to avoid horses they feel are unnaturally altered. But major sales companies don't require disclosure of cosmetic surgery, and that makes detecting it difficult.

In the quest to improve a horse's conformation, there are many techniques other than surgery to influence bone growth, from corrective blacksmithing to nutritional programs. But the proliferation of cosmetic surgery is a testament to its success in straightening unsightly joints that exercise, feed, and the farrier's rasp can't improve. The two most common surgical procedures are transphyseal bridging and periosteal elevations - more commonly known as "screw and wire" and "stripping,"

respectively.

Sale companies do not require disclosure of the two procedures because the companies consider them to be cosmetic in nature. "Our conditions of sale provide that consignors must announce invasive joint surgery," said Fasig-Tipton chief operating officer Boyd Browning. "These procedures

generally have not been considered to be invasive joint surgeries. We've never had, in my experience, a situation where a buyer contested the purchase of a horse with a PE or screw-and-wire."

Keeneland spokeswoman Julie Balog said Keeneland does not require disclosure but recommends that buyers ask consignors if horses have had either procedure.

Equine surgeon Dr. Michael Spirito of Hagyard Davidson McGee, one of two renowned surgical centers in Lexington, couldn't say how many cosmetic surgeries the firm performs each year to correct flaws in young Thoroughbreds. But he acknowledged that it runs to "hundreds and hundreds" annually.

In transphyseal bridging, a staple or a figure-eight formation of screws and wires is implanted on the knee to restrict growth on one side of the joint, allowing the other side to grow freely and "catch up," straightening the joint in the process. The staple or screw-and-wire device is later removed in a second surgery.

In periosteal elevation, less invasive and more common than transphyseal bridging, the surgeon makes a pair of incisions in the periosteum - the elastic tissue that covers bone - and peels the tissue back from the bone. The idea is to allow for freer bone growth that can speed conformational correction in joints.

Spirito, 49, acknowledges the lack of research into the surgeries' long-term effectiveness at keeping horses sound, but he said, "We think they do help, because they help the leg tend to function more fluidly in motion. They create a more correct leg.

"In the past four or five years, with awareness that these procedures are reasonably safe and effective, there's been a large demand for their use. If the horse has a crooked leg, you can straighten it. That's a good thing."

On the commercial breeding farm and in the auction ring, a correct leg is something of a holy grail. Mark Taylor, whose family operates Taylor Made Farm near Nicholasville, Ky., knows that as well as anyone, and he can point to many horses - including 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet, the poster horse for the screw-and-wire technique - who have performed well after surgery.

Taylor, 32, readily acknowledges that cosmetic surgeries are a significant part of sellers' prepping today, thanks in part to Real Quiet's success at the racetrack. He says that about 20 percent of Taylor Made's young horses undergo periosteal elevation, and about 10 percent will have screws and wires implanted.

The Taylor Made team, perennially among the top sellers at the nation's yearling sales, start examining foals' legs in earnest when the horses are 2 weeks old, calling on blacksmith Bobby Langley for corrective hoof-trimming.

"Then, as the weather gets warmer and the flies are out, we don't let those babies stand out there and stomp flies all day and get their joints heated up," Taylor said. "We like to have them mudded to keep their joints cool. A lot of preventative stuff can eliminate having to do a screw-and-wire or a strip later on: having your nutrition right, leaving the horse outside as much as possible so they're not 'hothoused' up in a stall, and really looking at those feet every two weeks during those critical stages."

The farm makes decisions regarding ankle surgeries before the foal is 90 days old. Because knee joints take longer to stop growing and therefore are surgically correctable longer, the team decides on knee surgeries later, doing transphyseal bridges as late as 13 or 14 months.

Both genetics - a prediction, based on bloodlines, whether a horse will become incorrect - and market potential are factors in the decision on whether to perform surgery, Taylor said. Transphyseal bridging costs roughly $2,000 for both knees, including transportation and surgeries to implant and remove the bridge, and periosteal elevation runs about $450 for a pair of ankles or knees.

"If you look at the horse that's in the $500,000 to $1 million range, your upside for having that horse be perfect is more," Taylor said. "If you have a $15,000 colt with a knee sitting out a little bit, if you get that knee perfect, he might bring $20,000. On a $500,000 colt, that could bring $2 million if everything went just right and he was perfect. It's a huge upside."

Taylor can remember a time when things were different.

"I can remember when Storm Bird first came onto the scene," he said. "We had these Storm Birds that had horrible knees, toed in, crooked Storm Birds. That was just something you had to live with, and we sold a lot of them for a lot of money, because people just knew that was Storm Bird and a lot of them would run through it. Now, there's an option."

But even Taylor wonders about the impact of a growing number of corrective surgeries.

"As technology has advanced and they've been able to do things to create a more correct horse, that's a good thing; we employ a lot of that technology and advancements in science here," Taylor said. "But at the same time, it has put more pressure on people to continue doing more of it."

Tom Van Meter, 44, partner in another powerhouse yearling consignor, Eaton Sales Agent, noted that the surgeries are not without risk. "It helps lots of horses, but there's an incidence of complications, like infection and inflammation," he said. "In a couple of legs we did this year, we'd have been better off not doing anything. I think we're overdoing it. I know I am, and I'll adjust."

One buyer who would welcome that adjustment is John Ward, trainer of Derby winner Monarchos. Ward, 55, an old-school trainer and outspoken critic of the surgical trend, said he won't buy a horse if he knows the horse has had transphyseal bridging or periosteal elevation.

"They're altering the true structure of the animal for the rest of his life," he said. "Therefore, he is not the same animal that was born. In my mind, that borders on fraud."

Ward said that growing sophistication of surgical techniques combined with that sales companies do not require disclosure of such procedures make it harder to tell by X-rays if a yearling has had corrective surgery. He has trained some surgically corrected horses, and he insists that the argument that it makes them sounder is flawed.

"You may make the ankle look perfect," he said, "but you're not adjusting the angles in the elbow and shoulder."

"They are harder to train and keep sound, because when you do have [periosteal stripping], the wall of the hoof has to grow differently to make the whole scenario balance out. It's difficult to keep their feet balanced."

Still, as pressure remains high to present the perfect-looking athlete, sellers will seek technology to improve conformation. Many veterinarians - who profit from the corrective surgery - say they generally believe there's nothing wrong with giving the crooked horse a straighter limb.

"A lot of horses that were rendered useless in the past because of their conformation are salvageable now," Spirito said. "Because of the high cost of producing a yearling these days, people hesitate to write one off, and they'll do what they can to salvage a horse. And they can now end up with a viable racing or sale prospect."