12/04/2008 12:00AM

Shock waves a new Pandora's box


It has not been the best week of headlines for the general reputation of racetrack veterinarians. The Dow's done better.

In Kentucky, Dr. Rodney Stewart has been trying to explain to a racing commission hearing officer why he stored cobra venom in a refrigerator located in the backstretch stable office of trainer Patrick Biancone. Stewart is appealing a five-year suspension, while Biancone just ended what amounted to a year on the sidelines.

At the same time, somewhere Down Under, a veterinarian employed by the Victoria racing authorities is probably looking for work after taking the rap for a rules mix-up that threatened to rock the Australian sport.

Bauer, the English-trained horse who finished second in the Melbourne Cup at Flemington Race Course on Nov. 4, was discovered to have received a session of extracorporeal shock wave therapy (ESWT) five days before the race. The procedure, most commonly used to pulverize kidney stones without invasive surgery, can have both a healing and a pain-killing effect. Australian rules require a seven-day wait to run after such a treatment, and racing officials representing the state of Victoria could have thrown the book at Bauer's connections, including trainer Luca Cumani, yanking prize money and handing down penalties. But they did not.

They did not because it was discovered that Cumani was told it was okay by Dr. Rob McInnes, the veterinarian assigned to supervise the horse's stable in the official quarantine facility. Oops. Cumani, a class act, admitted it was his job to know the rules, no matter what he was told or who told him. He did point out that at home in England, horses are allowed to receive shock wave therapy the day before they run.

The Melbourne Cup is the most famous race in the Southern Hemisphere. The nation literally stops to pay heed, and at a distance of two miles, Australians get their money's worth. Bauer did not win the Cup, which would have made him an overnight sensation, but he could hardly be called the loser. Viewed, the winner, beat him by the shortest possible nose.

If anyone is hypersensitive to violations of rules regarding medications and therapeutic treatments it would be Cumani, whose international achievements include victories in the Japan Cup, Breeders' Cup Mile, Arlington Million, a whole stack of major races with Falbrav, and two runnings of the Epsom Derby. One of those came in 1988 with Khayasi, owned by the Aga Khan.

In early 2000, the Aga Khan pulled 30 horses from Cumani's care, citing two medication disqualifications during the previous season. Both were minor offenses, especially by American standards. But the renowned owner was enforcing a zero tolerance philosophy that harked back to 1989, when the Aga Khan's Aliysa was disqualified from victory in the Epsom Oaks after a trace of camphor was found in a postrace test.

So far, no one of consequence on the Australian racing scene seems to have a problem with letting Bauer & Co. off the hook. Lloyd Williams, owner of third-place Cup finisher C'Est La Guere, was even sympathetic.

"If Luca Cumani had been in America or England he wouldn't have given it a second thought, as you are able to administer shock wave treatment on the day of the race in those countries," Williams said, in the Sydney Morning Herald.

He got it half right. Shock wave therapy has become a routine tool in the management of racing injuries, and its regulation has gone to the front burner in many U.S. jurisdictions over the past several years. Many of them, including New York and California, require a waiting period before racing of 10 days.

In its most positive light, ESWT stands alongside acupuncture, massage, magnetic blankets and wraps, and a host of other non-invasive tools. But like any new toy from the wider medical world, someone at the racetrack will try and find a way to abuse its application. Imagine the temptation, too, of a pain-killing treatment that leaves no surgical evidence and no chemical trail. Shock 'em on a Tuesday and run 'em on a Wednesday. Is this a great game or what?

"There are papers available that have indicated it is of therapeutic value in a number of treatments, primarily some ligament issues," said Dr. Rick Arthur, Equine Medical Director of the California Horse Racing Board. "There's a lot of debate, though, whether you should be giving the treated horse six months off to let the treatment work, or three days, as some people try to do.

"The big problem from a regulatory standpoint is that it causes transitory analgesia of several days, almost like your leg going numb," Arthur went on. "The treatment hyper-stimulates nerves, so the nerve doesn't transmit pain any longer. We had to allow for that, then added an extra seven days. Only a vet can legally own a shock wave unit. Horses can only be shock-waved at a backstretch hospital or in a designated area. They have to be reported to the official veterinarian, then they are on the vet's list for 10 days."

Bauer's second-place prize in the Melbourne Cup was 835,000 Australian dollars, which converts to a very serious $538,000 and change. A skeptic would suggest that the authorities were buckling under the weight of potential litigation. Then again, maybe they did the right thing in taking the blame for basically violating their own rules.