05/31/2007 11:00PM

Thankless work of a track vet

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Had he not been stricken by a recurrence of the cancer that he had fought for the better part of a year - a condition that ended his life on May 15 - it would have been Dr. Steve Buttgenbach supervising the grim events of last Monday on the Hollywood Park turf course, when the 5-year-old mare Three Degrees ruptured the suspensory ligaments and fractured both sesamoids while suffering a complete dislocation of her left front ankle joint at the end of the Gamely Handicap.

As official track veterinarian on the Southern California circuit, Buttgenbach, 64, had been applying his more than 35 years of racetrack veterinary experience to one of the sport's most thankless tasks. He didn't need the job, but he knew the job needed to be done. The fact that he did it so well, with so much grudging respect from horsemen and riders, speaks volumes.

Track vets, at work both morning and afternoon, are viewed in some ways as the last line of defense between an unsound horse and the race in which he should not run. In such a role, there will be natural and enduring clashes with trainers and jockeys, not to mention subliminal heat from any unenlightened racetrack management that puts a dollar sign on every horse in every race.

"There's a lot of pressure to get horses to run," said Dr. Rick Arthur, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board. "Track vets take a lot of abuse. But they always have to err on the side of the horse."

During Buttgenbach's too brief tenure in the position, he did sustain occasional broadsides from trainers, whose pride (and pocketbooks) were understandably hurt when a horse was removed from a race. However, he was quick to point out that he never suffered a moment's grief from the operators of Hollywood, Santa Anita, Oak Tree, or Del Mar over the scratching of a horse going to the post.

"I rely a lot on the riders," Buttgenbach said a few months ago, when he had recovered well enough to return briefly to work. "With most of them, I trust their judgment. But once in awhile, I'll look in the eyes of a young apprentice, and you just know he's scared to death to scratch the horse for fear of losing the barn."

After years as a practicing vet, Buttgenbach knew an unraceable horse when he saw one. And having scrubbed many times in surgeries, he also knew the almost inevitable consequences of the sport itself, whether the horse was unsound or just plain unlucky.

There was an administrative plan in place for Buttgenbach to share official veterinarian duties with Dr. Jill Bailey, had he been able to make one more recovery. But he did not, which meant it was Bailey who had to make the life and death decision last Monday, when Three Degrees stood on three legs and a stump, frozen in shock. Bailey, in consultation with trainer Paddy Gallagher, elected euthanasia.

"The joint was completely dislocated," Bailey said. "You are not going to put something like that back together and expect any kind of blood supply. And that is always the key because horses do not have a good blood supply to the lower leg. Without the dislocation, she would have been very salvageable. But as it was, the only real alternative would have been a prosthesis, and I did point that out. But that is asking so much of a horse. It is really, really difficult."

Unless a person actually has held in their hands the non-compounded, though completely dislocated ankle of a racehorse, it is hard to understand why euthanasia is considered appropriate. The alternative more often than not ends up a Barbaro-type case, with a long surgical recovery eventually thwarted by such complications as laminitis.

"Horses can sustain an enormous amount of trauma without any breaking of the skin," Arthur said. "They can actually bleed to death and not have a drop of blood outside their body, with a pelvic fracture, for example."

Arthur noted that the American Association of Equine Practitioners recommends that, if at all possible, an injured horse be loaded in the ambulance and vanned to a stall or a clinic for further evaluation. But even that is a difficult call, since the suffering of the animal - both short and long term - should be the deciding factor. And in most cases, the diagnosis does not change.

"I don't want to put a black-and-white rule in place," Arthur said. "You can't and you shouldn't. Some vets are willing to make the decision [to euthanize] on the racetrack, while some want to get them off the track no matter what. Ultimately, you have to rely on their professional opinion."

Whatever their decision, a track vet knows there will be second-guessing. Bailey said she can handle that.

"I carry in my head all the horses I've had to put down on the track," Bailey said. "It's so very distressing. Fortunately, there haven't been very many, and fewer than there were. But it was so sad, and Paddy's barn is such a great barn. I saw his mare early in the morning and she looked great, and it was going to be a beautiful day. But in my experience, with a catastrophic injury like hers, you don't see it coming."