03/13/2008 11:00PM

Three tales of horses and hearts

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ARCADIA, Calif. - In his autobiography, "The Perfect Ride," Gary Stevens recounts the tale of Bedside Promise, a talented son of Honest Pleasure who won major stakes from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. On Oct. 17, 1987, Stevens and Bedside Promise went postward as heavy favorites in the Fall Sprint Championship at Bay Meadows, which was intended to serve as a prep for a Breeders' Cup event at Hollywood Park a month down the road.

"From the moment the race began, I felt him struggling," Stevens wrote. "He was traveling fine, but he wasn't giving me a feeling of confidence."

They ended up finishing fourth, and as a baffled Stevens pulled up, then turned to jog Bedside Promise back to the stands, something went terribly wrong.

"He felt as though he were drunk," Stevens wrote. "I got him pulled up, and I jumped off just as he collapsed. I had a pretty good idea he'd had a heart attack."

In fact, Bedside Promise had suffered a ruptured aorta, the main artery leading from the heart. The internal hemorrage was fast and fatal.

"When a horse injures a limb, you sort of become that fourth leg and try to help them, to at least get them slowed down and stopped," Stevens said Friday morning, before heading to work as an analyst with HRTV. "But when there's a rupture like that, there is some sort of warning in that they feel very loose underneath you. And there's nothing you can do about it. They just drop."

The 3-year-old gelding Parisian Art dropped like that during the final stages of the eighth race on Thursday afternoon at Santa Anita and took Rafael Bejarano with him. Bejarano, the meet's leading rider, sustained small fractures to two vertabraes in his lower back, which makes him lucky when compared to Parisian Art, who left this world just two starts into his racing career for owner Daniel Olsen and trainer Doug O'Neill.

By Friday morning, a necropsy was already underway at the diagnostic laboratory of the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. The cause of Parisian Art's death was initially reported as a heart attack, but Dr. Rick Arthur, the California Horse Racing Board equine medical director, knows it's not that simple.

"When I was in vet school, we were taught that horses don't have heart problems," Arthur said. "They will go from a resting heart rate of a little over 30 beats per minute, to be running at the end of a race at 220 to 240 beats per minute. That is an enormous change. They are just a phenomenal machine. 'Heart attack' is more of a generic term for horses who suffer sudden death, which is probably a better way to put it."

He has a point. If we all lived and ate like horses, heart disease would not be an issue. They get plenty of fiber and exercise, they avoid red meat, and they can't light cigarettes. Bucked shins are a problem. Blocked arteries are not.

"If it's a ruptured aorta we'd be able to find that very quickly," Arthur noted. "A major cause of that is parasite migration, which results in the weakening of a very high pressure vessel. If they don't find anything right away, they'll take sections of the heart and other organs to see if they can detect some other cause, possibly viral. We look at sudden deaths very carefully, because they're very frustrating, and often you can't find an answer."

Arthur estimated that in his jurisdiction, about 10 horses a year are victims of sudden death. There is no documented predisposition, and the science of early detection is hampered by the relative lack of victims. Also, there is absolutely no prejudice. It can happen to San Antonio Handicap winners like Bedside Promise or maiden claimers like Parisian Art. It can even happen to a Kentucky Derby hero.

The most famous victim of sudden death in the modern Thoroughbred era was Swale, winner of the 1984 Derby for Claiborne Farm, Woody Stephens, and Laffit Pincay. Swale subsequently finished seventh in the Preakness, then came back to romp by four in the June 9 Belmont Stakes. Eight days later he was dead.

Sandy Bruno, Stephens chief assistant, was admiring Swale after a routine gallop that Sunday morning.

"It was early, it was cool, he was in the first set, around 6:30," recalled Bruno, who currently works for trainer Phil Gleaves, another Stephens alumnus, at Gulfstream Park. "He came back and was getting a bath, then he just sat down like a dog.

"We thought he might try to get up," Bruno continued. "But he looked kind of stunned, and then he fell over. I'll never forget it as long as I live."

Broken limbs, ruptured tendons, damaged feet - these are all mechanical and structural problems that racetrackers deal with on a daily basis. But if nothing else, the Thoroughbred is measured by its heart, and when that heart goes, a belief system is shaken.

"I've never had it happen again, and I hope I never do," Bruno added. "But every time I looked at a horse after that, I looked extra hard, just to make sure they were okay."