12/29/2008 1:00AM

Tough weekend kept vet on her toes


ARCADIA, Calif. - After the first two days of the Santa Anita meet, the scorecard of official track veterinarian Dr. Jill Bailey included four equine ambulance calls, the application of two emergency Kimsey splints, one cut-up animal over the rail, and one euthanasia. By comparison, Day 3 on Sunday was a blessed bore, with just a single, low-key prerace scratch.

Bailey was even bloodied along the way. Only a flesh wound, thank goodness, but at some point during the frantic minutes following the breakdown of the 2-year-old colt Warren's Kenzo in the first race of the meet, Bailey got smacked with the metal splint that gives temporary support to a severely injured ankle joint. Bailey was fine. The horse didn't make it.

Bailey was back in the trenches the next day when the 2-year-old colt Back at You jumped the inside fence at the head of the turf course stretch in the running of the Eddie Logan Stakes. While the emergency medical team tended to his dislodged rider, Garrett Gomez, lying nearby, Bailey and a couple of brave men from the starting-gate crew kept the horse safely on the ground. A shot of a strong analgesic from Bailey's little black bag helped calm Back at You of his justifiable fears.

Barely a half-hour later, Bailey was confronted with another nightmare scenario in the wake of the featured La Brea Stakes. Deep in the stretch, pacesetter Indyanne came down terribly wrong with her left fore and was immediately pulled to a stop by Russell Baze. Going full speed at the time, the filly had every right to suffer fatal injuries, and when Bailey got there she was prepared for the worst. While affixing yet another splint, however, she was quietly encouraged by the fact that there seemed to be something left of the damaged ankle.

"It was dropping, but there was still some clearance, indicating there wasn't a total loss of support," Bailey said later.

Thoroughbred racing operates on these sliding scales of disaster. The declaration "it could have been much worse" is trotted out often, intended to comfort rattled witnesses and battered survivors. When you hear those words, though, know for certain that someone or some horse has been hurt badly. Gomez lost teeth and banged up a knee and a hand. Back at You has a collection of stitches for a souvenir. Indyanne, whose odds were not good after shattering the inside sesamoid, appeared to have more than a fighting chance the following day, as she limped around her stall on a leg still splinted and heavily bandaged.

There is a temptation to refer to the official track veterinarian as the last line of defense in the protection of the professional racehorse. This tends to paint the sport into a tight corner, giving just one well-educated, moderately paid individual a job description no one should bear.

In fact, the track vet seen operating on any given afternoon is merely the most visible component of a system that, if it works properly, serves to eliminate as many potentially dangerous variables as possible.

Bailey, who earned her Veterinariae Medicinae Doctoris degree from the University of Pennsylvania, did morning inspections of half of the 233 runners (plus the afternoon scratch) during those first three days of the meet for issues of soundness, then collated her findings with the state veterinarian who inspected the other half. When Bailey saw those same horses under starters orders in the afternoon, she at least knew how they seemed that morning. The fact that two of them broke down and a third pulled up lame should not be a surprise to anyone who understands the pressures imposed by the Thoroughbred stride. As for Back at You, who knew he wanted to fly?

"In the afternoon, I rely a lot on the riders," Bailey said Sunday afternoon as she watched a field jog off from the post parade, before hopping in her pickup to follow. "They'll let me know if there is something I should look at."

When a chronic condition or an undetected flaw surfaces in a horse between a morning inspection and his arrival at the gate, the jockeys, stewards, and track veterinarians must serve as their advocates. Jockeys don't last long, though, if they get a reputation for summoning the track veterinarian at the slightest twinge. They use subtle signals to alert the vet, who then shoulders the responsibility.

After 2 1/2 years on the job, Bailey, a former backstretch practitioner, has earned a reputation as a track vet who scratches first and worries about trainer egos later. On a few occasions, tempers have flared. One of those tempers belonged to veteran Gary Stute, who drew a $300 fine for a tantrum after Bailey scratched one of his horses last July at Hollywood Park.

"I was under some personal stress, and I kind of took it out on her," Stute said. "It's a tough job, and she's under a lot of pressure from management. But it just kind of aggravates me that I've been doing my job for 35 years, and see my horse every day, while she can look at the horse one minute and her opinion counts more than mine."

Bailey would disagree on one point. As far as she is concerned, management is offering support, not pressure.

"I've told her if there is ever the slightest doubt about a horse, the slightest doubt, that she should take him out," said Santa Anita president Ron Charles.

Given the choice between risking the ire of a proud trainer or injecting a broken-down horse with a lethal dose of barbiturate, Bailey will take the heat every time.

"My concern is for the safety of the jockey and the horse," Bailey said. "And for the betting public. They deserve protection, too."

Noble goals, and worth the effort, even though the system is far from perfect. Gary Stute was seen laughing and having a cordial exchange with Bailey on Sunday, far removed from the spat of last July. As the trainer said, and no one disagreed, "I wouldn't do her job for twice what they pay her."