It is one of horse racing’s most enduring images - and it is not a winning one.
Ruffian, an undefeated filly and possibly the greatest of all time, was battling to hold a lead over the colt Foolish Pleasure in what was billed as “The Great Match Race.” Then she came up lame on the backstretch and limped to a stop, her leg shattered.
More than two decades later, veteran horse watchers still cringe at the memory of veterinarian Manny Gilman fitting the horse’s ankle with an inflatable cast and walking away, his hands covered in blood. Ruffian was destroyed the next day.
On Thursday, a group of veterinarians at Washington State University gathered at the Hitchcock Research Track to test a way of saving some of the hundreds of other horses that are killed each year after breaking their legs in midrace.
Having developed a method of anesthetizing an adreneline-charged horse and carrying it off in a specially designed ambulance, they hope to show that track veterinarians don’t necessarily have to euthanize horses anymore.
“The notion of anesthesia rather than just killing it on the spot is something people have thought about from time to time,” said Warwick Bayly, a professor of equine medicine. “But until now, it has not been investigated in any concerted fashion, to the best of our knowledge.”
A study of 1992 fatality statistics found that 840 animals died as a result of racing injuries on American tracks. That was one fatality for every 92 races. Another study estimated one fatality for every 74 races.
“It’s of concern to anybody that likes horses and is concerned with horses’ well-being,” said Ron Marshall, research coordinator for the American Quarter Horse Association in Amarillo, Texas, which helped fund the $30,000 WSU project. “Obviously, we want to do what we can.”
Trainers and veterinarians cite a variety of factors for track fatalities, from bad running surfaces and tight turns to speed-oriented breeding and drug abuse.
Whatever the cause, a cure has been elusive.
For one, finding the right anesthesia for an exercised horse is difficult, said Stephen Greene, a WSU anesthesiologist. Fast-moving horses are filled with adrenaline, requiring extra amounts of anesthetic, he said. Then there’s what to do with and unconscious, half-ton animal once it was drugged.
Toward that end, WSU veterinarian Robert Schneider and large animal caretaker Marv Cleveland developed a horse ambulance - a horse trailer equipped with a hoist and hydraulically-operated floor that can be dropped to ground level. Veterinarians like Schneider have also developed new materials and techniques that can let them set broken horse bones with fewer complications.
Coordinating the anesthesia and ambulance is a fast-paced affair that briefly turned the WSU track into something out of “E.R.” gone equine Thursday.
As 15 people watched, M.J. Redman, a third-year vet student, ran Lonely Skies, an aging thoroughbred gelding, flat out for one mile.
Then, pretending the horse had broken a leg, veterinarians descended, drawing blood from a catheter taped to the horse’s neck - “lactate and ABG got ‘em,” shouted Greene - before leading him to the primer-gray ambulance. After a dose of anesthetic, Lonely Skies’ knees dropped to the ground and the crew hauled him on board.
The entire process took 11 minutes.
Had this been a real emergency, the horse would have been whisked away to a veterinary hospital for evaluation, treatment and a shot at a new career as breeding stock.
“The animals’ interest is certainly better served,” said Bayly, “and we’re much more likely to be able to save some of them.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo