Protection and Perception: The AAEP On-Call Program

Of the 84 horses pre-entered in the 14th Breeders' Cup Day of championship racing for Thoroughbreds, 10 did not answer the call to the post the next Saturday. Two horses had a "system" disease that took them out of training. One horse (a longshot) was "not training well" and was withdrawn. Two other horses had minor problems that weren't lamenesses, but which did affect their training schedules to the extent that they were "not right" for a top race. One kicked the stall wall. Two had condylar fractures. One had a coffin bone fracture. And one had a stress fracture of the metacarpus (shin).

"Those are pretty typical of what happens at the track in a week," said Larry Bramlage, DVM, Diplomate ACVIM, who was one of the volunteer veterinarians on hand representing the American Association of Equine Practitioners' On-Call program. "It's more perception than reality" that a lot of horses were out of the Breeders' Cup due to injuries this year, he added. "With most of the problems that occurred, the horses would be able to run again. Singspiel was the exception."


Wayne McIlwraith, DVM, part of the AAEP's On-Call team at Breeders' Cup.

Injury To A Champion

Two days before the Breeders' Cup, Singspiel returned to his barn lame from a half-mile work. Owned by Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai, whose family has been deeply involved in Thoroughbred breeding and racing in the United States and Europe for nearly two decades, the colt was found to have a displaced fracture in his left front fetlock.

Bramlage and Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, PhD, Diplomate ACVS, performed the surgery at the Dolly Green Hospital on the grounds at Hollywood Park (see sidebar above). Martha Misheff, DVM, who works at the Dubai Equine Hospital and was at Hollywood Park as part of the Breeders' Cup veterinary team, assisted with the surgery. McIlwraith was in California as part of the AAEP's On-Call program. California racetrack veterinarians Steve Buttgenbach and Rick Arthur (president of the AAEP) oversaw the anesthesia of Singspiel, with two technicians standing by to assist the procedure.

The fracture was replaced and two screws were inserted. Singspiel recovered at the hospital without incident and was taken back to his own barn for long-term recovery. A heavy bandage was placed on the limb initially to prevent swelling; then the following morning, a lighter bandage was placed on the leg for support and protection.


The AAEP On-Call program, which is sponsored by Thoroughbred racing's Oak Tree Foundation in California, brought four veterinarians to California for the Breeders' Cup. Besides Bramlage of Kentucky and McIlwraith of Colorado, there were Arthur and Vince Baker, both of California.

On-Call was begun in 1991 with the Kentucky Derby. The objective of the program is to allow the public to get accurate and timely information on equine health issues and to help the public and the media understand these equine issues. During a crisis or accident, the AAEP spokespersons can deal with media questions and allow the attending veterinarian to focus his or her whole attention on the patient. Each of the AAEP veterinarians who participate in the program has been trained in media relations and volunteers his or her time for the On-Call program.

This program has been well-accepted not only at top Thoroughbred events, but at more than 100 equestrian competitions throughout the country. These include championship Quarter Horse racing and show events, national reining events, three-day events, the Olympics, and endurance events.

Breeders' Cup Team

Another part of the effort to ensure that horses enter the Breeders' Cup as healthy as possible, and have immediate assistance available should something go wrong during racing, is a veterinary inspection team. George Mundy, DVM, former head of the Kentucky State Racing Commission veterinary staff and now with Hill 'n' Dale Thoroughbred farm in Kentucky, has overseen a veterinary inspection team for the Breeders' Cup since 1984. There were five veterinarians on his team this year, including one veterinarian who traveled to Santa Anita racetrack to watch some Breeders' Cup contenders who were training at that site.

For the Breeders' Cup races at Hollywood Park, Mundy, Ray Baran, DVM, and Ron Jensen, DVM, followed the field during the race in a "chase" vehicle. This enabled the veterinarians to keep a close eye on all competitors, and be first on the scene in case of a medical incident. The pick-up truck in which they were riding was equipped with basic medical supplies so the veterinarians could start administering first aid even before one of the two equine ambulances stationed around the track could be driven to the injured horse. One of the ambulances was stationed in the quarter-mile chute, and the other was in the six-furlong chute. Each was manned by a veterinarian and ambulance crew.

There was only one incident during the Breeders' Cup that necessitated using an equine ambulance to remove a horse from the racetrack. Helmsman was pulled up after his race, and Mundy found the horse was favoring his left foreleg and there was soft tissue swelling just below the knee. Helmsman was removed by ambulance to prevent any further trauma to the injury site. Information was relayed directly from the site to the AAEP On-Call veterinarians so an accurate and immediate assessment could be given to the media.

So, while there was attrition from the ranks of possible starters prior to the Breeders' Cup, and one non-life-threatening injury during the races, the day was deemed a success from a health standpoint. Horses were monitored closely to protect them from injuring themselves, and personnel and equipment were available in the event that an injury occurred.

All breeds and disciplines are benefiting from the use of the On-Call program, and much is being learned from studying injuries and working to try and prevent a minor injury from becoming a major one.

About the Author

Kimberly S. Brown

Kimberly S. Brown was the Publisher/Editor of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care from June 2008 to March 2010, and she served in various positions at Blood-Horse Publications since 1980.

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