How equine medicine became big business
For Kentucky Derby week, the Innovation Trail is partnering with WEKU and Louisville Public Media to explore how technology is changing the horse racing industry. This is part four of a five-part series.
From the ceiling of a surgery suite, an 800-pound thoroughbred - slumbering under anesthesia - dangles upside down from a crane.
Techs and nurses at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky. carefully lower the colt onto a doublewide gurney. Then he’s hooked up to a ventilator delivering oxygen and anesthesia.
The doctor does an ultrasound, showing her intern where to inject an expensive stem cell treatment.
Thoroughbred racing is a multi-billion dollar industry. Equine veterinary care has become extremely sophisticated.
In the past few decades, the Jockey Club’s research foundation has spent $19 million funding equine medical research projects.
Two of the world’s top horse hospitals are in Lexington. Rood & Riddle’s Dr. Katie Garrett says medical advances are opening up new terrain for equine vets.
“It’s very rewarding to try something new and actually have it work,” Garrett says, “or saving an animal’s life that you’re pretty sure you couldn’t have saved 10 or 15 years ago. I mean, it’s very exciting.”
Veterinary care in thoroughbred racing today is highly competitive.
Thoroughbred owners expect a lot - and usually get it. Things like MRI results and blood work are often delivered within 24 hours - unlike the days and weeks that a human patient may wait.
At Lane’s End Farm outside of Lexington, a chestnut mare is greeted by two stallions as she walks into the breeding shed. Last year alone, Lane’s End spent $2 million on vet care.
“We have a repro[duction] guy that comes every morning and helps us figure out when we’re gonna breed mares,” says Mike Cline, the farm manager at Lane’s End. “And then we have a medicine person that takes care of sick foals and sick yearlings. And then we have an orthopedic vet that takes care of orthopedic issues.”
Cline says the days are long gone when farms had a single vet who handled everything.
These days, racing’s small-timers can’t afford to buy the highest-quality horses. Instead they dream of winning a major race with a dark horse - and more than one has done it.
A key ingredient toward fulfilling that dream: top veterinary care.
Sarah Wells breeds a handful of mares and has one filly in training to race. Wells spends more than $10,000 of her roughly $60,000 yearly income on vet care - and that’s if all her horses stay relatively healthy.
“If you have a major surgery - like, I had a [horse undergo] colic surgery three years ago - that’s another $5,000,” Wells says. “You sacrifice a lot. You don’t do a lot of steak dinners and you don’t drive fancy cars.”
Wells says there are a lot of new treatments available for racehorses - everything from stem cell therapies to hyperbaric chambers.
“These are very effective,” says Wells. “They’re also very expensive.”
Back at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, vet Sheri Miller leads a coffee-colored gelding toward a waiting van. His name is Arson Squad.
He’s leaving the hospital after a six-week stay. The bottom third of his right front leg is wrapped with a green bandage. Arson Squad walks well, if a bit stiffly.
“Forty years ago he wouldn’t have had a shot,” Miller says. “He would have been euthanized at the site.”
On U.S. tracks each year, hundreds of horses die from race-related injuries. For owners with the money and the will, options exist for saving some of them.
Nine-year-old Arson Squad broke down while training in Florida. His owners immediately shipped him to Rood & Riddle for a procedure that fused his fetlock.
Arson Squad’s surgery, called fetlock arthrodesis, was invented by Rood & Riddle’s Dr. Larry Bramlage around 1978.
Dr. Bramlage is the Bono of equine medicine.
He’s so well-known for inventing this life-saving surgery that horse people travel to the clinic just to get his autograph.
“The fortunate thing about the arthrodesis technique is it allows the horse to be so stable,” Bramlage says. “It absolutely allows them to be pain-free in a matter of days.”
Unlike humans, injured horses can’t lie in bed to recover, or use crutches and wheelchairs. They have to stand to keep their vital systems working.
Back in the parking lot, Sheri Miller loads Arson Squad into the van.
He won’t race again. Arson Squad will live out the rest of his life at a nearby equine retirement home called Old Friends.
Miller gives Arson Squad a rub as he enters the trailer. “Be a good boy,” she tells him. “I’ll come see you.”