On Duty for On Call
Equine veterinarians staff high-profile horse races as conduits of information to the media and public.
Dr. Jeff Blea worked Santa Anita Park’s backside during the Breeders’ Cup. Besides being an On Call liaison, he cared for horses from the back of his mobile clinic.
Tragedy struck early on the second day of the 2013 Breeders’ Cup races in Arcadia, Calif.
Just before the final turn of the Juvenile Fillies on Nov. 2, the thoroughbred Secret Compass and her jockey, John Velazquez, went down in a heap. A partition quickly went up around the 2-year-old filly as track and medical personnel attended to her.
Many of the 58,795 horse-racing fans filling Santa Anita Park sensed a horrible outcome, and they were right.
It was left to Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, Ph.D., Dipl. ACVS, to relay the official word to reporters from around the world.
“Secret Compass sustained a lateral condylar fracture with dislocation,” his statement began. “[It was] an injury we can’t bring them back from because when they dislocate on the track, they lose their blood supply.
“So she has been euthanized.”
A member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ On Call service, the Southern California veterinarian was tasked with delivering the sad news in his part-time role as a media intermediary.
Before Dr. McIlwraith’s news conference took place, Larry Bramlage, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, provided the same information to viewers watching the races on NBC Sports Network.
Both men are part of a stable of 20 media-trained veterinarians who are literally on call to share their expertise about equine medical issues during about 30 televised horse-race events a year.
The race world is fortunate to have equine orthopedic surgeons like McIlwraith and Dr. Bramlage because their numbers are scant. Bramlage compared the roster to a football stadium full of veterinarians.
“All of the equine veterinarians would fit in an end zone, and all of the equine orthopedic surgeons would probably be in one row,” he quipped.
A Chosen Few
Veterinarians need not apply for On Call duty because the AAEP taps on shoulders as a need arises.
Turnover is infrequent, and the pay is nonexistent. Only expenses are covered.
“Wayne and I kind of evolved into the Breeders’ Cup team because we are both orthopedic surgeons and the vast majority of the injuries are orthopedic injuries,” said Bramlage, who practices in Lexington, Ky.
Big events like the Breeders’ Cup require the presence of at least two media-savvy veterinarians.
“There’s a race every half hour,” Bramlage said. “You have to get the same information to the live media and the print media and get back and be ready for the next race.”
Before ever stepping in front of a microphone, On Call volunteers must attend an all-day training session. They learn not only how to communicate to the public, but what to say and what not to say.
“You get trained in translating it to the public and avoiding the traps that can sometimes happen,” McIlwraith said.
Bramlage is well aware of the traps.
“We don’t want to give the impression that we’re not caring and that we’re just interested in the clinical aspects of it rather than the welfare of the horse,” he said. “We have to keep in mind that the general public will want to know about the horse [and] what’s done to try to prevent injuries and the capabilities for treating these injuries.”
Bramlage and McIlwraith keep the media’s wishes in mind, too.
“It helps for us to understand what the media need for their telecasts and their broadcasts so we can give them useable material,” Bramlage said.
A Welcome Addition
In the early days of On Call, now in its 21st year, the news media sometimes treated veterinarians as pariahs.
“When we started, the television people sort of looked at us and said, ‘Stand over here and we’ll call you if we need you,’” Bramlage recalled.
But reporters and TV producers soon saw the value of On Call, which got its start after Mr. Brooks broke down in the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Sprint race and was euthanized.
“They really had no one to talk to about the injury, and so they showed the injury several times on television with no one explaining the situation, what the prognosis might be,” Bramlage said.
“So the AAEP put together a program for all nationally televised races,” he added. “Even if it is bad news, at least you give the information to the viewers and they are able to process it and deal with it—they’re not left hanging at the end of the telecast.”
The service has grown in stature over the years, even winning the horse-racing industry’s 2008 Eclipse Award.
“It’s been much more successful than I think we anticipated,” Bramlage said. “It took a while to get its legs, but once it became established, the media now depend on us as the source of background information.”
No Camera Time
Also working at Santa Anita Park was On Call participant Jeff Blea, DVM, an equine practitioner in Sierra Madre, Calif., and AAEP’s incoming president. He spends a lot of time at the track on other race days.
“On weekends they’ll have stakes races that are high profile but aren’t on national television,” Dr. Blea said. “They will be on the racing networks—HRTV, TVG. Santa Anita will call and ask someone to do the On Call for those races, so I usually volunteer.”
The Breeders’ Cup magnifies everything, Blea said.
“Everybody in the industry looks toward the end of the year because those are the best races,” he said. “The best competition worldwide in horse racing is right here at this event.”
At the Breeders’ Cup, Blea served as a liaison to Bramlage and McIlwraith in the barn area, which is where the nonprofit Equine Foundation runs a complete equine hospital.
“If something happens to a horse in a race and it’s an unknown problem, I’ll go check on the horse, check with the horse’s veterinarian, get that information back to Dr. Bramlage or Dr. McIlwraith so they can relay it to the public and the press,” Blea said.
His primary role at the Breeders’ Cup was as a private practitioner in a group of five veterinarians who work at Southern California thoroughbred tracks.
“We work for trainers who have horses in training on the backside,” he said.
Blea and his four partners provided onsite care to about 70 Breeders’ Cup horses, including some from France, England and Argentina.
In the days leading up to the races, the veterinarians texted each other at 7 a.m.
“We’d go through what horses we have in today and tomorrow and the next day and what medications they needed and what times they needed medications,” Blea said.
“We are essentially ambulatory practitioners,” he added. “We practice out of our vehicles, carrying all our own equipment—endoscope, X-ray, ultrasound, diagnostic equipment, medications.”
Love for Horses
McIlwraith and Bramlage know a thing or two about the sport of thoroughbred horse racing.
McIlwraith and his wife once owned racehorses. Bramlage and his wife have three.
“I think it’s an important part of my job to know not just the business from the veterinary aspect but ... to understand the [racing] aspect as well,” Bramlage said.
“They’re not half-million-dollar horses,” he added of his trio. “They’re low-level allowance horses, but it’s just as much fun whenever they do win.”
When it comes to On Call, the best news is no news.
“Most of the races in the United States never have any sort of issue,” Bramlage said. “About 1.5 percent of horses—depending on where you are across the country, time of year, weather conditions and all that stuff—will have some sort of issue.”
Heartbreaking moments on the race track can have silver linings. Those are among Bramlage and McIlwraith’s most treasured Breeders’ Cup memories.
“Filago was a big item for me,” Bramlage said, referring to a colt that pulled up in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Turf race.
“They interviewed the jockey, who said, ‘He broke his leg clean off,’” Bramlage recalled.
“By that time I had the information from the ambulance, and I was able to tell them that he fractured both sesamoid bones. I said it was a career-ending injury but that he’d need surgery.’”
Filago went on to become “quite a successful stallion” in Argentina, Bramlage noted.
“I just happened to be in Argentina speaking at a veterinary meeting,” he said. “The veterinarian I was down there with knew I had done Filago’s surgery. I went to a sale and got to see his first yearling.
“That was kind of a milestone. That’s when the On Call program took off, and I got to see the completion of the whole circle.”