I was there at Belmont Park that tragic day, along with tens of thousands of others. It was July 6, 1975, and Ruffian, a 3-year-old filly of amazing prowess, was racing for her 11th consecutive win. It was a match race with that year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Foolish Pleasure.
One of the fastest fillies of all time, Ruffian had won the filly version of the Triple Crown, which in 1975 included the Acorn Stakes, the Mother Goose Stakes and the Coaching Club American Oaks. Even more impressive? During all of her races, even in her final effort versus Foolish Pleasure, she’d never been behind a horse at any call.
As the match race began, Ruffian hit her shoulder hard leaving the starting gate, but she pulled herself together and was on the lead by a nose at the quarter pole, running the first two furlongs in 22.5 seconds. A furlong later, Ruffian was in front by half a length when both sesamoid bones in her right foreleg snapped. Courageously, she attempted to continue, disregarding the jockey’s attempts to pull her up, further injuring her sesamoids and tearing the skin and ligaments of her fetlock.
A team of veterinarians quickly tended to her injuries, performing several hours of emergency surgery. However, as the anesthetic wore off, the team watched in horror as Ruffian thrashed about on the padded floor, her feet in stride as if trying to finish the race. Despite the valiant efforts of several veterinarians and attendants, the plaster cast surrounding her fractured leg was severely damaged, and Ruffian was humanely euthanized.
To commemorate Ruffian’s legacy, and to give horses at Belmont Park ready access to a modern medical facility, International Acquisitions Equine Holdings (the stable that owned 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown) built and opened the state-of-the-art Ruffian Equine Medical Center in 2009. The Ruffian Center was a wonderful facility designed to serve Belmont Park, which was a short walk across Plainfield Avenue, not far from Aqueduct Racecourse and Long Island’s many pleasure horses. But the center was closed only two years later in 2011 because of financial difficulties.
Poised for a comeback
This year, almost 40 years after Ruffian’s fatal accident, Cornell University reopened the equine medical center, renaming it Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists. “We wanted to continue to honor the gallant filly,” says Chief Medical Officer Alan Nixon, BVSc, MS, DACVS. “And with the kind permission of Ruffian’s owner, Mr. Stuart Janney, we incorporated her name into our new specialty hospital.”
The obvious strength of this medical center is its direct tie to Cornell. In addition to its local staff on Long Island, it enjoys university oversight and assistance from the Cornell Equine Hospital team. In fact, several equine practitioners and technicians have made regular commutes between the Ithaca, New York, campus and the Cornell Ruffian center, including Norm Ducharme, DVM, MSc, DACVS, who specializes in throat surgery, as well as Lisa Fortier, DVM, PhD, DACVS, and Nixon, who cover orthopedic surgery.
In early July, four full-time veterinarians joined the Long Island staff, including another board-certified surgeon, Kyla Ortved, DVM, PhD, DACVS, and Sam Hurcombe, BVSc, BMS, MS, DACVIM, DACVECC, a double-boarded specialist in equine internal medicine and emergency critical care, hired from The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Hurcombe will offer critical care, including cardiac care and care for pneumonia, colic and other critical conditions. His presence also will allow for the round-the-clock staff to treat emergencies.
Ortved brings seven years of experience in both orthopedic and soft tissue surgery, with a special expertise in minimally invasive orthopedic and gastrointestinal surgery. Another experienced surgeon, Gabe Cook, DVM (a partner with Bill Bradley, DVM, in New England Equine), is on call to assist with unique cases on an as-needed basis.
Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists offers a strong mix of surgeons and clinicians, each bringing his or her own in-depth expertise. “Not only do we have an experienced group of surgeons and clinicians at the new facility, but we also benefit from all the expertise at Cornell,” says Fortier, “including experts in neurology, ophthalmology and many other specialties.”
“It is also reassuring to have our university anesthesia and imaging staff visit the center to provide expertise in planning, equipping and providing services at the new hospital,” Nixon adds.
One of the goals of establishing Cornell Ruffian was to enhance the safety of racing by making the most sensitive diagnostic and therapeutic modalities easily accessible to equine athletes, says Cornell Veterinary College Dean Michael Kotlikoff, VMD, PhD. “The practice will have a standing MRI, CT and nuclear scintigraphy within walking distance of the backstretch, which we hope will increase screening and decrease the incidence of serious injuries,” he says.
The practice also offers regenerative medicine techniques using platelet-rich plasma, as well as cardiovascular assessment using a high-speed treadmill and telemetry.
Supporting local practices
In addition to treating performance athletes, the new facility also plans to treat other horses on Long Island and in the surrounding communities. “Although we are close to Belmont Park, we treat all horses: standardbreds, warmbloods and backyard horses,” says Fortier. “We can help Long Island veterinarians by providing specialty care right here.”
The center is primarily a referral institution, assisting community veterinarians when they need specialty diagnostics, an advanced procedure or a unique surgery, Fortier explains.
One of the unique and innovative features of the original surgical suite built in 2009 was a digital video camera mounted above the surgical field, so consulting practitioners can observe the procedure in real time on a cell phone or iPad. “In this heightened digital age,” says Fortier, “if I am in surgery and Dr. Ducharme or Dr. Nixon is at the Cornell University campus, we can send images to each other for immediate consultation, offering suggestions on various procedures in real time.
“Another example: One of our referring veterinarians, Tara O’Brien, DVM, took a picture today of a horse in atrial fibrillation. We sent an ECG strip immediately to the Cornell cardiologist right from the phone for an immediate response,” Fortier says. “We have all the digital technology, plus a direct line to the Cornell Veterinary College campus and to various specialists for immediate assistance day or night.”
Handling racetrack emergencies
For Belmont Park, the reopening of this state-of-the-art medical facility is priceless. “We’ve only been open for a couple of months, and already several horses with mild to moderate injuries were simply walked across the street or taken by horse ambulance to our Ruffian facility,” Fortier says. “Within a few minutes we can provide immediate care and begin to stabilize these animals.”
Once treated, the athletes can walk back across the street to their barn, avoiding the stress of transport and eliminating the cost of a long-distance shipment.
With the reopening of Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists, horses from throughout the greater Long Island community will enjoy exceptional veterinary care backed by Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.