A day at the races

A day at the races

Belmont Stakes veterinarian stands watch on 2,000 Thoroughbreds, nervous trainers and relentless security check points;but her instinct and experience guide recommendations
Aug 01, 2005

Dr. Celeste Kunz (above and below on left) pauses to examine Afleet Alex after the race. The Preakness winner drew deserved attention as he ran the fastest final quarter mile since Arts and Letters in 1969 to win by seven lengths.
ELMONT, N.Y. — She's no stranger to track trauma. She was instrumental in saving Charismatic's life in 1999 as the horse battled for the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Dr. Celeste Kunz, DVM, New York Racing Association (NYRA) chief examining veterinarian, was the first to treat Charismatic when he pulled up abruptly in the stretch. The diagnosis of a displaced condylar fracture was made on the scene, and Charismatic was fitted with a compression boot. Kunz loaded him into the horse ambulance, medicated him and delivered him to the safety of his stall. Radiographs confirmed the diagnosis minutes later, and the compression boot successfully prevented further displacement prior to his surgery.

She recalls the experience while busy tending to her pre-race routines for the 137th Belmont Stakes, which took place June 11.

"I served as the Triple Crown Veterinarian and joined Dr. Mitzi Fisher, Kentucky Racing Commission Chief Veterinarian at Churchill Downs, to examine him before the Derby," Kunz remembered of her 1999 experience. "Two weeks later at the Preakness, I saw a horse that was evolving into a champion, both physically and mentally. When I examined him before the 1999 Belmont Stakes, I believed that I was in the presence of a Triple Crown winner. During the race, I was positioned in the chase vehicle and could see a horse pulling up shortly past the wire. When I arrived on the scene, I said to myself in disbelief, 'It's Charismatic! This cannot be happening.' But there is no time for emotions with the responsibility that the track veterinarians have. Instinct and experience dictate your actions. Our emergency response procedures are the same for every horse, no matter the value of its value nor the profile of the race."

On this day, another champion, Afleet Alex, third in the Kentucky Derby and winner of the Preakness, unruffled and calmly walked off the van as he arrived from Pimlico, Md., before settling into Barn 14 without incident. Conversely, hearts jumped during the May 21 Preakness when he clipped heels with Scrappy T, went to his knees, but miraculously collected himself and elevated to full flight to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, dipl. ACVS, Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., and immediate past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), was an on-call veterinarian at the Preakness, as well as this year's Belmont. AAEP's On-Call Program began 12 years ago to assist track veterinarians with trauma and to explain injuries to the media during live broadcasts and simulcasts.

"It scared me to death having to do the on-call (at Pimlico Racecourse), realizing that we might have two horses fall with 12 horses right behind them," Bramlage recalls. "There could have been four or five horses that could have stumbled and fell; It's one thing if one horse goes down and they can scramble toward the rail, but where do they go if they're in the middle of track like that? Luckily Afleet Alex caught his balance, went on and hardly missed a stride."

The heart of a champion
Maybe it was in part a miracle performed by Alex's namesake, Alexandra Scott (See sidebar, this page) or trainer Tim Ritchey's unorthodox training regimen that helped him.