Derby accident spurs stronger look at track safety

Derby accident spurs stronger look at track safety

DVMs assist in reporting tragedy, work with racing industry on ways to rescue injuries
Jun 01, 2008

Lexington, Ky. — Veterinarians played a key role in handling another high-profile racetrack tragedy — this time at the Kentucky Derby — and they're working with the racing industry in the aftermath to help improve Thoroughbred-racing safety and equine health and safety in general.

The cheers of 157,770 fans when Big Brown crossed the finish line to win the 2008 Derby turned to gasps and tears when second-place finisher Eight Belles collapsed seconds later, suffering condylar fractures of both her front legs while pulling up. The scene was replayed on national television over several days.

With no chance of survival, the 3-year-old filly was euthanized by injection on orders of the track veterinarian. The horse had finished 3.5 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher, Denis of Cork, before the accident — worst in Derby history.

"Though it happened some distance from where our people were, we got there quickly on the ambulance and were perfectly prepared to deal with the reporters," says Larry Bramlage, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, one of two American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) "On Call" veterinarians on duty.

Bramlage, standing near NBC television announcers, answered questions from them and other reporters after communicating by radio with his "On Call" partner at the scene, Scott A. Hopper, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS. Bramlage and Hopper are surgeons at nearby Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital.

The AAEP provides "On Call" veterinarians at most major races to answer reporters' questions and give expert commentary. Bramlage handled a blitz of media interviews during and after race day.

"With the radio, I first heard one of the outriders close to the spot say the No. 5 horse went down," Bramlage tells DVM Newsmagazine. "After that, as long as it took for an ambulance going 40 mph to travel a half-mile — that's how long it took for Dr. Hopper to get there and for us to have something to tell the reporters. We were ready in minutes."

Besides Bramlage and Hopper, there were four veterinarians working for the State of Kentucky on the scene, two of them on the track and two behind the scenes for testing and examination purposes. Who makes the decision to euthanize?

"That decision is entirely in the hands of the track veterinarian," Bramlage explains. "The welfare of the horse is always the ultimate consideration. Normally the object would be to try to splinter the animal, load it on the ambulance and get it back to the barn to its own veterinarian and owner. But if the injury is serious enough to make that impossible, as it was in this case, and you can't handle her without undue suffering, then, under the law, when a horse is entered in a race, the owner gives up control of the final decision to the track veterinarian."

While galloping out after her finish, Eight Belles apparently first suffered a condylar fracture in her right front leg and tried to shift her weight to the left leg, causing it to fracture as well, Bramlage believes. "The left front fracture displaced and opened up. And of course when the skin opens infection sets in immediately, and that is one of the hallmarks, the huge threshold that determines whether there's a chance of survival."

By comparison, one day earlier in a preliminary race at Churchill Downs, a 4-year-old colt, Chelokee, dislocated his right front ankle, tearing all the ligaments connecting the back of the fetlock with the pastern joint, but the skin didn't open in that instance. Bramlage fused the horse's ankle May 5 in a fetlock arthrodesis procedure, and says the operation went well, giving the horse a good chance of recovery.

When the skin isn't broken, "the effective delivery of antibiotics is exponentially greater. The skin keeps contamination to a minimum," Bramlage explains.

That wasn't the case with Eight Belles, however. Bramlage said he's never seen bilateral fractures occur in that manner before — during pull-up after what appeared to be a perfect, strong race without any sign of distress or bumping against any other horse.