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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


"His athletic ability is so fine-tuned at this point that his reflexes had to be quicker than any magician with a slight-of-hand trick," Ritchey says. "For him to be able to put those legs out, save himself, get back up and within a stride be back in full flight, I've never seen a horse do that, nor think it was possible to do."

Kunz is hoping for decidedly less drama during her most-demanding race of the year, but she has all the bases covered and works the magic of any Houdini as she keeps tabs on 2,000 Thoroughbreds in 63 barns at the park.

Pre-race physical exam

Dr. Celeste Kunz confers with on-call veterinarian Dr. Mike Gotchey at the starting gate prior to the Belmont Stakes to make sure all the horses are able to run 111/42 miles.
Whether it was Belmont Stakes Day or any other race day, the pre-race physical inspection is similar, though a new policy had been instituted by NYRA May 4. Two barns were converted to security barns, in which horses must be taken to approximately seven hours prior to their race time.

"We perform the same pre-race physical examination as we have done in the past, when we would go to their own barn," Kunz says as she examines a horse. "Our approach is a little different in that we'll examine them in shifts to reduce the amount of activity in the shed row. Before the security barns were implemented, there was a lot of anxiety amongst the trainers concerning possible effects on their horse's temperaments. But it was easy for the horses to move to the security barns, just like shipping in from other tracks."

Strict attention is paid to cleanliness and disinfection in the security barn, too. Managed like an equine hospital, security barns are on the lookout for signs of communicable disease. "We're going to identify the horse by lip tattoo," she says as she continues with an exam. "We don't handle the mouth as a precaution to avoid transmission of bacteria between horses; the handler does that. This is just one of the biosecurity measures we have instituted. We start the exam by checking the head and eyes, we then palpate the legs feeling for any joint effusion or puffiness, heat or sensitivity indicating inflammation, range of motion while flexing the joints, etc. We finish by jogging for soundness as we've been doing for years."

Dr. Celeste Kunz, far left, monitors one of the racers in the paddock. Horses are assessed continually from the time they enter the grounds until the time they leave for their home barn after the race.
After the hands-on exam, Kunz requests the horse be walked in a direction away from her.

"I'm watching the symmetry of his gait. Okay, gracias, no mas," she tells the handler. "If I like what I see, I only have the horse go in one direction because again, that is less activity in the shed row."

Between exams, Kunz monitors each horse's health and orthopedic history, including previous examination findings, pre-existing pathology, race-related injuries, surgeries and even conformational flaws.

"We have a medical record for every horse, so we know what we've seen in the past and what we should expect. Sometimes our exam history conflicts with the horse's presentation on race day, though. The purpose of the pre-race inspection is to reduce the risk of catastrophic injuries on the racetrack. If an ankle is warm and puffy and sensitive to flexion, that's something I would then make a recommendation on."

Dr. Celeste Kunz, far left, monitors one of the racers in the paddock. Horses are assessed continually from the time they enter the grounds until the time they leave for their home barn after the race.
As each horse approaches the saddling enclosure at the paddock before each race, the NYRA Horse Identifier verifies its identification with a photograph. Before a horse races for the first time at an NYRA track, they must be matched against its original foal papers and photograph to generate an identification card. When a horse arrives at the paddock, the identifier uses the ID card to circumvent the lip tattoo.

"We look at markings (coat coloration), and the chestnuts (the oval plates of horny epithelium)," explains Jim Zito, chief horse identifier. "What I'm doing is comparing the photo identification of the horse to the horse as it appears prior to the race, and we treat a $10,000 claimer the same as a horse in a Grade 1 stakes winner."


Source: DVM360 MAGAZINE,
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