In summer daze, few horses breeze or muster hot pursuit

July 24, 1991|By Marty McGee | Marty McGee,Sun Staff Correspondent

LAUREL -- Ron Cartwright gestured toward Mymet helplessly. As the filly walked slowly around the Laurel Race Course paddock, big sweat beads dripped steadily off her barrel.

"You could get a bucketful," said Cartwright.

The filly was about to make her first start in five months in Sunday's Davona Dale Handicap at Laurel, but Cartwright, her trainer, said the brutal heat probably would negate the sharp manner in which she had trained for her comeback.

Sure enough, Mymet was never a factor, struggling to finish sixth by 24 lengths. Whether or not the poor performance could be attributed to a race-time temperature of nearly 100 degrees, Cartwright said he was sure of one thing: The heat was no help. Two days later, he said she had been "affected severely," and, as a heavy sweater, probably had lost 40 or 50 pounds.

Racing horses in the heat that has blanketed Maryland recently "is close to inhumane," said trainer Josephine Owens. "They're basically nocturnal, so you're going against nature. If you go to a farm when it's hot, they do little grazing or foraging during the day, and they sleep a lot."

Dr. Randy Brandon, whose practice oversees the veterinary care for many of Maryland's largest racing stables, said horses are similar to people when it comes to hot weather in that "they just can't handle it.

"If you ran a marathon in weather like this, people would be dropping like flies," said Brandon. "Horses would much prefer very cold weather to very hot weather."

In cold, horses are eager to train and race. In heat, they are listless, largely because expending more energy than necessary compounds their misery.

But, because of economics, racing goes on. To halt Maryland's year-round grind for the weather would not permit horsemen or track ownership or the thousands of people employed at the tracks to keep paying the bills.

So the beads go on.

"They're sweating so much that, if this weather kept up, we could end up with a bunch of non-sweaters," said Brandon. "Their sweat glands go into fatigue after so long."

In hot conditions, it is normal for horses to sweat, although some do so more than others. Non-sweaters are horses that, because of gland problems, are unable to expel heat through the sweat glands, making them highly uncomfortable in hot weather.

"I've had non-sweaters before," said trainer Howard Wolfendale, "and they pant. They take real quick breaths. It's the only way they can try to relieve themselves."

Brandon said roughly 2 percent of horses are non-sweaters. Although the problem is hard to remedy, he said, he usually will prescribe a thyroid stimulant.

Owens said a secondary treatment for non-sweaters -- and one that once paid off nicely for her -- is beer drinking.

"I had a horse who loved beer," she said. "He won six in a row. We called him Budweiser."

Brandon said that beer is, in fact, good for horses during hot weather, not only because it dilates the blood vessels and can help them sweat, but also because it is full of the "electrolytes" that so many trainers refer to when discussing horses and hot weather.

Electrolytes, said Brandon, are life-sustaining elements such as potassium, sodium and chlorides. Electrolytes leave a horse's system through sweat and must be replaced continually.

In addition, horses given the diuretic Lasix -- about 80 percent of 3-year-olds and older -- lose even more fluids through urination.

Many trainers use liquid intravenous treatments (known as "jugs") and feed supplements to replenish them. Salt blocks, another source of the nutrients, are always present in a horse's stall, ready for the licking.

Water, of course, is also a critical need. Horses drink it much more than during other times, but water is also used to hose them off frequently, especially before and after racing. (Sometimes rubbing alcohol is poured over a horse's body; it opens pores, and its quicker evaporation speeds heat dissipation.)

Water also can save horses' lives if the heat overwhelms them. It is not uncommon for a horse to collapse after a race from heat prostration. After Fluttery Danseur won the Landaluce Stakes at Hollywood Park recently, she was unable to return to the winner's circle. The filly collapsed while galloping out, and, after being revived, she regained her feet several minutes later.

Once a horse has been overcome by heat, Brandon said the best method -- and the one used most often at tracks in Maryland and elsewhere -- is a constant stream of cold water applied to a horse's head and body. "You cool them off as quick as you can," he said. "The brain and the kidneys are what can be damaged most [if they are not attended to quickly]."

Dr. Patricia Brackett, state veterinarian, said she cannot recall a horse dying from the heat.

"But it's amazing considering the way people handle them," she said. "The times we see horses go down most is when it's been cold and suddenly gets warm.

"When a horse goes down, my thought is just let them lay there and cool off. When you're reviving them [meaning hosing], it's important to get them where the biggest veins are. And those are in the chest, neck and between the hind legs."

Water trucks normally used for the track surface can double as emergency relief vehicles for overheated horses. At Laurel, long hoses are located at the winner's circle and paddock. If a horse is stricken out of their reach, the trucks are usually the only resort.

The dog days of summer are obviously not horse days. Brandon sees a twist in the weather shifts that people and horses in Maryland racing experience.

"In the winter, the people are all bundled up with gloves and coats, and the horses are out of control," he said. "In the summer, the people have hardly any clothes on and they're ready to handle them, but the horses don't have any fight."

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