For racehorses, a broken bone no longer is sure ticket to death

November 29, 1993|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

Dan Dreyfuss was making his veterinary rounds on the Laurel backstretch on Oct. 9, listening to the track announcer's call of the Maryland Million Classic, when he heard it: Root Boy had broken down.

The 5-year-old horse lay on the track, his right foreleg shattered and bleeding. The colt Union City, after suffering a similar injury in this year's Preakness, had to be destroyed.

"I drove over there as fast as I could, and could tell right away

this was a horrible injury," Dr. Dreyfuss said. "[Root Boy] has always been one of my favorites. I knew when I saw him I could not put this horse down. I was going to do everything I could to save his life."

After undergoing surgery and spending six weeks in intensive care at a Pennsylvania equine hospital -- at a cost of $12,000 to $15,000 -- Root Boy stepped off a van Tuesday at Murmur Farm in Harford County to begin preparing for his new career as a stallion. He could begin breeding mares as early as February.

His story is proof that a broken leg, no matter how severe, doesn't automatically mean a death sentence for a thoroughbred.

Root Boy, owned by Towson business executive Richard Blue, was near the lead after completing about a third of the 1 1/8 -mile Maryland Million Classic when jockey Edgar Prado heard "a pop." Root Boy's right leg had snapped. Then, favorite Reputed Testamony, ridden by Kent Desormeaux, ran into him from behind.

The impact sent Root Boy, who had been traveling about 30 mph, on a long skid that nearly ripped the hide off the entire left side of his body.

Mr. Prado was unhurt, but the horse suffered three fractures -- in addition to a condylar, or joint fracture, of his cannon bone, he smashed both sesamoids, two bones located behind his heel. Two of the fractures were open, with bones protruding through the skin.

Less than three hours later, Root Boy arrived at the New Bolton Center of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical School, in Kennett Square about 30 miles west of Philadelphia. His chances of survival were less than 50-50.

David Nunamaker, chief of New Bolton's orthopedic staff, repaired the shattered leg by inserting a strip of stainless steel the size of a dinner knife. The metal plate is held to the bone by 14 screws, and it will remain in place for the rest of the horse's life.

Dr. Nunamaker said that New Bolton receives about 12 to 15 horses each year that have sustained injuries as severe as Root Boy's.

"Obviously, you can't save all horses in these kinds of situations," said Dr. Dreyfuss. "But I think Root Boy's case shows that if you make the effort, that if you do proper first aid quickly, have a good surgeon, a willing patient, a cooperative owner and enough living tissue left to facilitate healing, then these horses can be saved."

Root Boy's breakdown was hauntingly familiar to Dr. Dreyfuss, who was an attending vet at the Preakness when Union City broke both sesamoids and suffered an open condylar fracture -- just like Root Boy.

The difference between the two horses was that Union City had tried to run on the shattered leg, stripping open the arteries.

"There was no pulse in his foot," Dr. Dreyfuss said. "It was ice cold. Horses like that can be operated on, but what happens is that, because of the artery damage, blood can't get to the tissue and it cannot heal. In a couple of weeks, the leg becomes gangrenous, and the horse is destroyed."

It was Dr. Dreyfuss who euthanized Union City almost immediately after the race.

But there always was a good pulse in Root Boy's foot, Dr. Dreyfuss said, and the fact that he had collapsed in shock kept him from ripping apart his lower leg.

Dr. Dreyfuss said he immediately wrapped a sterile bandage on the horse's leg and applied a Kimsey splint, an aluminum structure to stabilize the leg.

"I had tears streaming down my face the whole time I was doing it," Dr. Dreyfuss said. "The horse kept lifting up his head and looking back at me."

Saving a life

Root Boy, a strong-willed bay with respectable bloodlines and more than $380,000 in earnings, has received cards and letters wishing him a speedy recovery.

One letter was from Lana Waggener of Baltimore, who wrote, "I know it sounds crazy sending a get-well card to a horse . . . but I've been betting on him for three years, and I just love that horse."

Root Boy's survival story comes at a time when the racing industry is reeling because so many horses are being destroyed after suffering injuries. Julie Wilson, a veterinarian at the University of Minnesota, is doing a national study that estimates there was one fatality for every 122 races in 1992.

National television audiences have seen horses suffer fatal breakdowns several times in recent years. In addition to Union City in the Preakness and Prairie Bayou in the Belmont this year, there have been four deaths resulting from Breeders' Cup races in the past four years.

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