Before starting gate, there's always the vet 119TH PREAKNESS

May 22, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Staff Writer

Her office, built of plywood in a corner of Pimlico's crowded paddock, is the size of a small walk-in closet.

From there, Dr. Patricia Brackett, 70, easily can sprint onto the racetrack and make her way to the starting gate.

Once there, she only has eyes for the beautiful, prancing horses. Her sharp, greenish-brown eyes study every move the thoroughbreds make.

She watches their gait, the way they walk. She watches how they load into the starting gate, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

"They've already been looked over in the morning," says the Maryland Racing Commission vet. "So I'm looking them over again, but really I'm just available in case a rider comes up and says, 'Here, look at this.' "

She's a go-between, so to speak. A trainer wants his horse to run. A jockey depends on getting rides from trainers to make a living. A jockey is more likely to bring a concern to her attention than to the trainer's.

"If I see something, I'll scratch them, because I know if something is amiss, they [the horses] feel worse than they look," Brackett says. "The rider can go back to the trainer and say, 'I was ready to go, but the vet said no.'

"There are a lot of people here with a lot of different interests. I try to do what's best for the horse. Generally, that turns out to be what's best for the most people."

This is Preakness Day, not a normal day at Pimlico. Usually, Brackett goes to post for all the long races, but this day, she has been assigned to the shorter ones.

"It's a bit of an insult, actually," she says. "But this is the Preakness, and the head man wants to be there."

In fact, as the Preakness horses prepared to go to post yesterday, they were surrounded by vets.

Dr. David Zipf, the chief vet of the Maryland Racing Commission, and Dr. George Mundy, the chief vet of the Kentucky Racing Commission, made the early-morning rounds, checking each horse for soundness.

Mundy is here as part of a safety program begun last year at the Breeders' Cup and continued this spring at the Triple Crown races -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

The beefed-up medical check was instituted after a number of racing-related deaths at previous Breeders' Cups and last year's Triple Crown events. Union City broke down a year ago in the Preakness, and Preakness winner Prairie Bayou suffered a fatal injury in the Belmont.

Pimlico, with its narrow, flat turns, has had its share of bad accidents, as have most other racetracks. And Brackett has been called on to "put down" her share of the injured.

Brackett, born in Egypt and raised in England, came to Canada as a war bride at the end of World War II.

After a divorce, she headed for California and began studying veterinary medicine at 32. Now, 38 years later, she is a 14-year veteran with the Maryland Racing Commission.

And while the dark side of racing is not the reason she got into this job, she handles it with firm professionalism.

The problem, she speculates, is that the physical evolution of the horse has not kept up with the speed horsemen have bred into the animal.

"Mainly, it's just a bad step, a foot stuck on the ground, that they can't move it. Every one is an individual case."

It's the part of the job she hates.

"But I'd rather do it than see it suffer," she said. "When you first arrive at the scene of an accident, the poor thing is so confused, it doesn't know what's wrong."

The part of the job she enjoys most is the morning walks around the stables, when she is making sure the horses are in good condition.

It is then that she can take some time to stop and visit with the horses.

"You look at their eyes and they're almost saying, 'Please stop and talk to me,' " says Brackett. "One horse at Laurel would always reach out and very gently take my sleeve, and hold me there, asking me to stay awhile."

Brackett smiles, recalling her father's advice not to get involved with horses. He told her to get a good education, make some money and maybe buy a horse.

She figures she went one better by getting into a business where she can be around other people's horses.

"But to be a veterinarian, it's not enough to love animals," Brackett says. "You've got to love medical science, because you will have to do a lot of things you don't like to do to animals.

"You've got to do it for their best interest, knowing there is nothing else to do. You do it as quickly as possible, to put them out of their misery."

Yesterday, Brackett had a good day. She spent the morning looking over the horses, the afternoon double-checking their health, and when the final race had been run here, she could return to her cozy office and fill out the medical records without recording one mishap.

"I hope I'm going to do this for a long time," she said. "I like it. I'm healthy, I'm active and I think I'd go crazy, get fat and lazy if I ever have to retire.

"My greatest joy," she said, "would be to drop dead at the starting gate."

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