The winner by a mouth Dentist: Bill Allen has proved himself a thoroughbred at taking care of horses' teeth.

December 17, 1997|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Bill Allen was doing his student teaching in Ohio almost 30 years ago when a paper clip thrown by a pupil whizzed by his face.

Then and there, Allen knew he was heading into the wrong career. He loved horses, so he gravitated into training at Midwestern tracks, but he wasn't very successful.

So, the would-be teacher went straight to the horses' mouth. He became the "Tooth Man."

"It was starvation that got me into this," said the genial Allen, while sipping coffee in the Laurel Park track kitchen. "I found out teaching wasn't going to be my cup of tea and I had to eat. Here I am."

Mudra, a 4-year-old trained by Grover "Bud" Delp, stands quietly in his stall. The gate is open, but the horse has no intention of bolting. He almost seems to enjoy what Allen is doing.

With a process known as "floating," Allen is filing the horse's upper and lower teeth to remove sharp enamel points that can create an uneven bite.

The mouth is held open by a device similar to the bit (speculum) and Allen uses a heavy metal rasp with a back-and-forth motion across the surfaces.

As cavities are the focal points of human dentistry, the enamel point is the central target in the care of a horse's teeth. Points can cause cuts in the mouth, which can make the bit very uncomfortable and reduce performance in thoroughbreds.

"Thoroughbreds are handled by four or five people every day, so they kind of accept whatever you do with them," said Allen. "Mudra is used to this. The hardest to deal with are the backyard horses [used for recreational riding] that you don't see very often."

Preventive dentistry like Allen performs was once the province of track veterinarians. In Maryland, that is Dr. James Casey, also a horseman stabled at Laurel.

"Vets were originally licensed as vet dentists," said Allen. "Dentistry grew out of when horses were the sole means of transportation. What I'm in is a cottage industry, a specialty."

Allen is not licensed to administer sedatives or anesthesia or to operate the specialized power tools required for complicated operations or to extract certain teeth.

He also does not deal with gingivitis, which horses can develop, or "wolf teeth" that appear in some animals and are removed routinely to prevent trouble with the bit unless a vet is supervising the process.

He uses forceps to pull deciduous, or "baby," teeth, which are replaced by permanent teeth after age 2. On this day, he removes four from a Delp 2-year-old, which causes bleeding from the mouth. But the horse stands quietly and the bleeding soon stops.

"Dr. Casey has to do specialized procedures," said Allen. "Like abscesses, which can be killed with antibiotics if you get to them quick enough. Or serious problems, when the points grow into the gums.

"I get in over my head, I come inside [to Dr. Casey's office] real quick."

They work closely together with Allen spending time at all three Maryland thoroughbred tracks, on private farms in the state and occasionally venturing into Delaware and even making quick trips to Florida during the winter.

Everyone knows Allen around the track.

"Hey, Tooth Man," a Delp groom exclaims as Allen, 51, prepares his tools for the job. "It's good to see you. I don't think I could stand as still for you as these horses do."

"I really got hooked on this sport in Ohio hanging around River Downs and Beaulah Park," said Allen, who owns a few claimers stabled at Pimlico. "I like all kinds of horses.

"But when I got married in 1979 and started a family in 1980, I had to find a way to support them. I was very fortunate that Dr. Lee Malone introduced me to this in 1981."

He has worked with some top stock, including 1982 Preakness winner Aloma's Ruler, the hard-luck Captain Bodgit -- runner-up in this year's Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness -- and the great gelding John Henry.

"John Henry was absolutely tough to do anything with," said Allen. "He was an ornery son of a gun."

Horses are constantly eating when turned out, thus the expression "eat like a horse."

But diets have been modified for racehorses particularly because of domestication and confinement. The eating habits are more supervised.

But the softer, processed feed of stabled horses requires less chewing and can lead to uneven wear in teeth or excessive growth of points.

This is where Allen comes in because the horse's teeth "erupt" throughout their adult lives and require attention.

"Horsemen can pay Bill $50 twice a year and have far fewer problems than if they let them go," said Dr. Casey.

"The teeth of young horses grow at a more accelerated rate," said Allen. "You should look at their teeth every couple of months. I call them job security.

"Middle-aged horses, 12 to 14, have a slower metabolism and different problems. Their teeth grow at different rates.

"Then, when horses get old, teeth actually fall out and the roots become exposed. So, something needs correcting constantly."

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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