Horsing around with dentistry Checkup: Miss Piggy receives her first dental examination, a key moment in the life of the 2-year-old Maryland thoroughbred.

October 28, 1998|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Mouth open, teeth bared, the 2-year-old preens for the dentist. "She's doing great," said Mike O'Donnell, plunging half his arm -- and a flashlight -- into the patient's mouth.

Nor does she flinch when O'Donnell begins smoothing her teeth with a metal file, like those found in machine shops.

Scrrrunch, scrrrunch, scrrrunch. The file grates back and forth for 20 minutes as the patient -- a 900-pound horse -- stands idly in her stall at the Bowie Training Center in Prince George's County.

So goes Mary Bo Quoit's first dental exam, a milestone in the career of the Maryland thoroughbred whose life is being chronicled in The Sun. Mary Bo Quoit, nicknamed "Miss Piggy," passes the checkup. The filly needed the routine filing, or "floating," of several sharp-edged teeth lest she cut her mouth.

Oral health can make or break a thoroughbred, horsemen say. Sound teeth are as critical to a horse's success as its legs or pedigree. Yet few bettors realize, when they plunk down $2, that they are putting their money where the horse's mouth is.

"The mouth is the horse's steering wheel when it's wearing bit and bridle," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association. "If the horse has bad teeth, it won't grab the bit properly -- and the jockey can't control the horse."

Dental problems are often the cause of a poor track effort, Capps said:

"Many a race has been lost because no one knew the horse had something wrong with its mouth."

Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, but he was just another nag that year in the Wood Memorial, when he was done in by an abscessed lip.

Such lessons are not lost on Mary Bo Quoit's handlers, said Bill Brasaemle, one of the filly's owners.

"If a sore mouth can stop Secretariat, what does it do to a mortal horse?" asked Brasaemle.

Scrrrunch, scrrrunch, scrrrunch. Flecks of tooth fly off the carbide-chip blade. Back and forth, O'Donnell saws, filing Mary Bo Quoit's choppers as if smoothing the rough edges off sheet metal. The filly tilts her head sideways, but lets him work.

"Most horses don't mind, because I'm not hitting any nerves," said O'Donnell, 43, of Shady Side. A former horse trainer, he is one of perhaps a dozen equine dentists practicing in Maryland, following clients from track to track.

Anyone can hang a shingle; equine dentistry requires no license, but is limited by state law to the filing of teeth and removal of "caps," or baby teeth. Veterinarians tackle more serious problems.

O'Donnell has examined horses' mouths for eight years and treats his patients as any D.D.S. would. "You talk to them, soothe them, make them relax," he said.

"It's hard work, but I know I'm helping horses. They feel better, eat better, steer better."

One thing he never sees is a cavity. Horses rarely eat sweets, he said.

Having begun to shed baby teeth -- a lengthy, two-year process -- Mary Bo Quoit will now receive routine checkups, said her trainer, JoAnne Hughes. Loose caps can lodge sideways in a horse's mouth, shredding the animal's cheeks.

"Bad teeth can cost a horse 10 lengths in a race," Hughes said. "Those sharp edges are like razor blades."

Occasionally, a horse will ingest burrs or sticks that become wedged in its mouth, causing havoc. Asked to examine a failing trotter, O'Donnell discovered a tiny hypodermic needle stuck in lTC its tongue; only the plastic tip was visible. The dentist removed the syringe and the horse bounced back, winning four straight races.

"The owner wound up selling that horse for $80,000," O'Donnell said.

The dentist received a $5 tip.

Pub Date: 10/28/98

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