Safety net: the vet

He's at track just in case, but most of his days pass in routine

May 15, 2008|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

Most of Dan Dreyfuss' days don't intersect with catastrophe.

He knows that, on some level, he's paid to hang around the Pimlico and Laurel racetracks in case something really bad happens. As a trackside veterinarian, his work is in the news more than ever after the deaths of Barbaro last year and Eight Belles at this year's Kentucky Derby.

Dreyfuss doesn't dismiss the impact of thoroughbred deaths. In fact, he can tell you the circumstances of every horse he has had to put down.

"If I ever don't get emotional after doing it," he says, "I'll know it's time to find a different line of work."

That said, Dreyfuss rarely has to make life-and-death decisions. In fact, a tour through his typical day sounds a lot like what you see during a visit to your family doctor's practice.

"Usually," he says in his gentle voice, "not much happens."

Dreyfuss, 49, grew up in California, across the road from a 45,000-acre beef cattle ranch. When he was young, he watched, transfixed, as the cowboys readied their horses and galloped off to herd steer. Eventually, with his parents' permission, the horsemen taught him riding and roping cattle.

Thoroughbred racing bolted into his world on television, in the muscular, red form of Secretariat.

By adolescence, Dreyfuss knew he wanted to be a vet. He settled on large animals while in veterinary school at California-Davis.

"Part of it, to be honest, was that I'm so much of a softy for dogs," he says. "I thought working with them might take too much of an emotional toll."

He interned at the New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania, the same facility where Barbaro attempted to recover after his Preakness injury in 2006. He has lived in Maryland since 1990 and has worked for his current practice, which serves trainers at Pimlico and Laurel, since 2000.

On a normal work day, Dreyfuss rises at about 4 a.m. If he makes it to 5 a.m., he has officially slept in. He gets to the track about 5:30 and begins his first round, checking to see whether any horses felt sick overnight or need Lasix in anticipation of running. He's looking for fevers, bellyaches, poor appetites - the basics.

"Most often, there is nothing," he says. "Everybody is happy and healthy."

About 7:30 a.m., after many horses have worked out, he addresses minor issues that invariably crop up. That might mean injecting an anti-inflammatory drug or disinfecting a scrape. As with a family practice for humans, most of his work amounts to simple maintenance.

"Really, there's very little difference in basic principles between human medicine and what we do for horses," he says.

The patients can be a tad fussier. Dreyfuss has been kicked and bitten.

"Being prey animals, it's in their nature to be afraid," he says of thoroughbreds.

Around noon, Dreyfuss switches to more involved procedures, grabbing the portable ultrasound and X-ray machines from his Toyota Sequoia to survey for tendon and ligament damage. Sometimes, he'll remove a bone chip or bolt a slightly fractured ankle back together.

Maryland trainer Mary Eppler has seen Dreyfuss in action and says the veterinarian is a vital part of the daily track regimen. Dreyfuss' practice, the Maryland Veterinary Group, is one of two that regularly serve Pimlico. They're contracted by individual owners and trainers.

"So many things come up. The horses might have colic, they run fevers, and then there are the more serious injuries. There are so many things," Eppler said. "Dan, I really trust with everything."

Once racing begins, Dreyfuss' day actually quiets down. He uses the time to fill out forms, check X-rays or read a book.

"A lot of days are spent just being there in case something happens," he says.

Often, if a horse hasn't run as expected, the trainer asks for an endoscopic exam. That's why you'll often see Dreyfuss roaming about with what looks like a briefcase and a battery-operated light. With it, he can check for respiratory distress or internal bleeding.

"We call that the STL period of the afternoon," he says. "Scope the losers."

If a horse falls or pulls up lame, Dreyfuss and fellow veterinarians rush to the track. He was one of the first to reach Barbaro when he pulled up during the 2006 Preakness. What follows is a rapid, frank assessment.

The decision to euthanize can seem brutally quick on television. But it's based on years of learning the long odds against horses with serious leg injuries.

"You've got to take this 1,200-pound mass of muscle and bone, try to repair the damage and then have that huge body standing on the mended leg within an hour," Dreyfuss says. "Not only do they have to be able to stand on it, they have to be able to walk and have the temperament to deal with the situation."

Horses simply cannot lie down for long. Due to their sheer mass, they crush their own muscles and develop circulation and breathing problems. If they can't distribute their weight evenly while standing, laminitis, the hoof disease that doomed Barbaro, sets in.

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