Belmont vets hold horses' fate in their hands
The thoroughbreds shifted nervously in the starting gate for the second race, waiting for the doors to spring open and release them onto Belmont's mile-and-a-half oval.
Then, one filly panicked and reared. Her jockey slid off, her hind legs collapsed and, for a few long seconds, she struggled desperately to stand.
The gate crew extricated the horse, and track veterinarian Yessenia Almeida was instantly at her side. She checked the filly over and sent her back to the barn, along with another horse that the chestnut had accidentally hit. Incredibly, both trotted off, apparently uninjured.
Later, Almeida explained why she "scratched" the two.
"They might be fine now, but I don't have a crystal ball," the vet said. "I did what I felt was the safest thing to do at the time."
Tending to starting-gate accidents is just one of New York Racing Association veterinarians' many jobs. They are with the horses every step, examining and identifying them before competition, "chasing" them in an ambulance during a race, testing blood and administering Lasix, a legal diuretic for exercise-induced lung bleeding.
They also take charge when these fragile animals break down. Out of 18,000 starts in 2011, there were 32 catastrophic injuries that led to euthanasia at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga tracks. So far this year, 23 horses have died while racing or training at Aqueduct, prompting a state investigation.
Each time, NYRA vets were at the horse's side.
"Somebody has to keep calm and make decisions in these situations," said Anthony Verderosa, NYRA's chief examining veterinarian. "You have to keep your head about you when everyone else is freaking out."
He was part of the NYRA team that saved Charismatic, a Triple Crown hopeful who fractured his ankle in the 1999 Belmont Stakes right before the wire. The horse came in third and was retired to stand at stud.
Verderosa and his 11-member staff enforce the rules of racing and decide which horses can compete. They are what Verderosa calls "the vet police," who say which horses go on the "vet's list" and are restricted from racing for at least 14 days until shown to be sound. They are not allowed to do private work.
"We are not beholden to the owners or the trainers. We just have to take care of the horses," said Verderosa, a 25-year vet from East Islip with a no-nonsense style who took over in 2005 after his predecessor was dismissed.
With the last leg of the Triple Crown on Saturday, the thoroughbreds coming to Belmont are among the sport's most expensive and elite. Already, new rules have greatly restricted access to them. And more than ever, the track vets -- who have the power to scratch any horse -- will be at the center of a whirlwind. They tread a delicate line between allowing owners to fill races and ensuring the runners' health.
One day last week, when a trainer called to say he would be disappointed if his previously injured horse could not run, Verderosa, on his ever-present cellphone, told him: "If you're ready, you're ready. If you're not, you're not. Disappointment has nothing to do with it."
Verderosa acknowledges there is plenty of incentive to "dope" a horse. "I'm not saying trainers don't try to cheat, but it's awfully hard today with the kind of racing chemists we have."
The top three placers, any horse changing ownership after a claiming race, and any horse selected by stewards or NYRA vets have blood and urine taken in a facility run by the state Racing and Wagering Board. Samples are tested for illegal drugs.
The NYRA vets also randomly test horses in and out of competition for carbon-dioxide levels or evidence of illegal "milkshakes" that dangerously delay fatigue.
Each vet has to keep track of an extraordinary amount of information -- they must verify each horse's identity, markings and sex when they examine them, as well as observe them at a trot.
Still, even with all the monitoring, these horses sometimes succumb to the rigors of racing or, like the filly in the starting gate, get themselves into trouble and need help.
NYRA vet Megan Romano said that's when "we have to take charge. Part of our job is to maintain order."
"We're upset, too, if there is an injured horse," she said, "but they are depending on us."
Vets on the track
Before each race at Belmont Park, at least one New York Racing Association veterinarian is in the paddock area as horses are saddled in case any horses are injured or for any other veterinary emergency.
During races, at least two NYRA vets are on the track -- one at the start and one at the finish. The vet at the start scratches any horse that is unsound or is injured in or around the starting gate. Once the race starts, that vet follows the field in a chase vehicle to be on hand quickly if a horse is injured. The vet at the finish line watches horses as they complete the race and are pulled up, looking for any sign of distress, bleeding from the nostrils or lameness.
NYRA has at least two equine ambulances on the track during races.