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Santa Anita Surgery Program Seeing Positive Outcomes

The veterans who come to Down The Stretch Ranch for equine therapy love all the horses there, but they have a special affinity for a little bay called Deputy and a chestnut called Red.

“They groom on them and they love on them,” says Boone McCanna, who runs the 160-acre ranch in eastern Washington state, a non-profit organization serving retired and injured racehorses and United States military veterans. “And they can relate to them, because most of those guys limp, too. They have injuries, too. They sustained them in war and the horses sustained them in competition.”

The limp isn’t noticeable when Deputy and Red walk, but you can see it when they jog. And, it should be noted, the chestnut and bay do jog. They gallop and they roll. They run up and down the 100-acre field with 18 other geldings. They beat the other horses to the feed tub. 

They’re thoroughly enjoying a second chance provided by a program launched in 2020 by 1ST/Racing to provide financial aid for surgeries when horses suffer fetlock injuries. The program has helped provide a reasonable option, especially for horses with little or no value in the breeding shed. Red raced as Whatdidido and Deputy raced under the name Deputy Bernardini, until both suffered fetlock injuries.

“In 2019 at Santa Anita, we started looking at the injuries we were having and if there were options other than euthanasia for the horses,” said Dr. Dionne Benson, chief veterinary officer for The Stronach Group (1/ST Racing).

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Deputy and Red would benefit from that opportunity.

“They are tough horses,” said McCanna, son of retired racehorse trainer Dan McCanna and brother of Golden Gate Fields trainer Tim McCanna. “They are not in pain. They are happy, healthy horses.”

Deputy Bernardini, center, and Whatdidido, right, at Down the Stretch
Photo: Courtesy of Boone McCanna

Deputy, center, and Red, right, at Down The Stretch Ranch

The majority of breakdowns in racing involve the fetlock. A surgery, called fetlock arthrodesis, can repair many of those injuries, Benson said. When owners have a horse with such a fetlock injury, two of their biggest concerns when considering surgery are whether the horse can live pain-free and the cost of the procedure. The fund established by 1/ST Racing aims to eliminate that second concern.

“What we really wanted to do at 1/ST Racing is take the financial constraint out of it,” Benson said. “And say, ‘If money were not an issue, what is the right thing to do for the horse?'”

Santa Anita Park saw a rash of catastrophic breakdowns in 2019 and has since worked with horsemen, the California Horse Racing Board, and the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority to reduce that breakdown rate. During races at Santa Anita in 2022 and 2023, the Southern California track saw just 0.63 and then 0.64 equine fatalities per 1,000 starts—less than half the 2023 rate of North American racing and about one-fifth the rate experienced at Santa Anita in 2019.

Besides the many reforms and measures put in place to reduce the injury rate, the surgery program provides an option to save a horse’s life after a breakdown occurs. 

Under this program, when a breakdown takes place at Santa Anita a team of veterinarians examine the injured Thoroughbred and determine whether she or he can be pasture sound—that is to live without medication or pain—after surgery. If the vets agree the horse is a candidate, typically 1st/Racing pays one-third of the cost of the operation and the Thoroughbred Owners of California and horse owner each pay a third each.

The surgical procedure, which typically costs about $20,000, is not new. It was invented in 1978 by equine surgeon Dr. Larry Bramlage.

“In the early ’70s, screws and plates became available for horses and people just put them on the front of the fetlock and they didn’t work,” Bramlage said.

What Bramlage did was “to identify that we had to put some sort of tension band, that could be a cable or a wire, in the back of the joint in order to make the plate work in the front of the joint,” Bramlage explained.

Bramlage has performed about 300 fetlock arthrodesis surgeries, all paid for by owners, and most of those have been horses that went on to become broodmares or stallions.  

“The horses with extreme value were the ones getting the surgery before,” Bramlage said. “So I am a big fan of using the money in instances where owners would like to save their horse but don’t have the funds to do it.”

Some owners, Bramlage noted, will do the surgery on a horse that has no or little breeding value because the horse won them so much money that they feel they owe it to the horse. But such cases are rare.

Under the new financial aid program 1/ST Racing set up, the number of fetlock arthrodesis procedures at Santa Anita has increased five-fold. Equine surgeon Dr. Ryan Carpenter performs the fetlock arthrodesis surgery on Santa Anita horses. Before the 1/ST Racing financial help, he performed about two fetlock arthrodesis surgeries a year on high-breeding-value horses. Now he does about 10 a year.

The horse’s well-being and prospects of living a good, pain-free life is a major factor in deciding who is a candidate for the procedure, Carpenter stressed.

“We had no desire to do a bunch of surgeries and have a bunch of failures,” Carpenter said. “And we also had no desire to have a bunch of crippled horses.”

The surgery is not routine and recovery is not easy for the horses. Complications such as laminitis can endanger the recovering horse. Since the program started in earnest in 2020, it has saved 20 horses. Eight horses were lost, but three of those horses died based on factors not related to the surgery. For example, one of those three died of colic, Benson said.

But that success rate actually has exceeded expectations of veterinarians and 1/ST Racing officials.

“What we found, which was surprising to us, is that these horses actually did much better than historically, as a profession, we thought they would do,” Carpenter said. 

Initial expectations were that horses would be pain-free and able to run in a pasture with other horses and that’s about it.

“We have horses that are being ridden on a daily basis,” Carpenter said.

Dr. Laurie Bohannon, senior veterinarian at Santa Anita, has adopted one of the horses that had the fetlock arthrodesis surgery three years ago and the horse now works as a pony in the mornings at the track.

High-Profile Success

Bus Buzz  broke down in an allowance race contested Nov. 3 at Santa Anita after the five Breeders’ Cup Friday races had been conducted. After he was pulled up and vanned off the track, the crowd in attendance and masses watching around the world had concern about his chances of survival. The 1/ST Racing surgery program would be thrust into the spotlight on one of the biggest race days of the year.

Bus Buzz had the fetlock arthrodesis surgery a few days after his injury. He then spent about a week at Santa Anita Park and a few weeks at Chino Valley Equine Clinic. Then he came home to Lovacres Ranch, where he was born and raised by his owner, Terry Lovingier. Bus Buzz is in no pain and is happy, Lovingier said.

“His eyes are always bright,” Lovingier said. “His ears are always pricked.”

Lovacres stands a number of stallions, including Bus Buzz’s father, Stay Thirsty  , a successful California-based sire.

Lovingier had insurance on Bus Buzz, but the way the policy was written, Lovingier would only get paid if Bus Buzz died. As Santa Anita has seen success with these surgeries, Lovingier would like the insurance companies to change the way they write the policies to encourage the option of trying to save the horse.

In the case of Bus Buzz, Lovingier opted to forgo the insurance payment to try to save the Thoroughbred’s life. Lovingier said there was no question about opting to try to save Bus Buzz once he heard from the veterinarians that the gelding was a candidate for the arthrodesis surgery. He opted into the 1/ST Racing program.

“Frankly, I am one of those people who tries to save them no matter what unless they tell me they are severely up against it and it’s not going to be humane to do it,” Lovingier said.

Bus Buzz and jockey Edwin Maldonado make easy work of the $175,000 Real Good Deal Stakes Friday, August 4, 2023 at Del Mar Thoroughbred, Del Mar, CA.
Photo: Benoit Photo

On the track Bus Buzz won the 2023 Real Good Deal Stakes at Del Mar

It’s Lovingier’s opinion that a horse’s temperament has a lot to do with their chance of surviving and thriving after the surgery. 

“I knew this horse was a strong individual.” Lovingier said of Bus Buzz. “I knew he had a strong mind and a fighting spirit and he would help us get through it.”

Lovingier previously had some experience with horses that had fetlock arthrodesis surgery. In the 1990s he purchased the stallion Rio Verde, who fell into that category. 

“He lived to be 28 years old,” Lovingier noted, adding that while he had a limp, he could run around and was pasture sound.

Bus Buzz has a slight limp but it’s become less noticeable in the few months he’s been home at Lovacres, Lovingier said. 

“Even already, Bus Buzz, you don’t notice it the way you did with Rio Verde,” he said.

Lovingier believes the technology for the fetlock arthrodesis procedure has improved immensely and that bodes well for Bus Buzz. 

“He’s going to have a fantastic life,” Lovingier said.

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