Dr. Bramlage: one vet single-handedly proves the need for thoroughbred racing reform
I know there are individuals far more exemplary of thoroughbred racing’s dark side…but none (that I know of) are vets. And since Dolittler is a pet health blog authored by a veterinarian, Dr. Bramlage’s role in racing’s recent round of media prominence will be the subject of this post.
On-call veterinarian, veterinary surgeon and representative of the American Association of Equine Practitioners Dr. Larry Bramlage is often cited as a “noted equine veterinarian.”
And it’s true. He’s been the media’s go-to face for breaking veterinary news since Barbaro’s breakdown. He’s the serious expert, the representative of the veterinary profession and the guy the media look to for guidance on issues of injury and safety.
In his first major announcement after Eight Belles' death he remarked, “One incident is not an epidemic,” thus earning himself the ire of legions of racing fans for so obviously downplaying the obvious safety issues inherent in the sport.
It wouldn’t be so oft-cited an utterance if it weren’t for the fact that the media believe Bramlage represents the science of racing. After all, he’s practiced on racehorses for decades. But something tells me those years are starting to show.
No, it’s not about age, mental acuity or anything like that. Rather, I’m referring to Bramlage’s embedded association with thoroughbred racing since…well…probably the sixties.
All his buddies? Muckety-muck racehorse owners, big-name trainers, track owners, industry sponsors and racing’s other higher-ups. How else do you get the plum job of on-call veterinarian for the Kentucky Derby?
So you know, I don’t disparage Dr. Bramlage for his connections. It’s a lifestyle choice and one very likely in keeping with his deeply held beliefs in thoroughbred racing’s worthiness and its traditions.
But veterinarians I know have been grumbling over the words Dr. Bramlage has been publicly pronouncing, protesting that they represent the racing industry rather than the veterinary profession: “If he’s going to speak as a veterinarian and as an expert in racehorse medicine I shouldn’t feel like I’m getting spun.”
To my mind and that of my Bramlage-dissenting colleagues, here’s where he errs:
“In my years in racing, I have never seen this happen at the end of the race or during the race…The difficult thing to explain with her is it’s so far after the wire, and she was easing down like you’d like to see a horse slow down by that point,” he said. “And then all of a sudden, it goes over the brink in both legs. I don’t have an explanation for it because I have no background to draw on.”
And yet he’s quick to counter his confessed ignorance with the following:
“I don't think that you can look at the injury on the racetrack and say that Polytrack could have prevented it…This is not like Eight Belles was deep in the middle of a stretch battle and hit a bad step, she was done with the race and was all the way through to the end, and I don't think the forces on her legs pulling up would be virtually any different on an artificial surface…She could have been on the grass or on the dirt.”
But how about the long-term stresses? How is it he can so easily discount these? Why should he defend dirt tracks? What's his stake here?
And then there’s the worst: The man of science seated at the illustrious round table of NBC’s Preakness pre-game show dissents on the concept of waiting until horses are older before racing them.
He states that none of the science shows that “precocious speed” is an issue for thoroughbreds. In fact, he references the existence of studies that show that the sooner you start exercising a horse the less injuries there are long-term.
I did my own research. That’s his interpretation. That’s not science. For example, just because you have more hyaline cartilage as one of the studies shows, that doesn’t mean that’s what’s best for the horse or what will most likely yield fewer future injuries.
Moreover, there’s no science I found to compare older horses with younger ones when it comes to injury rates. All are studies aimed at determining the right time to start training a two year-old competitor.
It’s this kind of industry protectionism that raises the hackles of the younger vet set. We can’t stand the political spin and slick use of science. We’re shocked to see a veterinarian defend his industry over the lives of animals we’ve taken an oath to protect. Where, exactly, do this man’s loyalties lie?
Granted, we’re veterinarians of another generation. We identify far more with animal welfare principles than with any animal sport. I truly see both points of view but I recognize them as approaching opposite ends of the spectrum of veterinary sensibility.
And it’s going to be a long time yet before the former generation cedes to the latter on these points. Why else would the AVMA shy away from racing reform as an agenda item? Too many racing industry veterinarians on the board? Possibly. More older generation vets than new? Indubitably.