An Interview With Doctor Lawrence Bramlage
Because we are in the grips of horse racing’s run for the Triple Crown, the subject of horses and their safety has been brought back to the forefront — especially when you consider the tragedy of Eight Belles. With this in mind, I pursued an opportunity to interview Dr Lawrence Bramlage, the
attending on-call* veterinarian of the Kentucky Derby.
Dr. Bramlage also oversaw the euthanasia of Eight Belles after determining the severity of her injuries; something he’s never before witnessed during his career as a medical expert for the thoroughbred industry.
In our interview, we asked Dr. Bramlage some questions about the Eight Belles injury, potential prevention methods, Big Brown and Derby Pie. Needless to say, Dr. Bramlage went to great lengths to educate some of us who may have been in an uproar about animal cruelty and horse racing. Our interview was conducted via email and because I’m no expert when it comes to matters of the horse-racing industry, some of my questions may seem elementary.
Thankfully, Dr. Bramlage’s answers were not:
Intentional Foul: Dr. Bramlage, thank you for taking the time speak with Intentional Foul. In your report, it was revealed Eight Belles had fractures of the cannon and sesamoid bones in both front legs. What, in your professional opinion, contributed to the severity of these injuries? Was Eight Belles fighting the “slow down” commands she was being given or did she perhaps step incorrectly while she was slowing?
Dr. Bramlage: She was slowing down perfectly just like you want a horse to do. She was decreasing her momentum without abruptly stopping. She was relaxed and the jockey had her perfectly balanced. There is no good explanation for how she got the fractures. In her last three strides she showed lameness in the right front on two, then dramatically shifted her weight to the left. That is when the left fractured and she went down. Obviously she overloaded the right as well.
There is no indication of anything wrong until those three strides. Horses occasionally sustain injuries during a race that shows up as they slow down, but no one associated with racing that I have talked to has ever seen anything like this event.
IF: Since the Derby, some are wondering if the polytrack surfaces (or any other track surfaces) might have made a difference in respect to the Eight Belles tragedy. Do you believe this to be the case and if so, would you recommend Churchill Downs replace their traditional dirt track for the modern substitute?
Dr. Bramlage: The Kentucky Derby has been run 134 years. This is the first ever fatal injury. The track was perfect that day. There were over 150 starters that day, not one other injury. Churchill Downs has a good reputation as being a safe track. I don’t think the surface would play any role in her injury.
IF: Naturally, the aftermath of the Eight Belles tragedy included appearances from PETA and a number of other observers who may-or-may-not-be savvy in regards to the horse racing industry. However, a number of retired jockeys/media analysts support the idea of outlawing the whip. From your informed perspective and again, considering the severity of her injuries, do you think the absence of a whip would have a made a difference?
Dr. Bramlage: The whip played no role in this injury she was a quarter of a mile after the race and had not been touched with the whip for an three eighths of a mile. PETA is largely ignorant of the facts, but quick to jump on the backs of any injured animal, for mostly their own benefit. If they ever gave a dime to animal welfare or research I would have more respect for them. But they use these opportunities to raise money for their own lobbying efforts and salaries. Go to their web site and see Eight Belles name used as a fund raising tool (links added by editor).
That said, I think you will see the whip modified. It is closely controlled now, by the stewards in every race, but the general public can not always understand that you can’t let the horses make all the decisions. Sometimes they decide to jump over the rails, or swerve into the path of another horse. The whip is a safety measure against this. But, we can likely use a smaller padded whip.
IF: In light of Eight Belles’ autopsy results which tested for illegal performance enhancing drugs (PED) and of the steroid era of sports we’ve apparently entered, do you see these types of PED tests becoming mandatory in the horse racing industry?
Dr. Bramlage: Steroids are used quite differently in horses than the baseball players, or football players, smaller doses, less frequently. But, I think you will see them banned as soon as the testing methods can assure that the tests are validated, accurate and dependable. Work has been ongoing to this end for two years. You will see the ban by the year end, in my guess.
Eight Belles tested totally negative for any kind of steroid. So the people who wanted to blame steroids are wrong on this count as well.
IF: After the Eight Belles tragedy, there have been various reports about horse cruelty and racing; usually tied to reports about on-track deaths. Do you view these types of severe horse injuries as declining or increasing?
Dr. Bramlage: The data available shows they are nearly constant the last 40 years at 00.15% of starters. Recent data have shown some ups and downs at various locations, and the artificial surfaces have shown to be helpful in the extremes of weather such as the heat of California, or the winters of Canada or the colder climates of the U.S. New injury reporting systems started about a year ago should soon answer your question definitively.
IF: Do you think advancements in equine medicine have increased the lifespan of horses, potentially extending the legacy of weaker thoroughbreds that may not have survived? Could these medicinal advances perhaps weaken the thoroughbred talent pool?
Dr. Bramlage: No, because the converse of your question is “should we just kill off all the genetically weak individuals and breed those that are left.” But, what has happened is that stallions are selected currently for brilliance in a few events, rather than durability over a long career as was the case 50 years ago. This has had the effect of not selecting for durability, and perhaps over emphasizing speed and underemphasizing soundness, in my opinion.
IF: Why do you think there’s been such a gap between Triple Crown winners? Is it just that hard or are the horses not quite as prepared/ready to run three races in such a relatively short manner? Has there been a noticeable decline in the kind of racing talent that wins such distinctions?
Dr. Bramlage: There is no decline in talent. We have been close to a Triple Crown winner on multiple occasions recently. What has stopped it is another talented individual has won one of the races and spoiled the try. Triple Crown wins normally come when you have one superior horse and the general level of talent that year is low. We may have that situation this year.
IF: What are your thoughts on Big Brown, whose magnificent performances have been hard to ignore, even if you aren’t a horse-racing fan? Do you see him having a legitimate chance to win the Triple Crown? Does he seem built to withstand the Belmont’s 1.5 mile race? In what ways do you think a Triple Crown winner would invigorate horse racing?
Dr. Bramlage: He is a big strong colt, and the way he has run the first two races he looks like he could circle the track twice if you wanted him to. I think he has a real chance to do it. But, waiting in the wings at Belmont is Casino Drive. His half-brother Jazil won the Belmont two years ago, and his half-sister, Rags to Riches won the Belmont last year. His family seems to really like the mile and a half. It should have some real interesting side stories, and make for some good racing.
IF: One last final thing: (a request from my co-workers) Do you like ice cream or whipped cream with your Derby Pie?
Dr. Bramlage: Hard to beat ice-cream.
IF: Dr Bramlage, thank you so much for your time and effort.
While no one wants to see horses die on the track, I believe Dr. Bramlage does a great job of addressing many of these “issues” raised by the unending amount of opinions — some informed, some not — that popped up after the Eight Belles tragedy. Can horse racing be adjusted to where it is a completely safe exercise for jockey and horse? Probably not, considering the nature of the competition.
However, to act as if the industry is mired in crooked trainers who only care about winning — at the expense of their thoroughbred’s health — seems a little misguided and uninformed. If the PETAs of the world were honestly concerned about the well-being of these animals, it shouldn’t take an Eight Belles incident for them to be proactive and passionate. Instead, they waited for a horrific accident to make their presence known.
Where were these PETA protesters BEFORE the Derby began?
Furthermore, having a fund raiser, one that benefits PETA, in the name of the horse that was destroyed in a terrible accident is no different from the animal exploitation they claim they strive to prevent.
*Correction pointed out by Jeff Lowe of the Thoroughbred Times — Edited at 2:20pm