Del Mar: Veterarian keeps close watch on horses at track

By Kelley Carlson


In the first race during a recent afternoon at the Del Mar racetrack, the horses were being saddled in the paddock when suddenly there was a loud crash. A bay gelding named Fort William had flipped in his stall, possibly due to being spooked by an unfamiliar movement or noise. The 3-year-old horse regained his footing, but track veterinarian Dr. Dana Stead was immediately on the scene, checking to make sure there weren’t any obvious injuries, bleeding or impaired mental status.

But as a precaution — and as with every flipping incident he observes — Stead recommended to the stewards that the horse be scratched from the race for further evaluation, to be examined for deep bone or muscle injuries that may have resulted.

The job of the 30-year-old veterinarian is to protect the animals. From a young age, Stead knew he wanted to work with horses — he grew up in Glendale, riding cutting horses since age 10, and he would go to the racetrack with his grandfather, who owned racehorses from the 1960s to ‘80s. In 2007, Stead earned a doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Colorado State University, focusing on large animals, and then spent a year in Texas on a private internship at a horse hospital. From there, Stead set up a private practice serving the Southern California racetracks; he became track veterinarian for Del Mar, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in October 2009.

Stead lives in Pasadena most of the year, but rents a home in Del Mar during the seaside oval’s season.

Arriving at the track around 7 a.m. on race days, Stead reviews a list of horses to examine that will be running that afternoon, and splits duties with two other veterinarians. There are typically about 70 to 80 horses that run on weekdays; the number increases to 90 to 100 during weekends, he said.

“The horses will jog down and back about 50 feet,” Stead said. “We watch their movement, make sure they’re not lame, and take notes on how they travel. When they jog back, we feel their legs.”

He added that the joints, tendons and ligaments are included in the vets’ focus — whether there’s swelling, heat, pain, etc.

The most common injuries are found at the horse’s knee and below, in the front legs, in “80 percent to 90 percent” of the cases, Stead said.

The vets also check the horses’ identification, through lip tattoos.

Those who fail the tests are not allowed to run later in the day.

“We try to take care of scratches in the morning,” Stead said, which helps avoids problems at the betting windows. “A scratch in the afternoon is usually due to an accident or a failure to warm up properly.”

Also checked in morning exams are horses being cleared off the vets list — having recently been listed as injured or ill — they are given a physical check-up and must work 5 furlongs in 1:03 or less on the track.

Stead spends several hours conducting these exams before getting a break. About an hour before the races, he returns to fill out paperwork and then heads to the paddock to begin his afternoon.

“I come in (there) and watch, waiting for something to happen,” Stead said.

Along with checking horses who have flipped, he keeps an eye out for those who appear colicky, which sometimes can occur after the administration of Lasix, a bleeder medication administered on race days. Stead also observes the thoroughbreds for signs of dehydration and coughing.

Once they are saddled, Stead follows the horses out of the paddock and onto the track. He takes notes in his racing program, watching for lameness.

After the horses break away from the post parade and begin jogging, Stead gets into a van — equipped with an ice bucket, splints and the “green screen,” used when horses are euthanized on the track — and drives to a spot where he can continue to observe the horses’ action.

“If anything looks (off) to us, we’ll ask the jockeys how the horses are feeling,” he said.

The track chaplain, Eddie Meza, joins Stead in the van before the first race each day in order to say a prayer for the jockeys and to bless the starting gate and the track.

At post time, Stead positions the van behind the gate as the thoroughbreds begin to load, ready to examine any who break through the front or flip over.

Once the horses are off and running, an assistant starter hops into the van’s passenger seat, available to help in the event of an injury. The van takes off and cruises at about 45 mph around the track, along with an ambulance that offers Advanced Life Support for jockeys, as the thoroughbreds run a couple hundred yards ahead.

If a horse gets hurt, Stead is on the scene to help with stabilization, treatment and pain relief. In the event of a catastrophic breakdown, Stead said efforts are made to load the racehorse into an ambulance, but if necessary, he performs euthanasia on the track.

Stead pointed out that the Polytrack surface has really reduced the number of catastrophic injuries. However, he said he finds more issues with the horses’ tendons and it’s a little tougher on the younger horses, but there tends to be more bone injuries with dirt surfaces.

After the finish of the race, Stead drives to the clubhouse turn and stops the van, once again checking the horses for lameness, whip marks — which can result in a jockey being fined or suspended — or bleeding from the nose, caused by capillaries that have burst with the hard effort put forth.

“(The bleeding) can be distressful and cause death,” Stead said. “It’s why we administer Lasix.”

There is currently a move to ban race-day medications — starting with this year’s Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, Lasix will be banned in the 2-year-old races, and next year, it will not be permitted in any of the graded stakes events for that age group. Eventually, it may be banned throughout racing.

“I think it needs to be a gradual change,” Stead said. “It needs to go back to the breeding level. It think it’s going to take some time, and it may (take) several generations of horses (to breed out the dependency).”

The majority of horses today run on Lasix, which also acts as a diuretic.

“I think it got so popular ... because it causes horses to urinate and lose 2 1/2 percent of their body weight, which is 20 to 30 pounds,” Stead said. “People feel it’s an advantage.”

After the post-race check, Stead parks the van and returns to the paddock, ready to start exams for the next race.

The biggest challenge Stead said he faces in his position is his personal interaction with the trainers.

“This is a business,” he said. “My job is protecting horses (who are hurt or sick) from running. A lot of times, opinions may differ.”

He pointed out that a lot of financial effort is put forth by trainers and owners, who often travel to the track specifically to see their horse run. A lot of money is spent training, schooling and feeding the thoroughbreds, so when a horse doesn’t race, there goes potential funds that could’ve helped cover expenses or result in financial gains.

“They (some of the trainers) try to avoid me,” Stead said.

Yet he finds rewarding aspects to his job. Stead said that helping horses with heat stroke provides instant gratification.

“They respond quickly to treatment and bounce back up,” he said. “When they collapse, you assume the worst. It’s not always immediately obvious (what’s wrong); I take in the condition of the horse and the kind of day it is, and I feel their legs and try to get the horse up.”

He injects a fast-acting steroid — much like adrenaline — and douses the horse’s face and body with ice water. The thoroughbred usually responds within three to four minutes.

Stead also recalls helping to save stakes winner Always a Princess, who took a bad step in the Santa Margarita Invitational (Grade I) at Santa Anita earlier this year and broke two sesamoid bones.

“I was able to palpate the fracture of the sesamoids, and she was able to get up,” Stead said, who placed a Kinsey splint on her leg to immobilize the hoof.

“She was very quiet and calm,” he said. “She was very classy.”

Always a Princess has since recovered and was retired to become a broodmare.