by Mary Johnson
Horseracing Wrongs recently reported on the death of Tigers Rule in the 9th at Churchill Downs November 24. Tigers died from multiple fractures and a torn artery. But…the necropsy also showed “ulceration of the stomach.” Ulcers don’t get much attention when a horse dies in the dirt or succumbs to colic locked away in his stall. The focus, understandably so, is on the broken necks, severed spines, and fractured legs, but make no mistake, ulcers are killers…silent killers…and are prevalent in the vast majority of horses in the racing industry. This story is about one such horse, a 7-year-old mare who was fortunate enough to survive a death sentence because of one woman’s determination to get her the help she so desperately needed. (Because I need to keep my sources confidential, I will call this horse “Lady.”)
In mid-October, a racing insider reached out to let me know that a horse was colicking at a low-level track. Unfortunately, this person didn’t have the financial resources to treat Lady. Rose Smith, a regular on this site, generously offered to foot the bill if Lady was seen by the track vet. She was, but for the next five days the vet vacillated on the diagnosis. Initially, Lady would be okay and colic concerns were dismissed. But then she was diagnosed with (gas) colic and eventually a blockage in the cecum. Of course, without an ultrasound definitiveness on something like this is almost impossible. It had become a guessing game. By Sunday, five days after I was contacted, there was no improvement, and we were all resigned to the possibility that Lady (below) would need to be euthanized.
In spite of the fact that Lady was suffering and in awful pain, she showed a will to live and exhibited a fighting spirit. She simply wasn’t giving up. Rose and I were both concerned that the vet had provided woefully inadequate treatment for Lady, and she (the vet) was now suggesting euthanasia. Again Rose stepped up, offering to cover the cost of Lady going to a specialty hospital in northeast Ohio.
Lady arrived at Equine Specialty Hospital on a Sunday and remained there for four days. The surgeon scoped her and it was determined that she had Grade 4 Bleeding Ulcers. (Ulcers are graded 1-4, with 4 being the most serious, possibly fatal.) Simply put, Lady was at high risk of bleeding to death. The blockage was in the colon, not the cecum as diagnosed by the track vet. Lady was aggressively treated, rehabbed, and is doing remarkably well. Even though she has recovered, she suffered, unconscionably, in silence on the backside of that track. What’s worse, there are countless more suffering – all alone in a tiny stall – in exactly the same way.
Risk factors for ulcers include:
– limited pasture and turnout
– change in diet and routine
– frequent travel or competition schedule
– consumption of heavy grain diets
– rigorous training and exercise
– long-term use of NSAIDS (e.g., bute)
Hmm. To what kind of horses do all these factors apply? In fact, research has shown that over 90% of Thoroughbred racehorses develop ulcers.
Imagine any horse being forced to run with ulcers, especially a Grade 4 Bleeding Ulcer, yet the apologists babble incessantly that they love their horses like members of their families. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. All the peppermints, jolly balls, and kisses on the nose can’t change the cruel, unnatural life of a racehorse. Lady’s story illustrates this perfectly. Without the intervention of someone outside of racing, Lady would be dead, not from a a broken neck, severed spine or fractured limb, but dead just the same.