Ironton man a vet at Santa Anita

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 22, 2008

ARCADIA, Calif. — The sport of kings has come under a firestorm of criticism recently as tragic incidents such as the lethal fall taken by Eight Bells at the Kentucky Derby are broadcast across the nation.

Vocal opponents to racing cry for a plethora of bans. Yet one local man who has the inside track on the sport calls for more measured and reasoned decisions as far as regulations.

Dr. Joe Morgan, DVM, diplomate, American College of Veterinarian Surgeons, argues with those who believe racehorses across the board are abused and victimized.

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“They ought to see how they are taken care of. If you don’t take care of them, you won’t win races,” Morgan said recently in a phone interview from his California home. “I think we do breed a more delicate horse. We train them more delicately. I don’t think we train as hard because they are worth so much.”

Currently, Morgan is one of the on-site surgical vets at the Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar racetracks. He came to California after serving an internship at the famed Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., and a surgical residency at the University of Wisconsin. Morgan, who earned an undergraduate degree from Marshall University, received his veterinary medical degree from Ohio State University.

The Ironton-born Morgan, who graduated from the city high school in 1992, came to California to work on these equine athletes he equates with NBA stars or professional football players.

Six days a week, the vet starts his work day around 5:30 in the morning at the backside of the trio of tracks where trainers are allotted stalls. In the course of a day Morgan may be called on by such famed trainers as Richard Mandela or Bobby Frankel to look after any injuries or medical conditions their prized charges experience. It might be an arthroscopic surgery for a joint repair or lasering out debris in a thoroughbred’s airways.

In many ways surgeries on a horse are comparable to procedures on human beings. However, it is the recovery time that can cause the heartbreak.

“The problem we have is they can’t lay in the bed,” he said. “They have to stand up on all four legs and bear weight on all four feet. A person can lay in bed for a lengthy period.”

That is lethal in this kind of quadruped. That is why when Derby contender Eight Bells broke both her front legs, there was no other choice but to euthanize, Morgan said.

“Essentially she took a bad step and one leg broke,” Morgan said. “And then she tried to bear all of her weight on the other and broke it as well.”

As to the contention that the fall was caused by excessive whipping by her jockey, Morgan decidedly disagrees.

“That is absolutely ridiculous,” he said. “Big Brown got hit more than she did. That is a radical group. I hate to even hear it. They are worth so much money. There is no way anyone would have done anything to hurt that filly.”

This past week the Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Safety Committee recommended a ban on steroids and a switch to a padded crop over a whip.

Morgan supports regulation of steroids, but he would not want to see the complete elimination of the use of the drug, which he calls an appropriate medication in the right circumstance.

“What the Jockey Club is doing is a good thing. They need to make these drugs more regulated. They are abused in the hands of a few people,” he said. “We in California were first to pass regulations on anabolic steroids. The nation is not under one jurisdiction. Every state sets its own rules.”

However, he dismisses the argument that steroids or lack thereof affected the outcome of Big Brown’s Triple Crown races.

“That is really silly too,” he said. “Steroids had nothing to do with that horse winning the Derby and the Preakness or losing the Belmont. They don’t make Big Brown any better. He would have won the Derby without it or have lost the Belmont with it.”

As to whipping, Morgan says that is also a misunderstood issue.

“I think the whip is a useful item. The whip doesn’t make one run. It helps them steer,” he said. “(Jockeys) use it as a guide not as an object to beat. Some guys get abusive. They get fines if they see those jockeys.”

Track vet is as close to a dream job as Morgan can imagine.

“At 6 in the morning to watch the horses work, it is unbelievable,” he said. “They are amazing animals. Their athletic ability and their versatility. The people who train them are really good people, fun to be around. I wouldn’t trade what I do.”