The sudden death of dual classic winner Charismatic at Old Friends shocked fans on Sunday and left some with questions about the nature of the injury that killed him. A necropsy completed Monday indicated the stallion suffered a fatal, catastrophic fracture to his pelvis which caused a massive internal hemorrhage.
Drs. Bryan Waldridge and Rhodes Bell of Park Equine Hospital, who treated Charismatic, say it's impossible to know the exact timeline of damage to the stallion's pelvis.
“There's no way to know if there was a predisposing injury or problem, or to know what he did in the stall,” said Waldridge. “I know questions have been raised about the shipping of the horse [from Japan in late 2016] but I don't think anybody knows, or can know, if he had a problem.”
Bell, who is a surgeon at Park Equine, said catastrophic pelvic fractures are poorly surveyed in academic literature, but it's generally understood horses can and do end up with hairline fractures in the pelvis which wouldn't present as enormously painful injuries. Often, these show up as hind-end lameness which is difficult to diagnose and is treated with stall rest. Waldridge, an ambulatory physician at Park, said he has encountered a number of broodmares with evidence of old pelvic fractures that no one knew they had.
A great deal of force is needed to break a large bone such as the pelvis, according to Bell, but the femur (the top of the hind leg) joins into the pelvis at a right angle, so correctly-placed pressure can cause the femur to act as a hammer, exacerbating force on the pelvis. Waldridge suspects many of the broodmares he sees with pelvic fractures acquire the injury from playing in the field and falling, though some could have old fractures left over from their racing days.
A necropsy exam cannot determine whether the fracture in Charismatic's pelvis was new, or an old injury lurking which may have been exacerbated from some kind of incident in his stall. The initial necropsy report suggests the pelvis incurred a trauma in the stall which damaged the internal ileac artery, a part of the blood supply running directly from the horse's aorta.
“Talking to colleagues of mine, everybody's had a case or two in their life where they just found a horse in the stall dead, and this is what they found,” said Bell. “I think we have a little bit more information on the human side of things. These are usually people who were injured in car crashes, and it has a very high mortality in people. I don't know that too much is known about it [in horses] except this is something that happens and there's nothing you can do about it.”
Once the blood supply in this part of the body is damaged, Bell and Waldridge agreed there is nothing that can be done for a horse to repair it, even with immediate action.
Bell and Waldridge are still awaiting a copy of the full necropsy report, but do not believe cardiac arrest played a role in the horse's injury by precipitating a fall.
Waldridge saw Charismatic's body in his stall Sunday morning and said there was no evidence of a prolonged struggle. The stallion, pensioned at Old Friends in December, had been in good health on Saturday when Bell stopped by to see the farm's horses on a social visit. Waldridge said his death was likely quick once the damage to the artery occurred, which means even if it had taken place during a time when staff and volunteers were in the barn, there likely would have been no way to save him.
“That injury would have occurred in minutes to seconds, so if you were on the other end of the barn, other than hearing the injury, that was all you were going to do, was hear it and see it. And no amount of intervention, short of divine intervention, was going to save the horse,” said Waldridge.
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