As Dr. Mike Shepherd, managing partner at Rossdales, strides down a gravel path at Tattersalls going warp speed, he is struck by how similar Thoroughbred yearling auctions are from a veterinarian's point of view. At Newmarket's premier October Sale, he is constantly checking his notes, his catalogue, the online repository, and his phone before dashing to the next stall for a new series of exams. From one moment to the next, he's answering questions from colleagues, shaking hands with clients, and checking back to see which barn he was in the middle of walking to, but he seems to have no trouble differentiating one horse from another, even hours after seeing them. In many ways, it's not so different from his routine at Keeneland, where he has done pre-sale vet checks for clients the past 15-20 years.
Although the pre-sale rush is similar in its goals — to present the client with a complete picture of a prospect's condition and of any associated risks – there are subtle differences in the process from an American sale.
Shepherd estimates vet reports are given the same weight in a buyer's decision to set a budget on a horse in both locations, but clients like him to be more thorough in his assessments in the UK.
“In Keeneland, there's a huge emphasis placed on the repository and the scope, but that doesn't pick up soft tissues like suspensory branches or muscle asymmetry or tendon swellings or joint effusions, or lameness that, for a number of reasons, doesn't show up on x-ray,” said Shepherd.
In addition to listening to a horse's heart and watching it walk, he will pick up each foot to examine the surface of the sole and the balance of the shoeing. Part of the purpose of a horseshoe is to guide growth, which may mean one side of a shoe is raised slightly from the other side, to encourage hoof growth that will correct or balance crookedness in the leg above.
“Farriers will alter foot balances; that's what they do,” said Shepherd. “If you buy a straight horse, and you get them home and the farrier shoes them normally, suddenly they're crooked.”
In Shepherd's experience, British buyers generally place more importance on the quality of a horse's foot than they might on the other side of the Atlantic.
Shepherd also gets a complete history of the horse's management at each stop, including medication and surgical history. At one barn, he asks whether a stout chestnut filly has reacted normally to the sale prep process.
“We're taught at vet school the history is always the most important part of any examination,” he said. “That's why I said, 'Is there any abnormal prep?' Because she's fat, so I'm immediately thinking 'Is she fat because she's had time off for an injury?' But she's fat because she loves her food. Those little subtle things are so important in building up a picture of a horse.”
In contrast to the large sales at Fasig-Tipton and Keeneland, Tattersalls' barns are mostly filled with small consignors, many of which are stud farms offering homebreds. The consignors selling for clients have often prepped the yearlings themselves and get a detailed medical history of each horse, available to potential buyers. In a reputation-based business, small consignments in particular are at pains to be honest.
Consignors also must notify Tattersalls if a yearling or 2-year-old has received nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) for any reason, and if so, this is announced before the horse's sale, along with the reason why. Buyers have the option to have the horse tested after it leaves the ring and are permitted to return the horse if it is found to have NSAIDs in excess of defined levels.
One of the structures Shepherd whizzes by on his way from barn to barn is a covered roundpen with a graded, artificial surface inside. These dot the Tattersalls landscape to help buyers with another part of the sale conditions: a return clause associated with roarers.
As we're reported before, roaring is a colloquial term for left laryngeal hemiplegia, a condition in which the nerve that controls the muscle movement of a cartilage flap on the left side of the throat becomes weak or nonfunctional, allowing the flap to partially impede the horse's airway. According to Tattersalls' conditions of sale, yearlings, 2-year-olds, and horses in training may be returned if they both make an audible inspiratory noise characteristic of roaring and demonstrate potential for roaring on an endoscopic exam
The only way to pick up on an audible noise from a horse's breathing is to listen to it at work, which is called a “wind test.” For this reason, yearlings headed to the sales in Britain are taught to canter on a lunge line in the course of their auction prep. For many, this exercise is also part of their pre-sale fitness building. Some may work as many as 20 minutes at a time cantering on the lunge in the days leading up to sale. Rather than cause any soundness problems, veterinarians say this type of rigorous exercise may in fact prevent some types of skeletal issues due to the bone remodeling process – as long as the exercise is introduced gradually.
Yearlings may, upon buyer's request, be lunged in one of the covered roundpens after sale to see whether they make an audible sound. Vets need a highly-trained ear to discern what is 'roaring' and what is normal nostril noise, which fades as the horse warms up. It takes about five minutes of cantering work to determine whether the horse will make a sound.
If the horse makes a roaring noise and a veterinarian is concerned about the quality of his scope, the case will be referred to a three-person panel to decide whether the horse is returnable.
Although it may be nice from a buyer's perspective to have this 'out' clause, Rossdales partner Dr. Fred Barrelet isn't sure it's the most practical of policies. He estimates only 20 percent of horses with some left laryngeal hemiplegia will make an audible noise. Of those, he guesses, only 20 percent will actually suffer a decrease in performance as a result of the condition, and only at middle or longer-distance races.
Additionally, he notes, scopes done while the horse is standing still are not necessarily a good indication of what a horse's throat will look like when it's moving. Still, a throat seen to have an issue on a standing scope (classified as a 2B rating in the UK, similar to a Grade 3 throat in the U.S.) is a big problem for the seller.
“That gets put down in the report (a 2B throat rating) and the client runs a mile. Effectively, you've got a 1/5 out of 1/5 chance of that actually limiting performance. What you're doing to a hell of a lot of horses is you're devaluing them,” said Barrelet. “As soon as an animal makes a noise, people get very nervous and excited about it. In they go to do surgery fairly quickly. In the National Hunt game over here, certain trainers, 50 percent of [their horses] have been operated on, which doesn't mean the horses have got the problem, but they've been heard to make a noise. It's fashion.”
How much of a hit is a poor scope rating, then? Barrelet recalls a yearling he scoped earlier this month at one of his client's farms who ended up with a 2B rating. He estimated the horse's reserve with a good scope would have been in the neighborhood of 250,000 guineas. It sold for 70,000 guineas.
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