Voss: What Songbird’s Vet Reports Might Reveal About Racehorse Injuries

by | 09.13.2017 | 2:46pm
Songbird cruising through her first work of 2017

When Fox Hill Farm announced the retirement of champion Songbird Aug. 31, owner Rick Porter made the somewhat unconventional decision to post part of the filly's veterinary reports on Facebook to help fans understand the reasons for her departure. Those reports, from the office of Dr. Larry Bramlage at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., can serve as a reminder about the challenges of preventing serious injury on the track.

The filly's discharge papers revealed her issues were two-fold: she had proximal suspensory ligament desmitis in both hind legs and a lesion in a front distal cannon bone.

The hind leg issue refers to swelling in the suspensory ligament, which is the one that runs down the back of the leg and holds the sesamoid bones at the back of the ankle in place. Although Porter's statement indicated Bramlage picked up on the ligament issue quickly, Songbird's discharge report shows she probably appeared sound at a jog in a straight line – it was only when she was turned in circles the lameness became apparent.

As is typical in lameness exams, Bramlage applied a temporary nerve block at strategic points in the hind legs to check whether Songbird would jog circles sound when relieved of discomfort from the hind suspensory ligaments. It was then he saw a lameness in her front legs, which was almost completely symmetrical, prompting follow-up diagnostics revealing the lesion.  

The fact she had discomfort in both her front and hind legs reminds me of something Dr. Mary Scollay, equine medical director at the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, told me about the difficulty in preventing fatal injuries. A horse with pre-existing issues in both front or both back legs probably won't bobble from one to the other like a conventionally 'lame' horse. Instead, she may move in a short or choppy way, which could more easily escape detection, especially to a trainer unfamiliar with the horse's natural movement – a particular problem for horses that move barns a lot.

Initially, I wondered whether there were parallels between Songbird's issues and the types of pre-existing damage often seen on necropsy in fatal breakdowns. Although her cannon bone issues could have ultimately resulted in a fatal breakdown, Bramlage said neither her suspensory ligament desmitis nor the cannon bone damage were the result of months of wear and tear, most commonly the case in racetrack fatalities. He suspects both injuries trace back to earlier this year, probably some time after her first race of the season.

“Horses that don't have any obvious problems but you know their performance is declining, usually you find more than one problem going on,” Bramlage said. “The problems in the bottom of the cannon bone, though they bother a horse, they're not exquisitely painful compared to proximal suspensories, which have a much higher nerve supply, so a little inflammation in the top of the suspensory causes a lot more lameness than something down around the fetlock.”

Bramlage did think Songbird's case was a good example of how lamenesses can 'hide,' and explains why, after a serious injury, trainers often tell the media they never saw a problem in the affected leg.

“There are many horses that are just not going right, but the secondary lameness (in this instance, the proximal suspensory) is covering up the primary problem, which might be in the bottom of the cannon bone, it might be something in the knee, it might be a simple chip fracture,” Bramlage said. “Where that's important is people say 'How can the horse have a condylar fracture and never have shown anything?' Well, that's perfectly plausible if you have some low-grade problems going on in the cannon bone, and that causes them to get sore behind. There are horses who have unknown problems to anyone on the outside, but the horse probably knows it's there because he's getting sore someplace else protecting that area. If that's not recognized, then the primary problem may break and no one ever really knew that it was there.

“When people say that happens, it truly does happen.”

So what's the solution? At this point, Bramlage believes it comes down to trainers taking cues from horses.

“The stables who are best at detecting problems early often detect them because the horse is not happy or the horse changes,” Bramlage said. “Even though they're not frankly, lame, they begin to suspect something and they start looking for it. The ones that things sneak by them are the ones that are willing to accept, 'Oh the horse has always moved like that.' That's usually not the case. There are a few instances where horses do move unusually but usually if a horse is moving unusually, he's protecting something.”  

Songbird was lucky in many ways. One of them was having spent three racing seasons in the barn of Jerry Hollendorfer, with a staff who knew her well and recognized she was not quite herself following her three starts this year (despite winning two Grade 1s). She was also lucky to have an owner in Porter who was willing to ship her to Rood and Riddle for evaluation and spare no expense to diagnose the issue. One of the biggest problems in racing is that not all horses are as lucky.    

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