There are many exceptional veterinarians who care for racehorses in the United States. Some have received national media attention, most notably Dr. Dean Richardson, the equine surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, who cared for Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. Dr. Larry, Bramlage of Kentucky's Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, has served as a media liaison on nationally televised Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup events on behalf of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.
Less known to the public, but equally revered in the Southwest United States is Dr. Tommy Hays III of the Elgin Veterinary Hospital. Recognized for his expertise in orthopedic and soft tissue surgery, Hays has tended to many of the top Quarter Horse Champions in the country.
Born in Thibodaux, La., Hays grew up in Oklahoma, where he spent his childhood around horses, and, as he relayed, “pretty much lived on horseback.” Veterinary school was his calling, and he got his degree at Oklahoma State University. Following his graduation in 1985, he sought a practice which would allow him to specialize in horses. He saw an opportunity at the Elgin Veterinary Hospital just 19 miles east of Austin, and went to work with Dr. Robert Lewis. Hays is in his 27th year of private practice and is considered one of the best equine surgeons in the country. He is a member of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and a founding member of the Texas Equine Veterinary MedicalAssociation. In 1994, Hays was honored as Texas Veterinarian of the Year.
His schedule is demanding. Monday, Wednesday and Friday are devoted to surgery, with Hays performing 20 to 30 surgeries weekly – more than 1,000 each year. Tuesday and Thursday are clinic days, where Hays addresses lameness and performance issues including, but not limited to ulcers, sore legs and breathing issues.
“Top performance in race horses requires key components,” explains Hays. “A dragster will not win without the best wheels, motor and air. Horses have similar requirements to be competitive.”
He has raced Quarter Horses solely and in partnerships. He acknowledges that owners are faced with many curveballs to keeping a horse healthy.
“I've had everything happen to my horses,” he said. “My goal is to get things fixed and have a happy, healthy animal. Not just for one race, but for longevity.”
Long-term health and performance are important to Hays. He has seen many horses run one big race, but not be able to replicate that effort. Hays has respect for champions like Tailor Fit and SLM Big Daddy, who were able to win several years in a row.
“Long-term longevity is the mark of success,” Hays said. “Good horses with capable trainers will eventually win, but even with that in place, you need a lot of luck.”
One of his trainers, Bobby Martinez, conditions Painted Sable for Hays and Bobby J. Barnett. The Utah-bred daughter of Pyc Paint Your Wagon ran in trials for the 2010 All American Futurity and qualified for the $1million Texas Classic Futurity at Lone Star Park. She was bumped in the final, running ninth to Bodacious Dash. Several 2-year-olds owned by Hays are in training with Martinez. Open Me a Corona will make her career debut at Delta Downs and One Eyed Eagle qualified for the $487,700 Sam Houston Futurity last month. Oak Tree Delight qualified for futurities at Louisiana Downs and the Firecracker Futurity at Delta Downs last July. Bred by Hays and Vessel Stallion Farm, the gelded son of Oak Tree Special out of the First Down Dash mare Show Me Delight will run in trials for the Adequan Texas Derby Challenge at Sam Houston Race Park.
“He's the best vet in the country, in my opinion,” Martinez said. “He's worked on all my horses including my (AQHA) world champion Oak Tree Special.”
Martinez has a swimming facility on his farm in McDade, just minutes away from the Elgin clinic. Hays is a proponent of swimming horses to maintain fitness. He points to research that confirms that hydrotherapy can assist healing and building strength without stress or trauma to joints and knees.
“We work together real well,” said Martinez. “He wants his horses to last, and if it means laying them up after a tough race, he's good with that.”
Huge Win With Sure Shot B
Last November at Lone Star Park, Hays had the most rewarding win as an owner when Sure Shot B scored a 9-1 upset in the $1,158,941 Texas Classic Futurity (G1). The gelded son of Stoli is owned by Hays in partnership with Charles Forbes Jr. The fourth-fastest qualifier, Sure Shot B earned $501,164 for the win and won the fifth of his six career starts. His lone defeat in 2011 was a sixth-place finish in the Ruidoso Futurity (G1).
Hays is pleased that his champion emerged from the race in excellent condition and is training for the 3-year-old derbies at Ruidoso Downs under the watchful eye of trainer John Stinebaugh.
The usually laconic Hays has high praise for Sure Shot B as he prepares for his 2012 debut.
“He's 100 percent fit and ready to run,” Hays said. “I believe we have a horse that everyone has to be worried about.”
Kudos from Trainers and Breeders
“I worked for the late Blane Schvaneveldt for a long time,” said Stinebaugh. “What I remember most is how much I learned from him. In the short time I have been associated with Tommy, I can say that he has taught me a lot. I send him videos of Sure Shot B's works and he watches the way the horse travels. There is a mutual respect. I know that he wants a healthy, sound horse.”
Bob and Jerry Ann Gaston are prominent Quarter Horse owners and breeders. They bred two champions of million-dollar races in 2010: Bodacious Dash, winner of the Grade 1, Texas Classic Futurity (G1) and Double Down Special, who captured the All American Derby (G1). The Texas couple also owned Coronas Leaving You, one of the outstanding freshman sires of the year. They have a long association with Hays.
For all the victories, there are the heartbreaks. On Sept. 8, 2006, the Gaston's filly, First Tea Rose, suffered a severe leg injury in the Sam Houston Futurity. The track veterinarian recommended she be euthanized on the track, but Gaston vividly remembers that trainer Heath Taylor told the vet to wait while he called Dr. Hays. Taylor accompanied the filly in the two-hour van ride to Elgin for evaluation. At 6 a.m. the next morning, Dr. Hays had assembled a team and completed a meticulous surgery that required the insertion of 26 pins, First Tea Rose made a full recovery and has thrived as a broodmare, with five foals to date.
“Tommy saved her,” recalls Bob Gaston, who still chokes up recalling the events of six years ago. “She was 30-seconds from being euthanized, but Heath made the phone call, and Dr. Hays performed an amazing surgery. We are so thankful.”
Gaston is quick to commend Hays on his diagnostic expertise as well. Recently he sent a 10-day-old colt to Hays with concerns about his mobility. Hays examined the weanling an discovered an abscess in his navel.
“Tommy has an outstanding knowledge of horses and what makes their motor tick,” said Gaston.
Of course, Bob's wife, Jerry Ann, sums up the acumen of Dr. Tommy Hays in one word.
“Jerry calls him Superman,” relays Gaston.
While he might not be “the man of steel,” “more powerful than locomotive” or able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” Dr. Tommy Hays has certainly saved the day and the career of many American Quarter Horses.
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