We only hear about official race track veterinarians in times of controversy. Such as last Sunday, for instance, when Dominant Dancer was scratched from the $500,000 Starlet Stakes against the wishes of her owner and trainer.
The classy filly failed to pass a simple test for soundness on the morning of the Starlet, giving Donald Dooley, the official state veterinarian, no choice but to recommend to the stewards that she be taken out of the race.
The stewards rarely, if ever, overrule their official vet. On one memorable occasion, however, the stewards did allow for a second opinion.
In late January of 1984, Burt and Carole Bacharach's champion filly, Heartlight No. One, was to make her debut as a 4-year-old in the La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita.
During his pre-race inspection of Heartlight No. One early that morning, Dooley detected what appeared to be a problem with the filly's hindquarters. He told trainer Pedro Marti that he would recommend she be scratched from the race.
Marti and the Bacharachs objected. They demanded--and surprisingly got--the stewards to allow for a second opinion from Roy Dillon, the other official vet, representing the race track. Dillon, however, wanted to see more than just the routine walk and trot required for most pre-race examinations. He wanted a full jog and gallop from Heartlight No. One before he would consider reversing the opinion of his colleague.
Dillon was satisfied with what he saw, and the stewards allowed Heartlight No. One to remain in the race. But by then the indignant Bacharachs were in no mood to run. Criticizing the stewards, vets and the track, they scratched the filly themselves, citing her extraordinary morning ordeal as justifiable cause.
A few days later, Heartlight No. One appeared in the afternoon for a public workout. She zipped six furlongs in under 1:10, much to the delight of her owners, who felt fully vindicated. But Heartlight No. One never raced again.
Shortly after the workout she contracted a virus. She recovered, but then Marti reported that she had injured an ankle while thrashing around in her stall. She finally went back into training in late May, but that lasted barely a month. Heartlight No. One was retired in early July because of what Marti referred to as a soreness in her back.
More recently, it was Chris McCarron who took the heat for some pre-race suspicions. McCarron incurred the wrath of Charlie Whittingham when the jockey exercised his prerogative and suggested all was not right with Fitzwilliam Place, a 4-year-old filly on the way to the post for the 1988 Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park.
Dillon could have discounted McCarron's assessment and let the filly run. But he did not, and Fitzwilliam Place was scratched, leaving just three horses in the race.
"McCarron will never ride another horse for me!" Whittingham vowed at the time.
Three weeks later, Fitzwilliam Place returned to win the Beverly Hills Handicap with Aaron Gryder in the saddle.
"I couldn't be happier for the filly," Dillon told Whittingham after the race. And the McCarron boycott?
"We laid low for a while," recalled McCarron's agent, Scott McClellan. "Then finally Charlie asked me if Chris was open in a race. That broke the ice."
And history will note that it was McCarron who rode Sunday Silence for Whittingham in his greatest training victory, the Breeders' Cup Classic last month in Florida.
Trainers are the most powerful people in horse racing. They exercise direct control over the availability of the product needed to run racing programs. With the exception of a pari-mutuel clerks' strike, nothing shuts down a race track faster than a trainers' boycott.
So it is understandable that a trainer would bristle when his or her judgment is questioned by a jockey or a track veterinarian.
"I can't worry about those things," said Dooley in the wake of Dominant Dancer's scratching. "The nature of the job is quite political, but I've got to ignore that as much as I can.
"Jockeys have a jockeys' organization to look out for them," Dooley added. "Trainers and owners have their organizations. Even the bettors have people looking out for their interests. But the horses? They have me and the race track vet, Dr. (Ray) Baran. As far as I'm concerned, the horses are my only priority.
"I've seen horses we scratch locally ship out and race right away in other jurisdictions," Dooley said. "And sometimes they do just fine. But that doesn't necessarily mean we were wrong when we made our initial judgment."
As a result of her scratch from the Starlet, Dominant Dancer was placed on the official "vet's list." Before she can run in California again, she must work at least five furlongs to the satisfaction of the official vet, and then pass a blood test after the workout.
"We want to make sure that a horse receives nothing other than what is permitted under racing conditions," Dooley said.
Horse Racing Notes
Sunny Slope Stakes winner Pleasant Tap will pass the Hollywood Futurity. According to trainer Chris Speckert, the plan for Pleasant Tap is the San Vicente-San Felipe-Santa Anita Derby route next spring before any decisions will be made about a Triple Crown campaign . . . Hialeah Park president John Brunetti is pleading with the state of Florida to put his current race meeting out of its misery. Through 14 days of almost daily competition against Miami neighbor Calder Race Course, Hialeah has averaged barely $200,000 a day in handle on a per capita of $83. The season was supposed to run through next May 20.
Candi's Gold continues to make progress for Eddie Gregson and the Royal Lines partnership. The 1988 Strub Stakes runner-up, who nearly died of a blood disorder, worked six furlongs in 1:14 at Santa Anita Tuesday. . . . Racing industry leaders are convening in Tucson this week for the annual symposium sponsored by the University of Arizona's Race Track Industry Management program. Times racing writer Bill Christine will join Andrew Beyer, Steven Crist, Bill Finley and Gary West on the "Press Perspectives" panel.