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Behind the Story: The Final Furlong

4/28/2009
When a horse loses his life, those around him share his pain. Getty Images

In the May 4 issue of ESPN The Magazine, Seth Wickersham looks into the world of the racetrack veternarian.

Words matter in horseracing. Those who work in the sport are sensitive to how it is portrayed -- especially when a racehorse dies on the track. So I was shocked and disturbed, frankly, when I first heard vets use a certain word to describe one of the most controversial aspects of the sport. But the word kept coming up, as I interviewed emergency racetrack veterinarians about their job, even as their faces strained and their eyes welled. "Destroy" is the word they used. As in, "I had to destroy that horse." Not "euthanize" or "put down." Destroy.

The word seemed heartless and cold and even inaccurate, since injured racehorses are generally euthanized by a lethal cocktail injected into their jugular, not shot in the forehead like they were 50 years ago. But when I asked 88-year-old Manny Gilman, an acclaimed New York-area racetrack vet, why so many veterinarians described euthanasia like that, he answered matter-of-factly, "That's just the word we use."

So it's a vet thing, I guess. As harsh as "destroy" sounds, the vets I spoke with were gentle and caring and meant the word in the most gentle and caring way possible. As polluted as the sport of horseracing has become, as much as it puts money ahead of the animal's welfare, racetrack vets are, by and large, careful and respectful and obsessed with the horses' health, often more than the thoroughbreds' owners. In fact, vets often face pressure to not scratch horses due to injury, lest a moneymaking opportunity be lost. But they still do it when it's best for the horse. After all, it's their job, an occupation they aren't in for the money. Most track vets I spoke to wished they had become animal surgeons, if only for the paycheck. Track vets may be in racing to test for drugs, to diagnose shaky limbs or pulled muscles and, most of all, to save lives. But they also perform a larger function. "We police the sport," says Lauren Canady, a Louisiana racetrack vet whom I followed.

Even so, it's hard for some vets to reconcile their duty to help the horses with the reality that sometimes the best help they can provide is assisted death, that word, "destroy." Even if vets know that death is better than the alternative, it still hurts. Celeste Kunz, the emergency vet at New Jersey's Meadowlands, is a star in her industry, having famously saved Charismatic's life in 1999 at the Belmont Stakes. She still cries after putting down a horse. Hell, when one of her cats died, Kunz didn't look at his picture for more than two years. She works according to a credo that might as well speak to all the vets I spoke with: "Grief is the price we pay for love."

Track vets learn early on that the words you choose to show that grief can affect others. Early in Kunz's career at a track in Freehold, NJ, a horse lost its two front shoes and had circled the track without them. Kunz had seen this type of injury before; it's not catastrophic and is easily treatable. But as she approached the horse, she saw blood spraying from its feet like a hose and yelled, "Oh my god!"

Those were the wrong words. Everyone surrounding the horse started panicking. Right then, Kunz learned an important career lesson: If the vet sounds like she's freaking out, everyone freaks out. Ever since, she's chosen her words carefully. She's even developed a vocabulary to inform the owner when words are all she has left for the horse.

"It's hopeless."

"I'm very, very sorry.

"It's a very serious injury."

She especially likes that word -- "serious." It's easy for the owners to understand. She follows the words with a hug. You have to do that type of thing as an emergency vet. That's why, in the course of Kunz's career, no one has ever accused her of cruelty. No one has ever sued her. In fact, owners have always used the same two words whenever she's had to destroy their horse.

"Thank you."