A Rich Trifecta - by Eric Mitchell

Innovation and commitment to excellence were honored Sept. 28 at the Thoroughbred Club of America’s 83rd Annual Testimonial Dinner.

Three veterinarian pioneers—Dr. Edward Fallon, Dr. Gary Lavin, and Dr. Larry Bramlage—were each recognized by their peers and the racing community for their groundbreaking contributions to reproductive, diagnostic, and surgical medicine, respectively. Among the 84 industry leaders previously recognized by the Thoroughbred Club of America as Honor Guests since 1932, only six have been veterinarians.

All three of this year’s honorees were at the forefront of new techniques and technologies they embraced, improved, and with which they excelled.  

Fallon was a graduate student at Cornell University when an instructor, Dr. Myron Fincher, told him about the technique of palpating ovaries in mares that was occurring in Germany. The technique dovetailed with what Fallon was being taught by another professor, Dr. Francis Fox, who urged his students to use all their senses.

“What do you smell? What do you hear? What do you see? What do you feel?” the fourth-generation veterinarian recalled being taught. “That’s excellent advice for veterinarians, be they in a barn, at the track, or in the clinic.”

By educating his sense of touch, Fallon could detect whether a mare was pregnant at 45 days after conception and even whether twins were present.

“Then ultrasound came along and changed everything,” Fallon said in a question-and-answer session during the ceremony.

Fallon also was a pioneer in using artificial lights to prompt mares to begin cycling earlier in the year. The sooner mares conceived, the earlier in the year they would foal, and the more growing time their foals would have versus their peers.

Lavin started down the road of diagnostic innovation when he wrote a college paper about laryngeal hemiplegia, a disease where paralysis occurs on one side of the larynx. At the time, the best paper on the subject had been published in 1892.

He recalled a field trip to the Hanover Shoe Farm, then the largest Standardbred breeding farm in the country, with an early version of the endoscope. In those days, Lavin said, veterinary medicine was largely confined to antibiotics, a few vaccinations, tetanus antitoxin, some blood work, and vitamins.

“There I was with a three-foot-long metal instrument the width of a ball point pen, connected with wire to four flashlight batteries to confirm a suspected laryngeal paralysis,” he said. “Unreliable tranquilizers made the exam just that much more of a challenge.”

In those days, endoscopes were not used to look for bleeders because everyone believed the bleeding simply came from the nose.

Lavin would go on to become a racetrack practitioner and president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

Bramlage would distinguish himself in the field of orthopedic surgery and research. Among his best known surgical cases is that of Personal Ensign, who fractured her pastern after winning the 1986 Frizette Stakes (gr. I). Typically, such an injury would have been career-ending. Personal Ensign, however, returned to continue an unbeaten streak in September of her 3-year-old year, taking two graded stakes. Her perfect career culminated in a dramatic nose victory over Winning Colors in the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I).

“I have been the beneficiary of the coming of age of surgery in horses,” Bramlage said. “When I began practicing, the options were limited. Surgery was never seen as a benefit to the trainer or owner.”

The development of the cold light source in Japan and of surgical plates and screws by the Swiss suddenly created possibilities and new hope for Thoroughbred owners.

“Surgical treatment was no longer the thing you did when there was not much hope,” Bramlage said. “Rather than the last resort, it moved up to the first line of defense.”

The contributions of these three individuals to the industry, driven by their intellectual curiosity and commitment to excellence are immeasurable. Not only have we benefited from their talents, we’re sure to gain even more from the greatness they’ve inspired in others.

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