(Originally published in the June 9, 2012 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
Equine veterinarians typically treat thousands of patients throughout their years in practice, making it highly unlikely that they will be remembered for their work with a certain horse.
Meet Dr. JD Howard, the exception to the rule. Now farm manager at Mike Moreno’s Southern Equine Farm near Midway, Ky., Dr. Howard’s career has been intertwined with two prominent patients—the great sire Nureyev and, more recently, 16-year-old top producer Better Than Honour.
Howard headed a medical team that brought Nureyev back from death’s door on several occasions and has helped restore Better Than Honour to motherhood after she failed to carry to term two years in a row.
It’s not exactly the way Howard planned his career. The son of a Quarter Horse trainer in Oklahoma, Howard started out cleaning stalls and graduated to grooming and then riding Quarter Horses for seven years. After graduating from vet school at Oklahoma State University, Howard ventured to California and had a racetrack practice before starting Peninsula Equine with Dr. Russ Peterson in Northern California in 1979.
“We were working day and night, and when we got to the end of the month, there was no money left,” said Howard, who added with a laugh, “It began flourishing right after I left to come to Kentucky.”
Howard worked a Keeneland meet with Dr. Mark Cheney but was struggling to find steady work when he got a tip to go see Johnny Jones at Walmac. Jones took a chance on the young vet and it paid off, as Howard remained at Walmac for nearly 30 years.
Right after Howard arrived at the farm, so did Nureyev. Highly touted as a potential stallion, Nureyev wasn’t stopping any mares and was believed to be subfertile, not a good situation for the farm that had invested millions in him.
“One of the worst days of my life was when Johnny called me into his office and asked me, ‘Are you good at reproduction?’ ” Howard remembered. “I wanted to be honest, but I was desperate to keep the job so I told him, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty good.’ I couldn’t tell an ovary from a fecal ball. I turned as pale as a piece of paper and got sick to my stomach. My wife had just joined me in Kentucky, and I went home and told her to stop unpacking and start packing everything back up because I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Howard learned quickly. He had mares arriving around the clock and was breeding them at all hours.
“I might breed Nureyev to six or seven mares in less than 24 hours. He would go through the motions, but not a lot of sperm would come out. He might get numbers one and five pregnant or numbers two and six.”
Howard really earned his wings when Nureyev fractured a leg in 1987 and against all odds was saved through the use of a sling and a special brace. He required around-the-clock care for months, with Howard heading the team that saved him.
Needing a change, Howard took the job at Southern Equine in 2008 when Moreno was bolstering his broodmare band, which included buying out partner Hill ‘n’ Dale Farms in Better Than Honour, who had produced consecutive Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winners Jazil and Rags to Riches and Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) victor Casino Drive. Moreno went to $14 million at the 2008 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November mixed sale for the mare.
“She had aborted in January of 2008 and didn’t get back in foal for 2009,” Howard said. “So it was ‘Here we go again.’
“She had a couple of problems we were dealing with for a long time to get her right. Sometimes it’s just a case of persistence winning out. Being a resident vet, you have the time to concentrate on these mares and focus on working with them every day.
“She had a uterine infection, and a lot of those organisms are resistant to antibiotics unless you can make the medicine more potent in killing the bacteria. Then, the older a mare gets, she loses local immunity, so you’re not getting any help from her immune system.
“By May 2009 she was good enough to breed and luckily she conceived her first Street Cry filly, who is now 2.”
The foal was later put on a nurse mare, which lessened the stress on the mother. She was able to be bred back to Street Cry and caught again. That filly, now a yearling, is “one of those freaky types that don’t come around too often,” according to Howard. “She’s very special.” Better Than Honour is in foal to Bernardini for 2013.
Howard, 62, said that Southern Equine will be his last stop before retirement, but he is thankful for the opportunity to work with mares such as Better Than Honour, and grade I winners Mi Sueno, Champagne d’Oro, Santa Teresita, and Careless Jewel.
“This is the last chapter; all those hours with Nureyev are catching up with me now. For 20 breeding seasons I averaged eight hours of sleep a week.” Howard has hired Blair Cornman to help him at Southern Equine.
Looking back on the twists and turns of his career, Howard noted, “From not being a reproductive vet, I guess I’ve gotten kind of proficient in it by now.”