On March 2, Seattle Slew, the only living Triple Crown winner, underwent successful surgery to fuse vertebrae in his neck. The procedure is similar to the one that Slew, now 28, had two years ago, which extended his lucrative breeding career and perhaps saved his life. That 2000 surgery is recounted in Stud: Adventures in Breeding by Kevin Conley (Bloomsbury, 209 pages, $24.95), scheduled to be released on March 20. This excerpt is reprinted by permission.
The Eureka moment: early 1977, the Frontier Lounge, Las Vegas. Onstage, Bobbie Gentry, 10 years removed from her Grammy for Ode to Billie Joe, and Larry Storch, equally far from his role as Corporal Randolph Agarn on F Troop. In the audience, two veterinarians, Barrie Grant and Pamela Wagner, and one orthopedic surgeon, George Bagby, all down from Washington State University for an orthopedic surgery convention. In the Vegas glow the two ambitious vets and the pioneering surgeon didn't talk about the faded stars. They talked about the latest spinal fusion technique (called the Cloward technique and designed to help relieve disorders caused by spinal compression) and whether it could work with horses just as well as it was working with humans.
The Cloward technique had junked all the plates and screws that made spinal fusion surgery so cumbersome and gave post-surgical X-rays the look of a messy tool drawer. With the new technique a hole was drilled between vertebrae and a hollow cylinder was tamped into the hole, purposely drilled a millimeter or so too small. (In the original surgeries the cylinder was made of bone taken from a bone bank or from the iliac crest on the patient's pelvis; some years later, Bagby fashioned a cylinder, now called the Bagby basket, out of stainless steel.) The small difference in size did the trick—once the oversized cylinder was jammed in place, the resulting pressure fused the new bone and two vertebrae together. The pioneering vets wanted to find out if the procedure had become so efficient that they could try it on horses.
The first horse that Grant and Wagner tried to fit with this bone dowel died four days after surgery. It was a mildly encouraging outcome, to everyone but the horse, and the team felt confident enough to make the second surgery a demonstration procedure, at a type of professional open house, on Saturday morning, May 7, 1977. Dr. Bagby scrubbed in, and under his guidance the surgery went off perfectly, in less than two hours. While the horse, a 3-year-old colt named Finelli, slowly came to in the recovery room, Grant rushed home—to watch Seattle Slew win the Kentucky Derby—then hurried back, just in time to see his patient rise gamely to his feet.
In the years since, with practice and technical improvement, the surgery had changed, although it was generally seen as a last-ditch measure to be attempted only on young horses, like Finelli, who suffered from what textbook writers call equine spinal ataxia or cervical vertebral malformation and everyone else calls wobbles, because that's what the poor horse does.
There were several reasons why older horses didn't undergo the surgery. It was riskier, because their bones are more brittle. There was, too, the economic reality: Few older horses were worth the expense—around $4,000 to $6,000 for the surgery itself, and even more for the fairly constant care and physical therapy the horse requires in the months afterward. And, according to Grant, "there's still some belief in the horse industry that you can't do anything about a horse with spinal cord compression. And then why put a nice old horse through that when he's already paid his dues?"
But things didn't operate that way at Three Chimneys, the breeding farm where Seattle Slew had been standing at stud since 1985 and where a few handpicked sires get plenty of individual attention. In January 2000 that's exactly what Slew required. Thankfully, the Three Chimneys vet, Dr. Jim Morehead—a big Missourian with the sort of rough good looks (square jaw, blue eyes, pushbroom mustache) that would fit perfectly on a Super Bowl coach or an airline pilot—seemed to welcome the challenge. He started off conservatively, giving Slew butazoladin (a common anti-inflammatory that Slew had had a good response to at the track) and Banamine (another anti-inflammatory). He called in specialists, who took ultrasound and radiographic images of his spine. The images seemed to suggest arthritic bone growth impinging on the nerves. But there was a problem: Slew was a 26-year-old stallion, and, Morehead said, "We had to ask ourselves, 'What is normal for a 26-year-old stallion?' "
Nevertheless, guided by those images and test results, they injected more powerful anti-inflammatories directly into Slew's articular facets, between his vertebrae. For a while it looked as if the treatments were going to work—the symptoms let up, and when breeding season started, Slew was nimble enough to get six of his first eight mares in foal.
But whenever the medications started to wear off, Slew relapsed into frightening spastic episodes, and though his owners and vets still didn't know what they were dealing with, it was becoming clear that stopgap treatment wasn't going to work. Slew withdrew from stallion service, and the treatment went into high gear. "Between a bone scan and a myelogram, we had a lot of help on this case," Morehead said. "I was charged with trying to take care of him, but I had free rein. I could go get whoever I wanted to help in the process. So we actively recruited some of the brighter minds involved with this stuff."
One of these brighter minds was Barrie Grant. Mickey and Karen Taylor, Slew's owners, knew about Grant's wobbler surgery; a few weeks after clinching the Triple Crown, Slew galloped at Seattle's Longacres Racetrack, in a benefit for the veterinary research program at Washington State University. They called him up and explained the situation, saying that the time had come to "kill or cure, because Slew wasn't getting any better, and he couldn't escape it."