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The moment he learned from the television that Prairie Bayou had been "humanely destroyed" after breaking down in the Belmont Stakes last June, Dr. George Maylin picked up the phone at his home in Ithaca, N.Y., and called the state's chief steward at Belmont Park, John Joyce.
"We should really have that carcass here for an autopsy," said Maylin, a Cornell professor who directs New York's postrace drug-testing program. With that, Maylin set in motion a maelstrom that illustrates the charged emotions and conflicting opinions in an industry struggling to clarify the connection between horses, drugs and injuries.
The request for Prairie Bayou's body was highly unusual. Like all major racing jurisdictions, with the notable exception of California, New York does not require autopsies on horses who break down on the state's tracks. Nevertheless, Joyce immediately instructed track veterinarian Ted Hill to arrange transportation of Prairie Bayou's body. The state's veterinarian, Payson Brett, was summoned to accompany the carcass to Cornell. Contacted by Hill, both the horse's owner, Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony, and the horse's vet, Gary Lavin, agreed to the request. "I did not know that New York did not require autopsies," Lavin says.
Prairie Bayou was dragged out of a cooler on Belmont's backstretch and into a van at 9 p.m., less than four hours after he had died, and his body was transported in a van through rain and fog, with Brett driving behind in his car, to the lab 220 miles away at Cornell. Maylin was waiting as the convoy arrived at 3:30 a.m. A couple of hours later Dr. Lennart Krook, a pathologist at Cornell whose views on the causes of breakdowns have left him and his colleague Maylin virtually isolated in the scientific community, began the autopsy.
Krook's findings were consistent with his pet theory: osteochondrosis (OCH), a bone-weakening process intitiated by the failure of cartilage to convert uniformly to bone in unborn and very young horses, acted in probable concert with corticosteroids injected into a leg joint. Krook asserted that a "toxic agent"—which he said later was a corticosteroid—was injected into Prairie Bayou's left fetlock joint and ate away at a vital ligament until it broke, the kind of double whammy Krook and Maylin blame for most breakdowns.
Such generalizations are not accepted by the thoroughbred community. "Absolute rubbish," responds Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, a nationally known equine surgeon and researcher who teaches at Colorado State. Dr. Roy Pool, a bone pathologist and professor at UC Davis who has published 60 scientific articles on his studies, says, "He ignores anything that does not fit into his theory."
Prairie Bayou's vet goes even further in attacking Krook's findings. Lavin, who is president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the industry's equivalent of the American Medical Association, is adamant that Prairie Bayou "never at any time had corticosteroids." To which Krook responds, "To this I am ready to swear in court: In my best judgment, there is a probability that Prairie Bayou was injected with corticosteroids.... We have the fingerprints of the damage caused by such treatment."
Even Krook's toughest critics, however, acknowledge that corticosteroids in high doses can do serious damage. If nothing else, perhaps the controversy surrounding Prairie Bayou will accelerate study and lead to some answers.