A Horse’s Best Friend
‘Veterinarian to the Stars’ looks back . . . and ahead
by Evan Pattak
The week before the 2000 Meadowlands Pace, one of the hopefuls came up with a swollen leg. Trainer Mark Ford summoned a track veterinarian and vowed, “I am not leaving until you fix that leg.”
The vet did just that, and Gallo Blue Chip went on to win the Meadowlands Pace and more than $4.26 million in his career, a figure that ranked him for years as harness racing’s top money-winning pacer.
A promising 2-year-old colt from the Carl LeCause stable colicked twice due to a twisted testicle. LeCause and his vet agreed that if it happened again, they would geld the youngster. It didn’t, so they didn’t. That horse was Escort, winner of the inaugural Meadowlands Pace in 1977.
The great trotter Self Possessed made a break in the 1999 Beacon Course Trot and suffered a cut on a leg. The timing was horrible, as the Hambletonian eliminations were but two weeks away. Trainer Ron Gurfein placed a call to a veterinarian and pleaded for immediate treatment. At midnight, just hours after the Beacon Course, the vet, working in the glow of headlights provided by two colleagues in their cars, sutured the wound. It was yet another happy ending as Self Possessed bounced right back and captured the Hambletonian.
Those success stories have a common denominator: Dr. Rick Balmer was the principal veterinarian on each case.
Dr. Balmer was on the job at the Meadowlands the day it opened in 1976, and he was still there when the State of New Jersey closed the track’s barn area in 2011. During that period, the Meadowlands was the top showcase for harness racing, and Dr. Balmer was the “Veterinarian to the Stars,” a ride to glory that began modestly enough.
He fell in love with horses in high school while working as a hot walker and groom at Monmouth Park, and earned both his undergraduate and veterinary degrees at Michigan State University. His first professional gig was with Heritage Hill Farm in New Jersey, which led him to a variety of work at such venues as Liberty Bell Racetrack, Brandywine Raceway, Atlantic City Race Track and Freehold Raceway.
But it was at the Meadowlands where he made his mark.
“At one time or another, every high-profile horse had to come through the Meadowlands,” Dr. Balmer said, although he acknowledges that all didn’t come under his care. After all, the track in those days typically had about 12 full-time vets—all independent contractors. Even so, Dr. Balmer quickly became trusted and prominent. He performed much of the veterinary work for such elite owners as Lindy Farms and its trainer, Osvaldo Formia. For Jimmy Doherty, he worked on No Nonsense Woman, who won more than $1.26 million, and a trotter named Fool’s Goal, who banked $3 million despite breaking issues.
“He used to break about every other start,” Dr. Balmer recalled about Fool’s Goal. “When I examined him, I looked for muscle soreness and neurological problems, but I never could figure him out. He’d have made millions more without the breaking problems.”
Dr. Balmer was especially close with the late Hall of Famer Gurfein and worked on all three of his Hambletonian winners: Victory Dream and Continentalvictory, as well as Self Possessed.
“People would ask me if Ronnie was that good. I would tell them, ‘Nobody is lucky that consistently. That’s skill,’” he said. “The more time I spent with him, the more I realized how good he was. He could help me fix a horse on the phone.”
That closeness with the trainers who employed him was one of the things Dr. Balmer treasured most about his career . . . and one of the things about the business that changed even while the Meadowlands was flourishing.
“When I was there, most vets were a part of trainers’ barns,” he said. “We were their friends as well as their vets. When I worked with Jimmy Doherty, we would talk about every horse in his barn every day. I was an integral part of the barn. Most younger trainers now don’t lean on us the way older trainers did. They just call us to look at a horse.”
This shift in relationships generated yet another change: financial dealings between vets and their clients entered a more modern era.
“The older group of vets didn’t charge to examine horses,” Dr. Balmer said. “You might get zero income for an exam. The younger generation will charge for a farm call and an exam fee.
“I knew a vet years ago who worked probably 36 hours in a row on a horse and saved his life. He did a tremendous job. The vet bill was between $4,000 and $5,000. The trainer thanked him and paid him. Three months later, the vet did an insurance physical for a horse and charged that same trainer $10. The trainer fired him. That generation would not stand paying physical exam charges.”
Evolution on other fronts was more welcome—particularly with treatment and technology.
“For castration, we didn’t have the drugs they have now,” said Dr. Balmer. “We used to give the horses acepromazine, a very mild tranquilizer, tie a rope onto their tail, then throw the rope over the stall wall with three guys holding on to it. We were still using that process into the early ’70s.
“My first X-ray machine was Army surplus from the Korean War. They weighed 70 pounds, and somehow you had to hold them when you X-rayed horses. Then you had to go to the darkroom and develop the film.
“Another area that’s changed: Today, when you perform a rectal exam, you wear plastic sleeves. We used rubber gloves, washed them, hung them up to dry and used them again.”
Dr. Balmer’s work as “Veterinarian to the Stars” ended rather abruptly with the Meadowlands barn closure which eliminated the center of operations for the entire contingent of vets.
“I had a million-dollar-a-year business before Gov. Christie shut down the barn area,” Dr. Balmer says with more than a trace of bitterness. “What did I get from it? I sold my 50-year-old office/trailer for $400. My six employees lost their jobs. That kind of pushed me to retire.”
Now, Dr. Balmer leads the good life of elder statesman and lives in western Pennsylvania near The Meadows with his wife, Kelly Stackowicz. He’s always on call to help his wife’s horses, and he’s available to others at The Meadows when needed.
“I went from working 100 hours a week to 20 hours about 10 years ago, but I have 51 years’ experience,” he said. “A fresh look at a horse sometimes helps. I like to fish and spend time with the grandkids. I’m happy out here. There are nice people, nice horses.”
And Dr. Balmer had his share of success stories working with horses at The Meadows.
One notable patient was Jins Dragon, who in 2012 took a mark of 1:55.2 at The Meadows and was preparing for his 2013 campaign when, according to owner Craig McEvoy, several lengthy van trips stressed him and produced a heart problem, complete with blood in the lungs, that McEvoy feared would be fatal.
Under the care of Dr. Balmer and trainer Brad Buxton, the son of Dragon Again-Gordon’s Jin Ms recovered and made it back to the winner’s circle.
“It is nothing short of a miracle to see your horse go from almost dying to the winners’ circle,” said McEvoy at the time.
Dr. Balmer, who served on the USTA Medication Advisory Committee, still pays attention to those issues and has some advice for the industry and our government: Leave veterinary decisions to veterinarians, not elected officials or other politicians.
“Politicians are setting our rules,” he said. “Granted, we have not been self-policing very well. But most veterinarians care for the welfare of the horse. The politicians should take a lot more of our input when they make these decisions.”
He cites a couple of examples.
“In the last couple years, experts have been telling us that cortisone injections are detrimental to horses, and they’re stopping all cortisone injections,” he said. “If you inject a horse with corticosteroids, they treat you like a criminal. I don’t agree with that. I think there’s a place for it.”
Quinidine, used to treat atrial fibrillation, is yet another potentially beneficial medication that vets may be reluctant to use because of the possibility it may cause a positive test well down the road.
“We prescribe one shot of quinidine and rest. Now, they’re testing positive three or four months later,” said Dr. Balmer. “With every horse we treat now, we have to wonder if he’ll test positive and get this trainer in trouble.
“Right now, our testing procedures are better than our rules. We have to develop rules to match testing procedures. A lot of times treatment may be in the best interest of the horse, but you’re worried about a positive, so you don’t do it. It’s a horrible way to do business.” HB