On most days, the job is terribly dull. It requires sitting behind the wheel of a truck cab and then sitting some more.
For more than four hours, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. Those are the days Al Howard likes best.
"You never want to see anything bad happen to an animal," he said.
When something bad happens to a horse at Belmont Park, as it did Wednesday, when a filly named Lauren's Charm collapsed and died on the track during the seventh race, Howard is pressed into action. He drives the horse ambulance at the New York Racing Association tracks and is part of the team that works to administer aid to horses when they are injured in a race.
On Wednesday, he was behind the wheel when the filly's body was loaded into the ambulance.
"Another sad day at Belmont," the 58-year-old Howard said.
According to studies conducted by New York Racing Association, 7.3 out of every 1,000 horses who race sustain some significant injury, and 1.1 out of every 1,000 starters incur a fatal injury. The statistics are fairly universal. They include the career-ending, and potentially fatal, injury sustained by Barbaro, the Kentucky Derby winner, during the Preakness at Pimlico last Saturday.
A minute or two after he was pulled up by his jockey, Edgar Prado, Barbaro was led into a Kimzey Equine Ambulance, a state-of-the-art vehicle that includes a number ofdevices designed to keep an injured horse as comfortable and stable as possible while it is being transported.
There are 25 such horse ambulances in the country, and three are in use at New York Racing Association tracks. They cost about US$80,000 each and are made by Kimzey Metal Products in Woodland, California. There remain many middle- and lower-tier tracks that still rely on old-fashioned trailer ambulances.
"We make about one a year," said John Kimzey, the company president. "That's a matter of market demand. Some tracks don't have the money for them or spend their money on other things."
In the mid-1970s, two California veterinarians, Greg Ferraro and Roy Dillon, were concerned that existing horse ambulances, which were little more than standard horse trailers, were inadequate. They came up with plans for an improved ambulance and went to Kimzey, which primarily makes farm equipment, and asked it to build their creation.
The first Kimzey ambulance was unveiled in 1979 at Santa Anita. At the time, Ferraro estimated that 25 percent of the on-track fatalities that had occurred over the prior four years would have been avoided had the Kimzey ambulance been in operation.
The ambulance's most important feature may be a hydraulic system that allows it to be lowered to ground level. That enables veterinarians to load and unload the injured horse without it having to climb up or down a ramp.
"Stepping into an ambulance can cause a horse to damage soft-tissue structures, and by soft tissue structures I mean blood vessels, ligaments," said Jennifer Durenberger, an associate veterinarian for the New York Racing Association who was on hand Wednesday when the filly collapsed. "Also, you want to minimize the amount of movement to the fracture."
Inside the ambulance, a rubber-padded wall can be moved back and forth to adjust the size of the compartment. Often enough, it will be shifted to allow for a wide area so the injured horse can freely enter the ambulance and then will be moved closer. Sometimes it is moved so close that it acts like a vise, which can help hold up a horse unable to bear weight on a leg.