Q&A with top racehorse veterinarian Douglas Black

by Brian de Lore
Published 13 December 2019

Douglas Black is widely acknowledged as one of the best racehorse veterinarians in New Zealand.

He is a specialist in performance issues in young racehorses and has done exceptional work for a number of leading stables, and has been for many years has been the ‘go-to‘ vet for Te Akau Stables at Matamata.

This week I asked Doug a few questions, and this is what he had to say:

You graduated from Glasgow University Veterinary School in 1983 What is the background story that brought you to NZ, and when did you come?
After graduating, I worked in North Yorkshire for two years, then did locum work around London for six months to save some cash for travelling.  After 12-months working in various practices, and travelling the east coast of Australia, an Irish friend and I were sitting in a bar in Sydney – he told me about two jobs that were advertised in New Zealand (our Australian visas were running out the following week).  He suggested a coin toss – he lost and went to Whanganui, I arrived in Hamilton on the 5th of October 1986.  I’ve been in the same practice ever since.

How does the veterinary profession differ in NZ from the UK and were there any obstacles for you becoming a partner in NZ?
In the UK, as with the other professions, things are a little more collar and tie.  It’s definitely more relaxed in New Zealand.  Veterinarians graduating from New Zealand have an excellent reputation overseas.  There were no real partnership obstacles – like everywhere else it’s about doing your time the right way, and convincing the other partners you were worth holding onto.

“The Waikato would be one of the best places to practice as an equine vet, anywhere.”

You have been in NZ for a long time now. What was it that determined your decision to settle here permanently?
I have been in New Zealand for 33 years.  It really wasn’t a difficult decision to settle. The Waikato would be one of the best places to practice as an equine vet, anywhere.  I love the country and the people and have three grown-up kiwi kids – game, set, match (that’s not their names!).

What was the single most memorable professional achievement through all your years as a veterinarian?
Would have to be developing a state of the art equine facility, the Waikato Equine Veterinary Centre, with my three other directors (Alec Jorgensen, Noel Power and Greg Quinn).  It opened in November 2016 and I pinch myself every time I drive in.  It’s fantastic.

What attracted you to specialise in performance and lameness in racehorses over other areas of veterinary practice.
Really the difference you can make to these amazing athletes at every level.  Veterinary practice now offers so much in the way of diagnostics, medicine and surgery.

You do the work for one of NZ’s biggest racing stables in Te Akau Stables. How does that work for you, and does it present any added pressure?
It does bring its own pressure, but David Ellis and I have been good mates for over 30 years.  We have a good professional understanding and like the other clients in the practice, I love to see them do well at the highest level.  A large amount of assistance comes from other vets in the practice too, especially Ronan Costello and Alec Jorgensen – they’re absolutely top class.

You do a lot of pre yearling sales examinations for Te Akau and other buyers. What in your experience are the main criteria for a tick or fail on yearlings and does that criteria differ from buyer to buyer?
There are some significant x-ray issues (especially knees, stifles and some fetlock conditions) that concern us.  Personally I like to see yearlings that are correct, but just as importantly are athletic, walk well and seem to have a good temperament.  I leave pedigrees to agents and owners.|

So much of the guess work and hocus pocus has been removed.” – DB on nutrition

What’s your view on the advancement of nutrition over the years and where do you most identify the benefits of that science in young racehorses?
Nutrition has advanced hugely in the last 10-15 years, primarily with individual property complete feeds.  So much of the guesswork and hocus pocus stuff has been removed.  The results show this, especially with young under three-year-old horses where the incidence of developmental orthopaedic disease has reduced significantly.

Some conditions in young horses such as osteochondrosis (OCD) seem less prevalent today in young horses that in days gone by? Do you agree and what would you put it down to, and are there other conditions less common than they used to be?
Guess the previous question answered that, but there is no doubt we see far less knee fractures (‘chips’ primarily) than we used to.  That’s multi-factorial but nutrition is part of it.  I think young horses feet are getting better too.

The single thing would be better and more consistent track surfaces.” – DB on soundness

As a racehorse vet, what in your view is the thing or things the racing industry could be doing differently to keep horses in training sounder and achieve a better result?
The single thing would be better and more consistent track surfaces – for training and racing. That would be priority number one.

Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is a potential issue for all horses in training. How much of it do you see in the course of your working week and how much is management and how much is genetic?
I see enough of it but less than say 15 years ago.  Trainers working closely with vets identify issues much earlier with eg. gait analysis and radiographs, so a lot of the more serious conditions are avoided.  Some is definitely genetic but that is often conformation related.

Stem cell research is rapidly advancing in the horse industry globally and is being used to treat lameness of horses in training with the advantage of keeping them in training rather than spelling. Where are we at in NZ with this advancement?
In New Zealand, we are very fortunate to have the involvement at research level of Dr. Wayne McIlwraith.  He’s a global leader in this field and his orthopedic research facility in Colorado has been working closely with Massey University in Palmerston North and private practice here.  Stem cell therapy will have an increasing role in the future treatment of some lameness conditions.

How do you view the x-ray and scoping of horses at yearling sales today compared to the old days when most buyers took their chances?
It’s all down to buyer beware and risk management but both these things have helped eliminate some issues for buyers.  There’s no doubt some horses are unnecessarily criticised on x-rays particularly, but everyone has their opinion and acceptance level.  It has without a doubt made it tougher on the vendors though.

What’s the biggest single advancement for veterinary science in recent years?
Probably portable (and now cordless) digital radiography.

“… horses trained at two years had a lower incidence of significant injury than at three and four years.”

What’s your view on spring two-year-old racing given that the epiphyses in young horses do not close up until 24 to 27 months of age. Are some horses pushed too hard too early, more so in Australia than NZ, which places enormous pressure on relatively immature joints?
Well that’s a fair question, but there have been several extensive studies done, including Australia, which have shown that horses trained (some of which race) at two years had a lower incidence of significant injury than at three and four years.  Trainers are by and large pretty smart today and the tell-tale signs when any horse, especially two-year-olds, have had enough – anything from shin soreness to inappetence or subtle changes in coat appearance.  They know these horses individually. Training methods have improved too, with the use of treadmills and water walkers.

How big an issue is stress fractures in our racing? Are they difficult to diagnose and do you think some go undetected with the horse’s loss of form the only symptom?
Stress fractures are an issue in racehorses, just as they are in human athletes.  They can be difficult to diagnose – for example, in the pelvis, but the use of bone scanners (scintigraphy) is enormously helpful.

“… parochialism.  It’s holding back so much progress.”

Taking off your veterinary hat, what would you do to change NZ racing for the better?
Try my utmost to rid the industry of parochialism.  It’s holding back so much progress.

Why do New Zealand horses punch above their weight so well overseas? Pasture, climate, horsemanship, patience.

Do you have a view on the management of the racehorse’s mind? We know some horses go sour on racing, and others always try hard. Is this more genetic or management and how do you stop a racehorse from switching off?
That was a tough one.  Some thoroughbreds just don’t want to be flat racehorses no matter what.  Some might be genetic? Not sure about that.  Management – yes, keeping the horse interested, eating well, pain-free and in the hands of good track riders all probably helps.

What’s your view on the use of the whip? How much pain in your opinion does a horse feel with a strong whip rider hitting behind the saddle, and would you ban the whip or keep it?
Very topical subject.  I think it’ll go sooner than later purely due to public perception.  Hopefully, it’s permitted as a ‘steering’ device.  Bottom line – it’ll change and probably go in the next five years, I’d say.

Dr. Douglas Black with more thoughts on life and horses…

Personal at a glance Professional at a glance
My superstition is…
Number 13
The biggest lesson I have learned…
Never say never in this game. Horses don’t read textbooks and love to make a fool of veterinarians
Four dinner party guests… Charlize Theron, Rowan Atkinson, Robert de Niro, Mick Jagger – now would that be a fun dinner party? Racing and breeding has taught me…
It’s a very tough sport. As a good friend of mine said to me when his best filly came back after a sensational gallop with blood at both nostrils – “it’s no game for sissies.”
I am annoyed by…

Favourite holiday destination… Italy is sensational – all of it

Best bet I’ve had…
A $3k trifecta one day at Randwick at the autumn carnival
Best book read…
The Vietnam War by Ken Burns. He’s the only Western Historian the Vietnamese recognise. It’s a great understanding of disasterous politics in South East Asia
Best horse I’ve had…
Easy – Scrutinize – never saw the best of him

My racing hero…
The racing industry – it’s full of characters

Favourite movie…
The Hunt for Red October – Sean Connery and Sam Neill at their best

I like to relax by…
Having a glass (or three) of beer or champagne with good friends on a warm summer evening

Person with the biggest influence…
My first boss in Yorkshire. He taught me plenty including a lot of good basic vet medicine
My sport is…
Golf. The handicap system makes it a level playing field, the competitors are brilliant and it was created you know where. I had my first hole-in-one last week
Favourite racecourse…
Ahh, that’s a tough one. Probably Ellerslie but I love York in England – flat as a billiard table with a straight 1400 metres, great facilities, and the Ebor Meeting in August is one of the best
Favourite Food…
Seafood – in NZ we are totally spoilt by the best in the world. Washed down with a nice white burgundy
Alternative career…
Probably politics. Everyone says I have an opinion on everything; usually I’m convinced it’s the right one

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