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  • David Jefferson

Big Doors Swing on Little Hinges

W Clement Stone was a highly successful businessman and author. The quote about the big doors came from him. Compared to the size and bulk of a door, a hinge is a tiny thing. The idea is that little events in our lives, “the hinges”, can have a huge influence on what happens from then on.

One small hinge for me was a conversation that took place in a horse barn at the Cumberland, Maine, fairgrounds 30 years ago. Housed in this stable were four Standardbred racehorses. They were owned and cared for by Bob and Helen Gossom who were both retired. Looking after and racing their horses was the way the couple spent their days. It was something they enjoyed and did together. Their home was a house trailer right on the grounds of the track. Their horses were more a hobby than a business. Every once in a while one of their horses would beat the competition and come in first, second or third. That’s all it took to keep Helen and Jim excited and showing up every day. I liked working for the couple as they truly loved their animals and were appreciative clients. At that time the majority of my practice was with Standardbreds. When I bought the practice that’s how it was and seemed like it was going to stay, until the day that a small hinge, just a little remark from Helen, shut one door and opened another.

I always stopped at the Gossom barn as part of my rounds at the race track. That day, as usual, I backed my practice truck up to the big barn doors and got out to see if their horses were in need of anything. That’s the way it works in veterinary practice at a racetrack. Appointments are rare. You just show up on a certain day and make the rounds. I was just greeting Helen when another horse trainer walked up to the barn and said,

“Doc, I got one goin’ tonight and he’s in over his head. Can you mix me up a little something to help him out?” He was asking for a pre-race medication. A little explanation here is necessary. A pre-race is a syringe full of a mixture of various injectable vitamins, minerals, hormones, and sometimes steroids to make a race horse more competitive on race day. It has the potential of helping a horse that is sore or perhaps lacking stamina or courage. The idea is to give them a competitive edge. This particular horseman had his horses on his farm, but knew where to find me. He was asking me to load up a syringe with what I thought would help his horse that night. When he got home, he would give it to his horse a few hours before the race. I filled a syringe for him from a few different vials. I asked him for ten dollars which he swapped with me for the medication. No receipt requested or given. The Alexander Hamilton went into my pocket.

I have to pause here to explain the pre-race medication situation. In some racing jurisdictions certain medications are allowed on race day. In others they are forbidden. At this particular time there was a “no medication on race day” rule in Maine.” This was largely ignored by both trainers, owners, and, I’m embarrassed to say, most vets, including me. It was a common belief that horses would do better with a little help. The crucial question then, as today, was not whether the medication was legal, but rather, would it show in a drug test. Drug tests from urine or a blood sample are always taken from the winner of a race, or may be pulled from any horse that the racing steward designates. Perhaps you remember Lance Armstrong, who was quite sophisticated in self-medicating before he mounted his bicycle. He was always one step ahead of the drug testers. The horse racing scene I knew was kind of like that. It may be not be legal, but this or that drug doesn’t show on testing, so it’s OK. Wink. Wink. So, true confession, I knew exactly what would pass the drug test and what wouldn’t. I wasn’t proud of it then, and I now regret my involvement in the practice. At the time I felt that if I didn’t to it, someone else would. A poor excuse for anything that is inexcusable. Plain and simple, the practice is cheating.

So, back to my story. This trainer who asked for a little help to take home to his horse made the request openly in front of Bob and Helen who were standing there with me. After he left with the syringe in his pocket Helen said , “David, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure, Helen.”

“That pre-race that you dispensed for that horse, was that for the horse’s good, or for that trainer’s?”

I kept a straight face, but I felt like she had just stuck a spear into my chest. I knew that her question was not only legitimate, but was an indictment of my behavior within the veterinary profession. When I left the track that day, I knew that I couldn’t live with myself if I continued in the same way. A very little hinge moved, and the door started swinging that day.

I believe God has a way of honoring right decisions. Within a week a friend of mine who had a solid equine practice working on saddle horses called to say she wanted to meet for lunch. Over a sandwich a few days later I was flabbergasted when she handed me a list of names. She had made a decision to retire from practice and was recommending me to her clientele. As a result I was able to leave the race track and concentrate on sport and back yard horses for my income. I said goodbye to the track and never returned. Within a year my income was not only equal to previous levels, but continued to grow and I had to hire more veterinarians to help with the load.

I was guilty of bending the rules in a culture where it was tolerated. Helen Gossom, with a simple question, brought the truth home to me. After all the winks and excuses, it all comes down to just this: Do the right thing.

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