Surrounded by the equine elite, vet can't forget his regulars either


Jim Stewart calls the racetrack and the atmosphere that surrounds it "the last circus," meaning it's the kind of place where people smile when they are low and folks look out for each other.

"You can walk out there and yell, 'Hey Rube,' and it doesn't matter who you are, people are going to support you," said Stewart. "It's the greatest place in the world. It's the great equalizer. There are no guaranteed contracts down here."

Stewart, the unofficial official veterinarian to the horses entered jTC in Saturday's Preakness, has what most closely resembles a guaranteed contract at Pimlico, with 20 Preaknesses under his belt.

Still, during Preakness week, when he has to work with jumpy trainers and owners and animals with multimillion-dollar potential, the job isn't an easy one.

"This is not a normal week," said Stewart, 47, who has been practicing for 23 years. "This week, you have people who are under tremendous pressure and are away from home. A lot of them know us, but at one point, a lot of them don't know you. They're strangers.

"They've got valuable animals and they appreciate your input, but they still probably know their animal better than you do, unless there's something wrong with them.

"At the same time, you try and see all the people you work for 365 days a year, so they don't feel slighted because you're catering to some out-of-towner that you see for two weeks," Stewart said.

And so the day usually begins around 6 a.m. for Stewart and the five other veterinarians from his practice who share duty at Pimlico.

The mornings are occupied with visiting regular clients, treating sick animals and doing diagnostic work to get free by the time the day's racing card starts. That's when the vets need to be available in case of accidents. The day ends about 30 minutes after the last race.

"If we get out of here before 6:30 or 7 [p.m.], we're tickled to death," said Stewart.

But it's more than just a job for most of them. Of the six vets, four have ties of some sort to the training of horses.

"We like to think that all of us are in a position where we can appreciate our clients' problems because of our backgrounds," said Stewart.

"You've got to have a feel for the animal. It's no different than a teacher going into a basketball camp with a bunch of high school students. He's got to do a lot better than a fellow that's worked with a bunch of pros all his life and never worked with a kid."

A part of that feel is developing trust with the owner and trainer, so that in a race the magnitude of the Preakness, the privilege that exists between doctor and patient will not be violated if the animal is sick or injured.

"You establish very clearly that you've got some tact and some sense and some honor or you don't last," Stewart said. "You always protect the best interests of your clients and your patients."

Stewart said that during the last 20 years, no Preakness horse has bowled him over, though Spectacular Bid -- who won the 1979 Kentucky Derby and Preakness before finishing third in the Belmont-- was a sentimental favorite because he was trained by Maryland-based Buddy Delp.

Stewart also recalled the 1978 Triple Crown series, when Affirmed beat Alydar in each race.

"They were an awesome pair to be around," said Stewart. "Those two horses were striking. The rivalry was amazing. It was like the Colts and Green Bay or the Orioles and the Yankees. It was special, any year, any time. I got goose bumps just watching them."

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