The morning Justify went 'lame'

David Mattingly meets Justify
Updated: May. 18, 2018 at 11:35 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A photo-op the Sunday morning after winning the Kentucky Derby was supposed to be Justify's moment in the spotlight. But the warm glow of admiration quickly turned to a harsh glare of concern.

While being led to the cameras by trainer Bob Baffert, Justify appeared lame and unable to put weight on his back leg. It was a moment that caught everyone by surprise.

"The level of concern was, it was high," veterinarian Kevin Dunlavy said.

Dunlavy is well known for his high profile patients. Justify was the seventh Kentucky Derby winner he had treated but the first to demonstrate symptoms of lameness after the big race.  Suddenly he found himself attempting to diagnose a Triple Crown contender, worth tens of millions of dollars, with just two weeks until the Preakness.

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Time was of the essence and at first, it didn't look good. When asked how sensitive was Justify's foot on a scale of 1 to 10, Dunlavy replied, "Initially it was pretty sensitive. I would say an 8 out of 10."

Dunlavy immediately set out on a process of elimination looking for the source of the problem. First, he checked Justify's leg for inflammation, palpating the joints and soft tissue in search of any heat or swelling. None was found.

Then he checked the hoof using a medieval looking device called a hoof tester. It allowed Dunlavy to squeeze and probe inside and outside the hoof.

Justify reacted in pain and Dunlavy's diagnosis was that the Kentucky Derby winner had suffered a bruised hoof, probably the result of running on the sloppy, rain soaked track.

But how serious was it?

Dunlavy didn't know until he watched Justify walking, trotting and making tight turns. There was only one outcome he wanted to see.

"The horse is symmetrical in the way it walks, everything appears normal at a walk," Dunlavy said.

There is a 4-point lameness scale of severity. Four is the worst. Dunlavy scored Justify at a one during his examination Sunday morning.

Treatment ended up being minimal. Justify's hoof was soaked in warm epsom salts followed by a medicated wrap.

The celebrity patient was expected to be fine.

But on Monday, there were pointed questions from PETA demanding an official state examination.

On Tuesday, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission reported "no evidence of...traumatic injury" and "no evidence of lameness at a walk (or) trot."
Justify was back on the track in just four days.

"We have to do more explaining when you're dealing with a horse of this caliber," trainer Bob Baffert said smiling. "To me it was never an issue."

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