‘Dream Team’ Veterinary Surgeons Now at Belmont

Horse owners out here no longer need to send their animals far afield should surgery or preventive care be required
Cameron Gurney, a former Amagansetter who helped bring Cornell’s vets to Long Island, rides, but only to amuse his daughters. Janet Charles

Cameron Gurney, a former Amagansetter who’s in charge of large animal care at Cornell University’s Hospital for Animals, would like horse owners out here to know that now they no longer need to send their animals far afield should surgery or preventive care be required, given the fact that Cornell’s vet school has taken over what had been an abandoned $17 million clinic near Belmont Park.

“We took it over in the fall, and we’ve got a dream team of surgeons,” said Gurney, who has been in the breeding business himself, in Somers, N.Y., and, more recently, in Cazenovia, where he lives now, during the past two decades.

The money to build the 22,000-square-foot clinic, named after the former world-class filly Ruffian, came from the syndicate that owned Big Brown, the 2008 Kentucky Derby winner, he said.

“But the owners went out of business within a year. I visited it with Dr. [Norm] Ducharme, of Cornell, who’s developed a new type of throat surgery that eases breathing problems, about three years ago. He thought it was great and said he’d be willing to come to Long Island if Cornell could take it over.”

“Dr. Ducharme is the draw — he’s got a great reputation. People send their horses to him from all over the world. I was to take another tour through it, with a Nassau County developer, Patrick Silberstein, who happens to be the father-in-law of my former brother-in-law, Butch Dahlman — it’s all connected to East Hampton somehow. Patrick helped value the property accurately at about bought $4 million at auction, and expressed an interest in doing it with Cornell. In the end, however, the dean of Cornell’s vet school [Dr. Michael I. Kotlikoff] worked out a very friendly eight-year lease-to-own deal with Racebrook Capital Advisors, which is financing a $50 million Animal Processing Center in a 122,000-square-foot former hangar at J.F.K., the goal being to process up to 50,000 animals there per year.”

Gurney, the clinic’s project manager, who rides, he said, in reply to a question, but only to amuse his daughters, has been coming down every week since November. “It was bizarre. Everything was laid out. We cleaned it and brought it back online, inventoried everything, and opened April 1 with the dream team of veterinary surgeons I mentioned — Dr. Ducharme, Dr. Alan Nixon, who is also a top surgeon and writes textbooks, and Dr. Lisa Fortier, a world-renowned regenerative tissue specialist.”

“We’ve done 65 surgeries so far,” Gurney said. “Most of them have walked across the street. Belmont Park stables 2,500 horses there, and Aqueduct, up the road, stables 1,200. It’s ideally situated.”

Asked if the clinic would be working with the Belmont Stakes horses, Gurney said, “If they get injured.”

“We’re hoping it will be a win-win for everyone,” he added. “For instance, Long Island horses with colic, which is very common in horses and can be fatal, will no longer have to ship them over a bridge. They can stay on Long Island. With these top surgeons available here, we’re hoping our Long Island caseload will build, and that Cornell’s will build as well.”

“Ruffian’s another story,” Gurney said in answer to a question. “You remember the Battle of the Sexes between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. . . . They had that in horse racing too. Ruffian was the best 3-year-old filly in the world, and she went up against the best 3-year-old colt at Belmont in a match race. She broke down during that race, which drew a crowd of 150,000, and had surgery there. She started running in her sleep and refractured her leg and had to be put down. There’s a monument to her in the infield at Belmont Park. The former owners named their clinic after her, and they gave Cornell permission to retain the name. It’s now called Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists.”

“I’m very proud of my role in this,” he continued. “It’s a beautiful building and enlarges the purview of Cornell’s veterinary medicine. The work that’s done here — all these vets have their own labs — may well lead to exciting research, which will lift all horses, if not all boats.”