Tim Sullivan's Sports: In The End, Dr. Heather Wharton Could Not Beat A Dead Horse.

Mar 30, 2023 at 6:35 pm
Laoban's death was ruled the fault of the attending veterinarian, Dr. Heather Wharton.
Laoban's death was ruled the fault of the attending veterinarian, Dr. Heather Wharton. Photo: Barbara Livingston

Nearly two years after Wharton injected the stallion Laoban with a pharmaceutical cocktail she called “The Black Shot,” only to watch an ostensibly healthy horse die within minutes at WinStar Farm, the veterinarian has begun serving a 90-day suspension as part of a negotiated settlement with the Kentucky Board of Veterinary Examiners.

Wharton is also obligated to pay a $30,000 administrative fine, complete at least four hours of continuing education and has agreed to accept a written reprimand that will serve as a permanent disciplinary mark on her record.

The penalties were the product of a board investigation of complaints lodged by a pair of animal welfare organizations, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Animal Wellness Action, following a Courier-Journal report on the circumstances of Laoban’s death.

A report prepared on behalf of North American Specialty Insurance Company described in detail the fatal efforts to spark Laoban’s interest in breeding on May 24, 2021, Wharton injected the stallion with a mixture of four substances – three of them expired – and one intended to treat anemia in baby pigs, not horses. Attorney Harvey Feintuch concluded vitamins intended to be administered intrasmuscularly were instead injected intravenously; that expired Vitamin B12 was administered at five times recommended dosage and expired Vitamin B Complex was administered despite a warning of anaphylactic shock.

The Kentucky Board of Veterinary Examiners approved the settlement on March 23, but did not notify PETA and Animal Wellness Action of the resolution until Thursday. Though former Animal Wellness Action executive director Marty Irby called the punishment “sufficient,” PETA vice president Kathy Guillermo said Wharton should have lost her license.

“Her reckless behavior killed Laoban,” Guillermo said. “He lost his life forever but at least for three months, horses will be safe from this greedy woman. We hope the suspension and $30,000 fine is enough to persuade her to see horses as the wonderful, vulnerable beings they are, and not just something to use.”

Efforts to elicit comment from Dr. Wharton were unsuccessful. WinStar attorney W. Craig Robertson provided a prepared statement from the farm’s CEO, Elliott Walden, and said no other comment from the farm would be made.

“Laoban’s tragic passing has had a profound impact on everyone at our farm,” Walden said. “With more than 20 years of experience in the thoroughbred business, WinStar always has placed the utmost priority on the safety of our horses. We’ve accepted the board’s decision, Dr. Wharton will remain on staff, and we will continue to review treatment protocols. Our commitment to our horses is unwavering, and we will work tirelessly to uphold the highest standards of safety and welfare in our sport.” 

According to an investigative report prepared by Dr. Coy St. Clair for the veterinary examiners board, Wharton said Laoban had trouble gripping his mares and holding them while breeding.  Treated with shockwave therapy and non-steroidal inflammatories, he showed some improvement, but was later sent to Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital, where arthritis was found in his neck.

Following an injection, Wharton said Laoban showed improvement temporarily, but eventually lapsed “into his pattern.” 

St. Clair’s report says Wharton told him Laoban gradually came to refusing to breed, “would try and then get discouraged and that was the end of it.” 

According to The Jockey Club, Laoban was bred to 126 mares in 2021. WinStar’s Dr. Natanya Nieman, interviewed during the investigation, told St. Clair she was unaware of any other horse at WinStar being treated with the combination of ingredients in the “Black Shot,” and that the farm had changed its protocols since the stallion’s death.

“Things are much tighter,” she told St. Clair. “We have written a whole standard operating procedure.”