More than 14 million viewers tuned into the TV broadcast of the 2008 Kentucky Derby and watched tragedy unfold as Eight Belles, a 3-year-old filly, broke both front ankles and had to be euthanized on the track minutes after finishing second in the race. Coming on the heels of the 2007 death of Barbaro, the winner of the 2006 Derby, the shocking incident left the horse-racing industry trying to explain a disturbing rise in catastrophic race-horse injuries.
While Siobhan O’Brien doesn’t claim to have all the answers, she believes she has one of them. As president and CEO of OnTrack Imaging Inc., a nearly 4-year-old company based in Flower Mound, O’Brien and her co-founders Diane Pitts and Jamie L. Petty-Galis are preparing to launch a newly adapted technology that they believe could revolutionize the industry. The promising new development is an ultrasound camera that allows for an unprecedented analysis of soft-tissue damage, the catalyst for many severe horse injuries.
The technology comes via Maryland-based Imperium Inc., the sole provider of an advanced type of ultrasound camera producing real-time images at a higher resolution—and a lower cost—than traditional ultrasound technology. OnTrack holds the exclusive rights to utilize Imperium’s technology—currently used by the U.S. Navy and Air Force—for veterinary purposes. And that, says Pitts, the company’s vice president of operations, could mean far fewer serious injuries.
“If you can detect a small injury or a tear in soft tissue, you can rest the horse and let it heal or adjust its training regimen, or even quit training it,” she says. “My son had a horse worth upwards of $100,000 who suffered a serious injury that we could have avoided using this technology. Now his value is nowhere near that; we probably won’t even attempt to sell him.”
The company received an initial grant of $250,000 from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund in October, and is eligible for an additional $750,000, provided it continues to meet the fund’s goals. Clinical evaluations on a production prototype began recently at the Texas A&M Institute for Pre-Clinical Studies. The results will determine when the group can officially launch the new technology, which it hopes to do in September at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky.
O’Brien is confident it will be well-received. “It’s not a hard sell. Performance horses represent $35 billion in assets, and 20 percent of those have soft damage annually, so, of course, there is a huge economic aspect,” she says. “But there is also an incredible personal interest. We all want our horses to be healthy. When serious injury occurs, especially those that result in death, our hearts just break.”