NORTHERN Rivers and non-metropolitan racing will be revolutionised by the opening of the new equine medical facility in Coffs Harbour.
That's the firm belief of world-renowned specialist surgeon Dr Nick Kannegieter who last Friday carried out the first three procedures at the purpose-built operating theatre included by Pacific Vetcare in their new complex at Coffs Jetty.
Where once owners and trainers were forced into the expense (and uncertainty) of transporting their racing animal to a facility in the Hunter or a capital city, even the most complex surgeries can now be carried out locally.
“It means better care for horses now that the operating theatre is so close, when once the distance and expense may have caused retirements or worse,” Dr Kannegieter said.
“All sorts of things can go wrong with a horse and if the owners don't know it already, they'll know it very soon.
“But with the advances made in veterinary science we can now carry out procedures they wouldn't have considered even a couple of years ago and can now get around 85 per cent of 'patients' back to the racetrack.”
One of the first operations was performed on handy sprinter Slick Nick with trainer Felicity Firth opting for surgery to ease a throat problem so the horse can chase a start in next July's Ramornie Handicap.
Coffs Harbour Racing Club's resident veterinary surgeon and partner of Pacific Vetcare, Dr David Johnson, said the opening of the equine hospital was the final stage of a dream 20 years in the making.
But the passion almost unravelled at the end of 2007 when seed capital promised by the Howard government suddenly evaporated after the Coalition lost power, forcing Pacific Vetcare to bite the bullet and 'hang the expense'.
“For a while I never thought it would come to fruition but with the patience and support of everybody, we bit the bullet and finally made it happen,” Dr Johnson said.
The unit has a private entry adjacent to the main surgery with a pre- and post-operative stall padded for harm minimisation, an overhead shuttle to transport the sedated animal and state-of-the-art diagnostic and surgical equipment.
More than 60 guests from both the racing and pleasure-horse communities were invited to join Dr Kannegieter soon after he completed his final operation.
Those enthralled by his quirky and humorous presentation included leading trainers Brett Bellamy, Colleen Underhill and Trevor Hardy, pioneering female jockey Julie York and the NRRA's leading owners Mick O'Neill, Ross White and Peter Wood.
Not only is Dr Kannegieter among the world's leading surgeons but his expertise was much sought after, during the equine influenza crisis.
But it's broadcasting which has earned him a cult following with his long-running 'The Horse Doctor' segment on 2KY Racing Radio drawing a huge state-wide audience.
“These days, perhaps 70 per cent of the case load is arthroscopic where we tinker with the joints of the horse,” he said.
“Putting the pressure of such a large body on those four tiny sticks of bone and what supports them above, can lead to all sorts of trouble.
“Modern anaesthetics have made operations remarkably safe, even though all that blood and bone and bits and pieces hanging out all over the place, makes the process look pretty awful.
“But the operational death rate is actually less than 0.1 per cent . . . providing you are quick and go straight to the problem . . . only time is your enemy.”
Dr Kannegieter will be a regular visitor to Coffs Harbour whenever called in to operate.
“Pacific Vetcare's operating theatre is now the 16th in the world where I've wielded the knife,” he joked.
“I just do horses . . . I leave the cats and dogs to what my wife calls 'real vets' . . . and look forward to meeting everybody soon.”