May 2008

Doc Pat Brackett: Tougher than Your Tough

Author: Steve Flannery

Dad said to try “training your eye on the lead horse” as they thundered down the muddy track. Naturally, my eye focuses on the hands of the driver of the sulky, his hands gripping the reins tightly as the beast strains and stretches its muscles to the breaking point. The crowd urges the four-legged athlete on, hundreds of high-pitched voices screaming out the names of their favorites. We’re yelling, GO BUCKY! And we hear, Go Seabisquit! Go Hambletonian! Go Mr. Magoo! GOOOOO! Nothing is quite like attending the track—the sights, sounds and smells, the popcorn and peanuts at the concession stand, the earthy paddock area where the trainers and hot walkers, jockeys and vets keep watch over their prized stable mates, the American racehorse.

My first up-close exposure to horse racing was in the summer of 1974. We piled into the station wagon and headed down Route 17 to cheer on my Uncle Mike, who would be sitting behind “Beaumont,” his harness racing trotter running at Monticello Raceway in New York. (Man was he salty when I told him I bet against him on the eventual winner of their race, Stonegate Fury! (Sorry, Uncle Mike, I just loved that name!)

The veterinarians and “starters” who are charged with the welfare of these most fragile of beasts have their hands full, pre-race and post-race, tracking the health of fetlock, hoof, knee and bones, stressed to the breaking point at each thundering footfall of their 900 to 1100 pound frames. Of course, this job can only be held by a leathery tough, crusty, ornery, hard-bitten man… unless your name happens to be Doc Pat Brackett. She’s tough. And like the Nike commercial says, “Her tough is tougher than your tough.”

At the end of our Easter Brunch at the Westin she was told she’d have to sit through a question and answer session with me. “You probably won’t like my answers, ’cause I’ll tell you the truth, and you might not like that,” she said. Not what you’d expect at first blush from a seemingly demure woman, embarking on her 85th summer.

Born in 1923 in the Anglo-American Hospital in Cairo, Pat was two months premature. “The way hospitals and medicine were in those days, any preemie who survived was born tough,” said Pat. This incredible woman had far from humble beginnings as the daughter of a Royal Horse Artillery captain. Travels to Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) as a young teenager from Gloucestershire, England were stunted by the outbreak of World War II. Her father had to return his regiment, shipping out to North Africa. Young Pat, of course, wishes to do her part and takes a crack at joining the Navy or the Army, which deny her entry due to her age. So what does any normal 16-year-old patriot do? She lies about her age and joins the Royal Air Force in 1939 for the Battle of Britain. A bomb blast that strikes above while seeking shelter down in the Tube (The London Underground) fails to injure.

After the war ends, Pat marries an officer in the Seaforth Highland regiment and moves to his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. Their marriage ends in divorce, and Pat eventually moves to California and becomes a U.S. citizen. Her love of animals steers her to veterinary medicine and the pursuit of a degree from the University of California at Davis. Looking at the graduation picture from her class in 1962, you see 50 sparkling faces, all wearing black jackets with cute little black bow ties… except for one. Oh, and the one that wasn’t wearing the bow tie? She finished at the top of the class. A professor recommends Pat apply to the University of Pennsylvania for a residency in equine medicine and surgery; she is accepted.

After her residencies in Philadelphia and later the New Bolton Center teaching facility in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Pat spends a season in Delaware and then Maryland with clients she had cultivated. Twenty years of private practice later, we come to the event that changed how she would move forward with her professional life.

Back in the spring of 1995, she suffered some trauma while at the track. And while getting run over by a horse would be a death sentence for most women of 72 years, Pat recovered and kept going strong. Neck brace in place, she was back at the track by the end of the summer, complaining of boredom.

The vet serves as a conduit between jockey, trainer and the beast that is always a hair breadth away from injury, surgery or even death. The trainer needs the horse to run; the jockey needs to do what the trainer says to keep his mounts; the vet has to take the horse’s side. Doc Brackett has had to scratch them from a race, take the bone chips out of their knees and put them down as well—no doubt her least favorite duty. But she never wavered.

I don’t see Pat nearly as much as I would like to. She was always in the audience when her husband, Bruce, would grace us with his presence and his congas for Monday night jam sessions at Big Rocco’s in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The nights were loud and boisterous. They always ran longer than planned, but Pat would no doubt make it to the end.

Pat Brackett is accomplished; a survivor, a pioneer. In “a man’s world, she trained horses, owned horses, cared for horses, and won races. You can almost hear the type of language and “boys will be boys” attitudes that were pervasive in the stall, the paddock, the barn, the vet office. My sense is that if you were lucky enough to work with her, you’d hear her give just as good as she got. If I ever got permission to write that screenplay I have in my head and I needed some inspiration for my heroine, I’d choose someone with complexity, individuality, temper, quality and the essence of a hero. I’d only need to think of Doc Pat Brackett.

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