Fall 2016

Breeder of Success

Russell Cohen grooms champions on the racetrack, in the clinic and now in the classroom

By Rachel Slade

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Racetrack veterinarian Russell Cohen, V87, goes nose to nose with Distant Sky at Belmont Park. Photo: Alonso Nichols

“When you get fortunate in life, you share,” says Russell Cohen, V87, about his decision to create a scholarship at Cummings School.

And Cohen knows a thing or two about fortune. After decades working in the horse-racing industry, the equine veterinarian and breeder has produced a few champions. His latest is his best: the 5-year-old dark bay colt Effinex, who was named the New York Thoroughbred Breeders’ 2015 NY-Bred Horse of the Year on April 4 after finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last October. The one horse faster than Effinex was none other than American Pharoah, the first to win the Grand Slam of American racing—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup. A month later, Effinex claimed the top spot at the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and then won the Oaklawn Handicap on April 16.

In other words, Cohen’s horse is no slacker.

A burly former powerlifter with a massive salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache, Cohen has always been a risk-taker. Growing up in New York City with two brothers—three “boneheads” in total, a moniker that inspired the name of the family racing operation (Tri-Bone Stables) and the Cummings School scholarship (the Tri-Bone and Cohen Family Scholarship)—he dreamed of becoming a race car driver or a vet. Visits to the Bronx Zoo with his grandfather spawned the latter interest.

Cohen’s interest in genetics would prove profitable in the horse-breeding world.

After splitting his undergraduate coursework between Michigan State and Hofstra, Cohen pursued a master’s in population genetics and speciation at Texas A&M, focusing on the evolution of snakes. He eventually left reptilia behind, and his interest in genetics would prove profitable in the horse-breeding world. He got so deep into his research his parents had to pry him out of the lab to get him to apply to vet school. “So I decided to be a smart-ass and apply to just one,” says Cohen with a wink. When the acceptance letter from Tufts arrived, his parents gave him a choice: Go now and they’d pay, or defer and he would. He enrolled.

In his second year at Tufts, Cohen started working with horses during a rotation at the Hospital for Large Animals. There he met Hank Jann, a senior surgical resident who went on to become chief of surgery at Oklahoma State University’s veterinary school. They shared a mutual interest in weightlifting.

Weightlifters and Equine Vets

The two bonded over workout regimes, and eventually Jann asked Cohen if he’d ever thought about a career in equine medicine. Sure, he’d seen horses before—in M.S.A. Kumar’s anatomy class at Tufts.

But Cohen soon found that working on horses with Jann was intoxicating. Back in the ’80s, the majority of equine patients coming to the Hospital for Large Animals were from Suffolk Downs, a track in East Boston, which gave Cohen plenty of time to learn the fundamentals of racing medicine. “As long as it has four legs, two ears and a long nose, it’s a horse,” he says. “When you know that little about horses, it doesn’t matter if it’s a pony or it’s a high scale; you gotta learn basics.”

After graduation, Cohen returned to New York to work with the storied Thoroughbred breeder and veterinarian William O. Reed at his veterinary hospital across the street from Belmont Park. It was Reed who got Cohen into breeding. His horse, Gone West, had placed in the Wood Memorial Stakes in 1987 and had gone on to sire a number of notable horses, the 2000 Belmont Stakes winner among them. Cohen says, “I got an inkling over [breeding]. I thought it was pretty cool, and I said I wanted to do it. [Reed] told me I couldn’t do it because I had no background.

“Well, don’t tell me there’s something I can’t do.” A week later, Cohen says, he bought his first mare; her third foal was a champion.

High-Stakes Game

As a vet, Cohen has treated very high-profile clients, including Gulch (who earned his owner $3 million in the ’80s), Meadow Star (a filly with a string of impressive wins in 1990), Memories of Silver (proclaimed one of the finest fillies in the country in 1998) and Brian’s Time (a $1 million earner). Yet he admits that practicing medicine in the industry isn’t easy: “Some people care more; some care less. It’s a business, and a lot of things that we do are dealt with from a financial point of view … it’s a tough, brutal business.”

“If you learn from your mistakes and do your homework, then you dramatically increase your odds.”

He’s particularly concerned about the use of drugs as performance enhancers. “I believe that DNA beats medication, and that’s what a breeder does. You try to breed the fastest horse.” He’s been a vocal opponent of Lasix, for example, a diuretic that has proven to turn so-so horses into winners. He successfully competed without meds, but gave in when his animals reached the grade-one level, the top tier in the business. He says that medication is leaving the racing world, but “very slowly. They’re turning up the heat, and [the drugs are] being banished one after the other. It’s not clean, but it’s much better. And if I take some responsibility for that, all the better.”

Of the 33 horses bred, two have become champions. So how does he win at this high-stakes game? “If you learn from your mistakes and do your homework, then you dramatically increase your odds,” he says.

Once every two weeks or so, you’ll find him at Cummings School, sharing what he’s learned with students in Carl Kirker-Head’s equine surgery classes. He gives lectures, teaches seminars and runs anatomy labs whenever he’s needed.

The $100,000 scholarship he established is a $200,000 gift, matched by the university’s Financial Aid Initiative, designed to provide opportunities for more students to receive a Tufts education. What was his motivation? Cohen follows the gambler’s edict that sharing one’s bounty is the best way to build goodwill with Lady Luck: “I’ve made a ton of money, and I’ve been in very humble circumstances. I’ve lost everything … and I got lucky again.” He pauses. “Talk the talk and walk the walk. It’s that simple.”

Rachel Slade is a Boston-based freelance writer.

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