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Restoring the Horsepower : A Thoroughbred Gym in Newhall Is Bringing Legs Back From the Dead

August 01, 1986

Four years ago, Diamond Night was on the brink of Hollywood stardom. He was getting kudos for his lead role as the sensitive, mysterious thoroughbred in "Return of the Black Stallion" (critics said he was the best thing in the movie). He was living a glamorous life, eating only the finest alfalfa, getting his pick of adoring fillies. Talk to any producer in town: Diamond Night could have been bigger than Trigger.

Then the accident happened.

On a bright summer day in rural Newhall, Diamond Night was being given a light workout by his trainer, Corky Randall. They were inside a circular ring about 50 feet in diameter. Diamond Night was racing around the wall. How he loved to run like the wind. It was in his blood: Arabian stallions were bred for speed and stamina as well as intelligence and beauty.

No one knows what Diamond Night was thinking while he frolicked through the workout. His next role? Women? His investments? But he certainly wasn't paying attention as the turf flashed beneath his nimble hoofs, nor was he aware that the usually soft earth had been packed down earlier by a team of Tennessee Walkers.

Inexplicably, Diamond Night suddenly took a tumble on the hard surface, landing on his left shoulder. "He just fell," said Randall, still bewildered by the accident. When Randall reached the star, it was apparent that Diamond Night was seriously injured. X-rays would reveal 18 fractures of the radius, nine of them major.

There seemed to be no choice. Diamond Night would to have to be destroyed, overdosed with an injection of an anesthetic drug like Nebutol. He would simply go to sleep and never wake up. As far as anyone knew, no horse had ever survived a similar injury. An operation might repair the bone, the thinking went, but the recovery would kill him. A horse just doesn't have the temperament to remain immobile during long periods, and could be expected to exacerbate the injury while recuperating.

But then Dr. James Bullock rode to his rescue. Bullock is a veterinarian who runs a clinic down the street from Randall's horse ranch. Bullock and Randall had been friends for years--they both worked on the set of "Return of the Black Stallion" in Morocco, Randall as animal trainer, Bullock as unit vet.

When Bullock examined Diamond Night, he realized that the horse's show business career was over, but he thought he could save his life. Diamond Night is no ordinary horse. "He's extremely intelligent and very trusting in man," said Bullock, who is no ordinary vet. There are kindly old vets--the type who putter out to the farm in a pickup and tenderly tell Johnny that his pet goat won't make it--and there are vets who clip poodle toenails in Beverly Hills. Bullock, 40, is neither.

Except for a little old-fashioned compassion, Bullock takes a strictly modern approach to veterinary medicine. Not afraid to try something new, he was the first private vet in the country to use a Jacuzzi for horses and a high-speed treadmill that keeps pace with race-track thoroughbreds, and was among the first to use magnetic-field therapy on animals.

"Jim was the only one who would have tried to save Diamond Night," Randall said.

But the decision to save or destroy Diamond Night wasn't up to Bullock. There was supposed to have been an insurance policy on Diamond Night that would have paid off big if he had to be destroyed. But due to a mix-up, the policy had lapsed. The studio would have had a dead horse and no money, so what the heck? Bullock was given the go-ahead to operate.

"If there had been a policy," Bullock said, "the horse would have been put to sleep and they would have collected the insurance."

So Bullock and his eight assistants went to work on Diamond Night. The horse was placed in a sling, anesthetized and lowered onto a hydraulic operating table. The operation lasted 5 1/2 hours, and it was a success.

Then came the long period of recuperation. Diamond Night would have to be suspended in a sling for eight months, a predicament that would have tried the patience of a human, let alone an animal that had spent a lifetime romping and running. But Diamond Night somehow understood what he had to do.

"It was extraordinary," Bullock said. "Most horses would not do that."

Bullock's daughter Nicole, then 2 1/2, gave Diamond Night the necessary tender loving care and attention, the two of them developing what Bullock calls, "a special rapport." "He was her horse, and they really loved each other," he said.

Bullock took care of the rest. To enable Diamond Night to get around, he had a welder build a mobile "wheelchair" with a hoist that lowered the sling so the horse's feet barely touched the ground. Bullock also used magnetic-field therapy to accelerate healing--it increases oxygenation and circulation in tissue--and put Diamond Night in a Jacuzzi-like whirlpool called an Aquaciser, where he could exercise his legs on a slow-moving underwater treadmill without exerting a great deal of force.

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