This veterinarian from Hermosillo, Mexico, followed his childhood dreams and is enabling others to do the same.
The sound was deafening as 7,700 people erupted into a thunderous standing ovation for Steffen Peters and Ravel after their final halt of their foot-perfect Grand Prix freestyle during the 2009 Rolex FEI World Cup Dressage Final.
Records were broken that evening on April 18 in Las Vegas, Nev., as they became the first U.S. pair to win a World Cup Final on U.S. soil.
As a 10-year-old Olympian with a fourth-placed finish, and now the reigning World Cup Champion at age 11, Ravel has proven himself a remarkable athlete. But his journey to the top of the international dressage world hasn’t proceeded without some tenuous moments.
Out of the spotlight in the ringside viewing stand, Ravel’s owner Akiko Yamazaki and her long-time friend Rodrigo Vazquez de Mercado found themselves witnessing “their” beloved horse make history that night.
Vazquez also made personal history that night. An Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, native, Vazquez has developed a successful surgical niche in treating tendon and ligament lesions in sport horses.
“It’s so unbelievably rewarding when one of your own [patients] comes back from an injury, carrying poor odds, and goes back out there and achieves the kind of success Ravel has accomplished,” Vazquez said passionately in a rich accent, from his home base of Equine Surgical Services in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
At 44, Vazquez has been a veterinarian for 22 years and a boarded surgeon for the past 9 years. Vazquez knew he wanted to be an equine veterinarian since he was 5 years old.
“I really feel it was my calling; I’ve just loved the horses since I can remember,” he said. “I used to beg my older brother to take me to see my father’s horses that were kept outside of Hermosillo.
“My other dream was to be a jockey,” added the 6’4″, 280-pound veterinarian with a laugh.
Vazquez’ dream began taking shape when his older brother was an exchange student in San Diego, Calif.
“I was talking to my brother on the phone, and he said, ‘I live with a horse vet.’ I nearly jumped through the phone; I wanted to meet this guy so much,” recalled Vazquez.
Vazquez met Dan Evans, DVM, over a Christmas break when his parents flew up to visit their older son. The following year, at 17, with a Spanish-English dictionary in his back pocket, Vazquez went to live with Evans.
Vazquez completed his senior year at San Pasqual High School and worked for Evans. He fondly recalled, gesturing to a large black-and-white photo of Evans that hangs on an office wall, “I owe my career to Dr. Evans, who took me under his wing and taught me everything he could. He is my foster father.”
A determined Vazquez returned to the Autonomous University of Baja California in Mexicali, Mexico, and earned his DVM as class valedictorian of 1987. This achievement also gave him a Mexico-sponsored scholarship to study at the University of California-Davis, where he completed his master’s degree and an internal medicine
In 1990, Vazquez returned to the Autonomous University as an associate professor of equine medicine and surgery, as well as attending to his own private field practice, which enabled him to treat many diverse cases.
While at the university, Vazquez assisted in designing and building a full equine surgical suite, however, he really knew little about surgeries and only a handful of “self-taught” procedures. Vazquez said, “Once again, I had to follow my little voice. I knew I needed to pursue a surgical residency.”
Luckily, his passion and persistence paid off in 1994, and Vazquez packed his bags for U.C. Davis once again.
In 1998, the newly boarded surgeon was hired at Peninsula Equine Hospital in Menlo Park, Calif. “I was fortunate to have been the primary surgeon in a horse-orientated community,” said Vazquez, “which allowed me to do surgery often and sharpen my skills.
“I’m at the hospital, and this 28-year-old, petite woman brings me this big crazy horse,” recalled Vazquez. “Other vets had tried to examine the horse. He was quirky and kept rearing, which made him very difficult to examine. But with my size and patience, I finally diagnosed the horse with a sesamoidal ligament tear.
“I wondered how this little woman handled this horse,” he said, shaking his head. That was the beginning of his long friendship with Yamazaki.
She was devastated at the news. “Maurice was my first horse after a 10-year break,” said Yamazaki. “Rodrigo explained everything to me and walked me through every step throughout the next five months, which is rare to find in this business. Maurice is now 21 years old and still sound. This experience was really the defining moment of our relationship.”
Vazquez decided to establish his own surgical practice based at Helen Woodward Animal Hospital in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. During the first few years, he often traveled to perform surgeries, lameness consultations and pre-purchase exams, while maintaining his relationships with his northern California clients.
Lynn Fuller, Vazquez’ long-time assistant, prodded him to talk about his travels to South America.
“My friend Jorge Gomez, MVZ, had clients down there and asked if I would perform surgeries there. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ ” Vazquez shrugged. Then he added, “I was picked up in armored cars, everyone had machine guns, and I would pretend to be ‘as cool as a cucumber!’
“The stables were magnificent. They had 1,600 stalls; the walls were thick and built out of rock,” he recalled. “They had a very nice surgical suite, and I would perform 10 to 15 surgeries a day, all the while, with an armed guard standing outside.”
Stem Cells And PRP
In the 1990s, Doug Herthel, DVM, of Alamo Pintado Equine Hospital, was pioneering the use of bone marrow-derived autologous stem cell therapy. Vazquez read the literature, went to Herthel’s lectures and has been using stem cell surgery for many years.
“I’ve changed the way I perform this surgery many times. I always try to improve on what we are already doing by utilizing new knowledge and technology,” he said. “About five years ago, I started working with Angela Nava, a very dynamic and professional human perfusionist. Angela’s extensive experience in the handling of blood and bone marrow in open heart and vascular surgeries in the local human hospitals proved vital for developing a very successful partnership.”
Vazquez explained his success rate: “After an extensive trial period and many, many modifications in our surgical protocol, [utilizing the stem cells along with PRP (platelet rich plasma)], we have refined it and ironed out the little kinks. We now have a precise and efficient surgical team.”
There are many horses at this point that have benefited from this technology, all the way from backyard ponies to elite athletes.
Vazquez is a large man with a heart that overflows with respect and passion when speaking of the horses and his friends.
Peters’ Grand Prix mount Floriano was one of the first horses Vazquez treated through combining the stem cell and PRP surgical techniques.
“Flori was such a nice horse; he is the one who really amazed me, to return to that level,” said Vazquez. “This technique has saved these horses from a once career-ending injury.”
Floriano injured his right hind suspensory ligament at the end of 2006 and went on to place third in the 2007 FEI World Cup Dressage Finals. Cellist 2 and Sydney, show jumpers that competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, both sustained soft tissue injuries and returned to competitive careers.
As he pointed to a calendar with a photo of Lombardi II, Vazquez’ eyes got big. “What a phenomenal horse, but I had to hold my breath for seven minutes every time he competed,” he said. “You never knew what he would do next. I did surgery on him too.”
A sense of collaboration between Yamazaki and Vazquez has also developed over the years.
“Lombardi was sent to Steffen to be sold. Steffen liked the horse, but he had not asked Akiko if he could keep the horse,” said Vazquez. “So I called Akiko, and she said, ‘I really didn’t want to sell Lombardi. I really felt he had so much talent. He just needed to find the right rider. I was secretly hoping they [Steffen] would click.’ ”
Indeed, they did, and Lombardi now enjoys retirement at Yamazaki’s farm eating carrots.
Vazquez is fond and protective of his patients, and even though he’s trained as a surgeon you can still find him doing basic care.
“I’m asked, ‘Why are you doing teeth? You’re a boarded surgeon?’ My reply is that I really enjoy the whole care of the horse from A to Z,” he said. “I believe the biggest tool we have as clinicians is observation with a very diligent physical evaluation, and, of course, then comes all of the diagnostic modalities that we have available.”
Such was the situation with Ravel, whom Vazquez has been involved with since his pre-purchase in the Netherlands in August 2006.
“When I first saw this horse, he moved so incredibly, like watching a young Michael Jordan in high school. The jump and raw athletic talent was there,” Vazquez recalled emphasizing each word. “When Steffen first rode Ravel, he could barely do eight tempi changes. He was not at any significant level then. After only a week with Steffen, the horse was doing 12 to 13 tempis.
With a chuckle Vazquez added, “Akiko had to tell him to stop doing tempis or the price would go up!”
When performing pre-purchase exams, Vazquez said there’s a tremendous amount of moral responsibility. “Anything can happen or go wrong, especially when buying this kind of horse. It’s easy to fail them for little flaws,” said Vazquez. “The goal is to decide if we can live with the flaws and perform at the level expected.”
When Ravel arrived in the United States, he ended up spending time at U.C. Davis for testing, and then he finally went to his new home in San Diego.
“Only a few months after his arrival, he sustained a tendon tear in one of his forelimbs,” Vazquez recounted. “Thanks to the collaboration of Dr. Mark Martinelli, Dr. Norm Rantannen, Dr. Michael Shramme and Jim Carr, the lesion was precisely identified and allowed me to successfully treat it with stem cell and PRP technology.”
Behind every athlete there’s a team of people to assist in maintaining and ensuring their health and wellbeing. Ravel’s groom, Rafael Hernandez, communicates anything that might hint of needing attention to Vazquez.
Vazquez also attributed Ravel’s ability to heal and learn as fast as he did as the keys in allowing him to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, with an incredible undefeated record in seven month’s time.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of [Dr. Evans] and thank him for something he taught me, as well as Dr. John Pescoe, who believed in me and was instrumental in my acceptance to my surgical residency at U.C. Davis and changing my life for good,” he said.
Vazquez said it meant a lot to share in Ravel’s World Cup victory with Yamazaki. The culmination of trust, experience, talent and friendship enabled that magic night to unfold.
“Rodrigo is one of those people who exudes the passion and enthusiasm he has and shares that with his patients,” said Yamazaki. “He has such a gift of explaining things and has taught me so much about veterinary medicine.”
About Rodrigo Vazquez de Mercado
Practice: Equine Surgical Services, a surgical referral and sport horse practice based at Helen Woodward Equine Hospital in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.
Children: Fernanda, 17, a senior at Cathedral Catholic High School; Rodrigo, 13, a seventh-grader at Saint Therese Academy. Rodrigo is often seen helping his dad on the weekends and in surgery.
Horse: Lance, a warmblood.
Hobbies: Gardening, photography and riding.