July 2019 Member of the Month: Dr. Rolf Embertson
Dr. Rolf Embertson is the TOBA July Member of the Month.
As May bloomed, Rick Porter’s grade 1-winning Omaha Beach loomed large as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). Sadly, just three days before the race, trainer Richard Mandella and Porter were forced to scratch the War Front colt due to an entrapped epiglottis. Their first call? Dr. Rolf Embertson of Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington.
Omaha Beach’s injury is one the renowned equine surgeon has dealt with before. An entrapped epiglottis “obstructs airflow and[…]essentially it’s like having restriction on your carburetor,” Embertson said. As a result, a horse suffering from the condition has restricted oxygen access and cannot run as fast. To treat the injury, he said, “the vast majority of the time, the only way to do that is to cut through the tissue.
After a successful surgery, Omaha Beach had some post-op swelling. Though the inflammation took longer than expected to recede, Embertson’s client seems to be making a full recovery. He said, “You’d like to get it all killed before you start him back into training and from what I understand, now he’s getting back out on the track and he should be able to get back to where he was before.”
Dr. Embertson has practiced at Rood & Riddle since 1986. A native of Kalamazoo, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and veterinary degrees at Michigan State University. In fact, he said, “When I went to vet school, I was not that interested in horses, although the racehorse was intriguing at that time.” That interest came thanks to classmate Claire Latimer. Embertson recalled, “She was easily the best equine student in her class. That kind of helped spark my interest more in horses, because I was kind of interested in her.”
The two fell in love and married after veterinary school. Around the same time, Embertson began subscribing to Blood-Horse and following horse racing in earnest. He attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1978, watching from the infield as future Triple Crown winner Affirmed and arch-rival Alydar battled to the wire. Embertson was hooked, saying, “So I told myself the next time I went to the Kentucky Derby, I was going to be on the other side of the track.”
Embertson left Michigan State for an internship at the Illinois Equine Hospital near Chicago. He added, “I learned an awful lot about horses that year and was able to then get into a residency program at the University of Florida. And the focus of that was equine surgery and I kept getting more and more interested in it.” He completed the third year of his residency at The Ohio State University. After a year practicing in New Hampshire, he and Claire, an equine ophthalmologist, headed to The Ohio State University.
In late 1985, Dr. Tom Riddle contacted them about a new facility he and Dr. Bill Rood were building. By March 1986, the Embertsons relocated to Kentucky and began working at Rood & Riddle. Rolf Embertson recalled, “The first three and a half years, I was the only surgeon there,” leading to a difficult, but satisfying, schedule. As the practice added more doctors, including Dr. Larry Bramlage, Embertson turned his focus to his own areas of expertise, including soft tissue injuries and genital problems from foaling.
The Embertsons couldn’t escape the twin lures of breeding and racing, however. “You know, it’s very hard to live in Lexington and not want to be involved in that business,” he admitted. They own a farm off Old Frankfort Pike, but primarily board their mares at Bruce Gibbs’ Greenfield Farm. Emberston said, “We try to raise some horses; we try to keep a couple of them to race and mostly we try to sell, but we’re at the lower end of the market. We’re not high-end.”
A team player, Embertson appreciates the hard work of his colleagues at R&R. Of Bramlage, he noted, “He’s a significant influence, really, on anybody that he works with and that makes a difference in our practice.” He added, “Actually, my wife has been really an inspiration for me to push myself a little bit. It’s been great. Actually, right now, there wouldn’t be a better place in the country for me to work. I’m surrounded by people that are really good at what we do and we all kind of push each other, which is nice.”