Angus Adkins

published: 10 Jun 2014 in Personality profiles

Renowned equine veterinary surgeon Angus Adkins is still not sure what prompted his career path, but he hasn’t once regretted the decision he made as a teenager. The Scone Equine Hospital director, who is passionate about mentoring young veterinarians, admits “veterinary science is my life”.

ONCE the foaling season starts in August veterinarians around the nation brace themselves for the busiest period of the year. When the stallions begin covering a month later, the demand on their services intensifies even further, to quite literally, a 24/7 commitment.

It is particularly hectic at the Scone Equine Hospital, which, during the 50 years of its existence has become the largest equine veterinary practice in Australia. With extremely valuable stallions, precious broodmares, and foals who may become high priced yearlings often needing treatment, the demands on the hospital’s staff and facilities are extreme. Yet it is a time SEH’s Angus Adkins absolutely relishes.

“I still like the thrill of action and there is plenty of that in the spring,” said Angus, who is a member of the hospital’s board of directors. “We are pretty well on call the whole time and we are very busy dealing with any number of problems that can arise. Veterinary science is my life, it is what I do and what I am totally committed to. For that reason I actually prefer the spring and the busy time because I am so passionate about doing great surgery.”

This passion led to him continuing on to become a Member (Equine Surgery) of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists in 1995. In 2002 he became a Fellow (Equine Surgery) of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists, which was accompanied by registration as a Specialist in Equine Surgery. Added to that Angus has, during the past 20 years, been attending conferences for equine veterinarians in Australia and abroad, both as a guest speaker and a delegate. He is one of three equine veterinarians in Australia who decide on the suitability of racehorses for export to Hong Kong as well as assessing horses at the yearling sales for purchase by the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

A recipient of research grants, Angus has also produced a very long list of scientific publications which have been published around the globe. Quite remarkably, considering his highly distinguished record and his love of his work, he has been unable to find a tangible reason for following the career he chose. Born in 1966, as a seventh generation Tasmanian, it was while a student at Launceston Church Grammar School that he realised he wanted to be an equine veterinarian. “I still don’t know why that was,” Angus said. 

“None of my family were in the veterinary industry, but a grandfather was a farmer from England. His father had bred jumpers at Cheltenham so I think somewhere along the line the genes skipped a couple of generations and came through to me.” With his direction in life fairly well decided, Angus would spend his summer holidays from Grammar working at a veterinary practice at Longford which is in one of Tasmania’s prime thoroughbred breeding areas.

“When I was a kid my other passion was the sea,” said Angus, who still enjoys sailing and fly-fishing when the opportunity presents itself. I remember seriously contemplating whether I would do veterinary science or marine biology.”

An outstanding student he was, on finishing his secondary education, accepted into medicine at the University of Tasmania, marine biology at the James Cook University in Townsville and veterinary science at the University of Melbourne. “I still remember walking around the garden at home trying to decide on my future. I decided that dealing with sick people wouldn’t be much fun and that there were only a few jobs in marine biology.”

Ultimately electing to stay with his long-term passion of being an equine surgeon, Angus moved across Bass Strait to Melbourne. During his days at the university he became a “very keen” follower of the racing industry. “I spent a lot of time with Flemington veterinarian Ross Teitzel who I later ended up working for. While I was at university a group of us would go out to Oaklands Junction and bid on horses at the Inglis yearling sales. I think we kept missing out, which was just as well because I don’t know how we were going to pay for them if one had been knocked down to us.”

On graduating in 1989 Teitzel did not have a vacancy for Angus in his practice so he found a position at Bendigo, an historical gold mining town 150km northwest of Melbourne. Six months later Teitzel telephoned to say he had a vacancy in his business.

“It was a time when Ross’s clientele included Bart Cummings, Johnny Meagher, Gerald Ryan and others,” he said. “Understandably it was all very exciting for a young veterinarian because, particularly during carnival time, our protocols were that we would go into the stables twice a day.

“It was a very successful time for Bart’s stable and some of the horses who stick in my mind include Let’s Elope and Shaftesbury Avenue. During the time I was there Bart won the Cup with Kingston Rule and Let’s Elope, who carried all before her in the 1991-92 season. Shaftesbury Avenue, who won the Lightning Stakes and Newmarket Handicap in 1991, was an interesting horse. I remember he had a mirror in his stable and he would spend most of the day looking at himself. “John Meagher won the Victoria Derby with Star of the Realm and I remember he was training Gatana who won a couple of Group races and ran second in the Newmarket. She went on to produce Piccadilly Circus, who when later mated with Danehill produced Coolmore’s champion sire Fastnet Rock.”

The association with Ross Teitzel went on for three and a half years until Angus re-evaluated his life after enduring a health scare. “I had a brain haemorrhage and underwent surgery,” he said. “I was rather fortunate because most people either pass away or have on-going issues after something like that.

“As a result of the surgery I have a scar on my forehead which people suggest that, because I’m a Tasmanian, it is where I had my second head removed! I wasn’t able to work for five months, and when I could I took up a residency in equine surgery at the Murdoch University in Western Australia.

“When I was at Flemington I would do the basic surgical procedures myself and then I would get training in the more advanced procedures alongside Geoff Hazard who is still a very highly regarded surgeon. Geoff was a fantastic mentor for me and still is, because we speak on a regular basis.

“Then I had another wonderful mentor in Perth in John Yovich who was my supervisor. John, who is a very bright man, was very highly regarded in racing circles in the west. He raced a lot of horses himself, had a stud farm, and went on to become Vice-Chancellor of Murdoch University.

“We had a very high case load during my time at Murdoch and we had relationships with quite a few identities. I recall vividly the late Laurie Connell having a number of horses in at the clinic while he was going through the courts. One of his horses at Murdoch was a show jumper named Sparky. He would come into the clinic during the breaks from the court and stay in the stable with Sparky . . . it was obviously an escape from the pressure and rigors of what he was going through.

“Another incident I remember involved a standardbred stallion who needed colic surgery. The owner had initially instructed me to put him to sleep, but he was a beautiful horse and I had trouble bringing myself to do this. I allowed myself a 10-minute delay and was walking him to the post-mortem facility when the owner rang saying his kids were so upset that he had changed his mind and we had to operate. We did so and the horse survived for many years. As a rule I don’t answer my phone when dealing with a case and I have always been thankful that I decided to answer the call on that occasion.”

It was three and a half years into his residency at Murdoch that Angus was “head-hunted” by the Scone Equine Hospital’s Andy Palmer. “I flew over to Sydney and drove up to this hospital. I quickly realised it was a very big practice with a huge caseload, and that it was dealing with very valuable horses. I also quickly realised that being at the Scone Equine Hospital would give me the very best opportunity available because I would have access to the newest techniques being developed.

“It was obviously a great opportunity, but I had always had a couple of criteria. One of them was that I needed to be near the sea because that is one of my passions, and that I needed to be in a racetrack practice near the coast. Hence going to Scone was rather ironic.”

Within a year of settling in Scone in 1997, he and his wife Kate were married and they now have two sons Nicholas, 10, and Archie who is five. The couple had met during Angus’s years with Ross Teitzel when Kate had been assistant manager at Norman Carlyon’s Muranna Stud at Merricks North. “I met Kate on my rounds,” Angus said. “She came across to Perth with me and shared in the decision to accept the position at Scone.”

He was soon extremely busy helping cope with the hospital’s enormous caseload. Among the relatively early operations he conducted, was a six-hour marathon on the Woodlands Stud stallion Grand Lodge (USA) who had fractured a knee in a “hundred pieces”.

“We placed two bones plates and multiple screws into the knee to fuse it together. I knew it was going to be a long operation and I can remember telling our surgery co-ordinator to have a generator, and a big one, on hand in case we had a power failure. The generator arrived on a 20-ton truck and was big enough to light up the whole of Scone. “The surgery was successful in fusing the knee, but then Grand Lodge succumbed to laminitis in the other foot. That was a devastating complication for a horse who had a great temperament, and everything possible was done, including keeping Grand Lodge in a sling from the ceiling for many weeks. I attended the horse three and four times a day. I also had to write a report for insurers every day for 116 days . . . I slept for a week after the case and had a lot more grey hairs.”

While most stories from the hospital cannot be told because of confidentiality agreements, another case that came to light recently involved the Snippets mare Bahia who was in foal to a mating with Exceed and Excel. She had undergone colic surgery at SEH, had recovered and gone on to produce a healthy brother to Overreach.

That this had occurred was revealed when Bahia’s owner George Altomonte thanked Angus for his efforts when accepting the trophy after Overreach had raced to victory in last year’s Golden Slipper Stakes.

Although obligations as veterinarians prevent the SEH from advertising its achievements, it is known that some 1000 procedures are being done annually and that approximately 1000 admissions are taken each year. A distinct advantage of this has been to allow Angus the chance to widen his experience as well as giving him the opportunity to further develop his skills and his technique. This has resulted in him becoming recognised in the world of veterinarians for his knowledge of orthopaedic diseases in young animals. “I have published the most amount of my material on orthopaedic-related disease in young animals,” he said. As his reputation as an equine surgeon has grown, Angus has become an ever-increasingly sought after speaker, as well as being a delegate, at international conferences. This in turn has enabled him to keep up to speed on “best practices”.

“Over the years I’ve been invited to speak in Belgium, England, Germany, Hong Kong and the United States as well as Australia. Being a guest speaker at conferences in England and Europe really stands out. You speak to world leaders of equine surgery, which is obviously a great honour for me to have achieved and those opportunities have also inspired me to keep doing the best job I possibly can. Over the years at Scone I have really enjoyed working and operating on some of the most influential sires in Australia as well as seeing horses I have operated on as foals or yearlings going on to win premier races.”

With five registered specialists in equine surgery and medicine, as well as a highly experienced team of senior veterinarians at the hospital, there is understandably a constant exchange of skills and knowledge. Also, to ensure it maintains its place as a world leader, SEH has long had a whole-hearted approach to research and a continuing encouragement of students and less experienced veterinarians; and that is an area Angus is also passionate about.

“As well as continually upgrading and modernising our methods, we have a very strong commitment to continuing the education of ourselves and those coming through the system,” he said. “We have a practice of 25 veterinarians, and the knowledge in that practice is fantastic.

“I still am inspired by watching the young people coming through and seeing their fantastic enthusiasm. I really like seeing them go on and achieve . . . it’s something I really enjoy. I have enjoyed giving something back to the profession which has been my life and my passion.”

To that end Angus has been involved in teaching and examining students since his days at Murdoch University, and since 2003 has been an influential force behind the Scone Equine Hospital’s Surgical Internship program. Importantly, as far as his teaching and examining is concerned, from 2005 until last year he was a member of the Credentials Committee of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists. “This is a body that seeks to improve veterinary science and to provide post-graduate training by examination. I was heavily involved in taking those examinations as well as organising them.”

However, he has recently resigned from the ANZCVSc to enable him to become the treasurer of Equine Veterinarians Australia, the representative body of the nation’s veterinarians with more than 1000 members. “I am just going down the path of being heavily involved in that organisation and we will see where it leads,” he said.