As Janice Runkle stood in the tack room doorway at the Pimlico barn waiting for the Preakness, she looked like a character in a romantic novel. She wore a long, flowing, designer dress and a corsage of roses and carried a rose bonnet.
A May bride, perhaps? No, she was the veterinarian for the barn's most illustrious occupant, Pleasant Colony.
"We felt that someone should carry the roses or have them on during the Preakness, as a representative of what he (Pleasant Colony) had already done," said Runkle, whose "patient" won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and is the favorite in the Belmont Stakes Saturday.
Runkle, 27, of Brookville, N.Y., is the only woman veterinarian among the 20 who practice at Belmont Park. "I'm more sensitive about being young than female," she said. "I'm just any vet doing a job; there is no reason that being a girl makes it different. I just want to be treated with respect."
Runkle went to New York after graduating from veterinary school at Michigan State. "It was all prearranged. I knew I wanted to work in New York at the race track. I had planned that I wanted to work around the best horses."
Things were slow at first. "You can't just stroll into any barn at Belmont and say, 'Here I am, I want to be your vet.' You have to wait for them to come to you." She stayed up nights and waited for the inevitable emergencies to arise. She also stayed on Long Island while most vets traveled to the prestigious Saratoga meeting in August.
"All the trainers can't take all the horse to Saratoga. If they have a 40-horse stable, at least 15 or so must stay at Belmont. So eventually some of the trainers gave me a chance. If it wasn't for that, I would have had a harder time."
One such trainer was Johnny Campo. "He thinks girls are bettere handlers around horses," she said. When Pleasant Colony joined the Campo stable in March, Runkle was chosen to travel with the horse to Kentucky and Maryland, with all her expenses paid for by owners Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mellon Evans.
"I'm sure he didn't know what he had (in Pleasant Colony)," Runkle said. "We both saw the horse in Florida and he was rather feisty in the paddock. I thought he was a gorilla; it was a horror show. But now he is completely relaxed. He has a perfect disposition in the barn."
She credits his new disposition to Campo's training methods, particularly longer workouts, usually two-mile gallops. "He blossomed, he started to eat better and everything. I would say that the longer-distance gallops are the single thing that can be attributed to his success."
Asked about Runkle, Campo was his usual modest self. "I don't want anybody to think he needs a vet all the time," he said over the telephone."I don't want anything taken away from Johnny Campo."
Pleasant Colony is so relaxed, "On the night before the Kentucky Derby, Campo and I took Jimmy the Greek to the barn to see the horse, and there he was fast alseep," Runkle said. "We walked right in the stall and he never got up." She added that Pleasant Colony was snoring the afternoon before the Preakness.
Runkle's schedule involves getting up at 4:30 a.m. and jogging from her cottage to the barn at the riding school where she lives and keeps her two show horses. At 6 a.m., she goes to the track for breakfast, and at 6:20 she accompanies Pleasant Colony on his morning workout.
She usually finishes by 3 p.m. "It's the same thing seven days a week, 365 days a year," she said.
She doesn't worry about how she would handle an emergbency if anything ever happened to her No. 1 patient. Rather, "I worry I won't be there or that I'll be 20 minutes way, sipping a soda," she said.
In addition to her work with Pleasant Colony, Runkle is working on several long-term projects. One is researching longevity in horses, and working the information into a book. The other is writing a children's book, "Piggy Bank and the Magic Peppermint Penny," which Runkle and a friend plan to publish and give to charities and libraries. "I believe in charities and as I grow older I want to help. I was raised with a family that had plenty but we were taught we were fortunate. My sister gives totoally, working for a medical clinic for nothing."
Runkle's love of animals can be seen in her choice of pets. She has two rats, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One of them was her first patient in vet school; she removed a fatty tumor he had developed. She also has Mr. Four, a racing turtle, and her dog, which Runkle delivered by cesarean section in preventerinary school, lives with her parents in West Bloomfield, Mich.
Runkle also occasionally cares for the 100 horses boarded at the riding school, often treating the children's animals free of charge. "I was attracted to animals from the time I was a kid," she said. "All the other kids would play with dolls, but I only wanted to play with stuffed animals."