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Breeder of Success

Russell Cohen grooms champions on the racetrack, in the clinic, and now in the classroom

"When you get fortunate in life, you share," says Russell Cohen, V87, about his decision to create a scholarship at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

And Cohen knows a thing or two about fortune. After decades working in the horse-racing industry, the equine veterinarian and breeder has produced a few champions. His latest is his best: the 5-year-old dark bay colt Effinex, who was named the New York Thoroughbred Breeders' 2015 NY-Bred Horse of the Year on April 4 after finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Classic last October. The one horse faster than Effinex was none other than American Pharoah, the first to win the Grand Slam of American racing—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup. A month later, in November 2015, Effinex claimed the top spot at the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, and then won the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap April 16.

In other words, Cohen's horse is no slacker.

A burly former powerlifter with a massive salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache, Cohen has always been a risk-taker. He grew up in New York City with two brothers—three "boneheads" in total, a moniker that inspired the name of the family racing operation (Tri-Bone Stables) and the Cummings School scholarship (the Tri-Bone and Cohen Family Scholarship).

In his second year at Tufts, Cohen started working with horses with Hank Jann, a senior surgical resident who is now chief of surgery at Oklahoma State University's veterinary school. Cohen soon found that working on horses with Jann was intoxicating. Back in the '80s, the majority of equine patients coming to Tufts—mostly quarter horses, some Thoroughbreds—were from nearby Suffolk Downs, which gave Cohen plenty of time to learn the fundamentals of racing medicine.

After graduation, Cohen returned to New York to work with the storied Thoroughbred breeder and veterinarian William O. Reed at his veterinary hospital across the street from Belmont Park. Cohen has treated high-profile clients, including Gulch (who earned his owner $3 million in the '80s) and Memories of Silver (proclaimed one of the finest fillies in the country in 1998). The industry isn't easy, he says.

He's particularly concerned about the use of drugs as performance enhancers. "I believe that DNA beats medication." Hes been a vocal opponent of Lasix, for example, a diuretic that has proven to turn so-so horses into winners.

On any given day, you'll find Cohen anywhere top horses race. Of the 33 horses he's bred, two have become champions. So how does he win at this high-stakes game? "If you learn from your mistakes and do your homework, then you dramatically increase your odds," he says.

Once every two weeks or so, you'll find him at Cummings School, sharing what he's learned with students in Carl Kirker-Head's equine surgery classes. He gives lectures, teaches seminars, and runs anatomy labs whenever he's needed.

The $100,000 scholarship he established is actually a $200,000 gift, matched by the university's Financial Aid Initiative, designed to provide opportunities for more students to receive a Tufts education. What was his motivation? On the one hand, Cohen follows the gambler's edict that sharing one's bounty is the best way to build goodwill with Lady Luck: "I've made a ton of money, and I've been in very humble circumstances. I've lost everything...and I got lucky again." He pauses. "Talk the talk and walk the walk. It's that simple."