The Truth About Lava Man's Historic Comeback

As many of you know, Lava Man makes his much anticipated and publicized return to racing on Saturday at Hollywood Park in the Native Diver Handicap. It will be the first race for the 8-year-old gelding in nearly 17 months after returning from retirement. A seven-time grade I winner and earner of more than $5.2 million in his remarkable career, Lava Man is the most lucrative claimer in Thoroughbred history. He is a legend of racing and especially on a slow weekend, all eyes will be focused on him.

Since his comeback was announced, many of the stories and comments written by journalists and bloggers have been negative. "The owners are greedy," "he has nothing left to prove," and "if something happens to him it will be a black-eye for the sport," are just some of the things people have said about this comeback attempt.

I am here to tell you, these comments are uneducated, foolish, and completely without merit. And I tell you this after speaking at length with people who know the facts, not members of fanatical groups who claim to love animals or people who have nothing better to do but complain about the negatives that go along with our sport.

Here are the facts about Lava Man's return to racing. They come directly from trainer Doug O'Neill, Magali Farms manager Tom Hudson, and Dr. Doug Herthel, a nationally renown veterinarian in stem cell therapy and founder of The Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center (APEMC) in Los Olivos, Calif., who has been performing groundbreaking studies, research, and stem cell therapy on animals since 1995. Among his former clients are exotics animals of pop star Michael Jackson and horses of former president Ronald Reagan. His work may one day soon not only change horse racing as we know it, but also enable humans to live more pain free and active lives. The stem cell research is that exciting and as Dr. Herthel puts it, "it is the future of medicine." I apologize in advance for the length of this story and I am sorry that I cannot explain it as skillfully as Dr. Herthel could--there is simply too much involved--but I will do the best I can on a complicated situation and have included a link at the bottom of the story to help. It is a story that must be told--if anything to dispel the absurd rumors about Lava Man's comeback. I hope The Blood-Horse will one day soon do a more exhaustive study of this important subject.

When Lava Man was retired in July, 2008 after a sixth-place finish in the Eddie Read Handicap, his owners, STD racing and Jason Wood, never had a single thought of returning him to the racetrack. The plan was to retire him to Old Friends in Kentucky to live out the remainder of his life. But his ankles were shot. They were "bone-on-bone," as Tom Hudson put it. So Hudson, who operates Rich and Gaby Sulpizio's Magali Farms in Santa Ynez, California, was given the job of nursing Lava Man back to health so that he could be sent to Old Friends in the best possible health.

"He had so many issues at that time," said Hudson, who received Lava Man on Aug. 4, 2008. "His ankles were so bad we had to just let him down; they were like softballs. He couldn't even go to the pasture. He was too sore. He was lame.

"We had one groom that worked with him six hours per day for five months. He spent an incredible amount of time with him, just using ice and heat. We didn't even have any x-rays; we had no idea what was going on. After a period of time, we saw gradual improvement. We were able to walk him six or seven times per day. It was all normal therapy. We finally got it so that he could walk pretty good and then jog. We were then able to turn him out."

Just prior to Lava Man being sent to Old Friends, Hudson, by chance, attended a conference hosted by Dr. Herthel who was speaking about the successes of stem cell therapy in horses. As best I can explain, stem cell therapy is "using bone marrow, which contains growth factors, cells, and fibrinogen, which in turn helps facilitate healing of damaged tissues." After a lengthy conversation, Dr. Herthel suggested getting X-rays for Lava Man to see the extent of his injuries. He was intrigued. Using his own money, he decided Lava Man was a prime candidate for stem cell therapy.

It is important to note, at this point, there was still no thought of returning Lava Man to training. Dr. Herthel believed the stem cell therapy, like he had seen in many of his other patients, would help Lava Man live a more pain free life and be a productive horse in retirement; perhaps even a useful working horse.

After beginning stem cell therapy, the changes were not only immediate, but amazing. Within four months, Lava Man was "ripping around" the pasture and his ankles began to improve at an alarming rate. MRIs were taken. More dramatic improvement was noticed. More stem cell therapy was done every two to three weeks for about four months. Dr. Herthel spent several days at the farm analyzing Lava Man.

At this point, Dr. Herthel suggested that Lava Man begin jogging, which he did two or three times a day for a month.

"He was pulling his rider," Hudson said. "His ankles were getting better every day. The more we galloped him, the sounder he got. It was incredible. There was about a quarter of an inch of cartilage that re-grew that we had never seen before. The orthopedic people couldn't believe it. At this time, I showed it to Doug (O'Neill) and the owners."

It was at this point that Lava Man was returned to O'Neill's barn in September for training. More on that in a moment.

But another important point to note at this point is that Lava Man's return was not an experiment. Dr. Herthel has been performing these kinds of stem cell procedures for nearly 15 years with tremendous success. His medical colleagues also performed them on humans with success, on areas such as tendons, rotator cuffs, and achilles injuries. Though many of Dr. Herthel's transplants are performed on other breeds of horses, there are several examples of previously retired Thoroughbreds that have returned to the racetrack with success; but at this point they are not widely-publicized. Dr. Herthel details a couple examples below, as well as the exact procedure used on Lava Man.

"Recently a horse by the name Ever A Friend was retired due to ankle arthritis. He had similar MRI's and bone scans and lameness as did Lava Man and went through an identical therapy program. He has recently won his first race out and came in second in his second race out and remains sound.

"In 2000, a racehorse by the name of Flick owned by Judy Carmel was treated with bone arrow for bilateral proximal suspensory ligament tears. He successfully went back to training and racing at age 8 and ran his fastest career race.   He was retired sound and became a riding horse until recently he was pasture retired at Old Friends in Kentucky. 

"Lava Man's treatment consisted of arthroscopic evaluation of both fetlock joints, chip fracture removal of the left front, and cartilage scoring evaluation. He was also examined with X-rays, nuclear scintigraphy, and MRI.  He was treated with bone marrow and expanded autologous stem cells. He received 10 million cells per joint once a month for two months and then received 50 million cells once a month for 3 more months. He returned to work after being turned out into pasture and went back to work sound. He has been on no medications for the last one and a half years except for sedation and anesthesia for procedures. He continues to train on no medications. His last stem cell therapy was three months ago. His recent bone scan after training at Hollywood Park was normal."

Since Lava Man has been returned training at Hollywood, O'Neill and his team have seen a completely transformed horse. They say his ankles are like that of a 2-year-old. He has had more medical and diagnostic tests done than any horse they have ever seen. He is the picture of health and most importantly, he is yearning to return to the racetrack. He is horse who loves to run. He lives for the racetrack.

"At the beginning of this, we all thought this horse had done way too much to return to training," said O'Neill, who has decided to donate all of the training fees he receives from Lava Man to the California Retirement Management Account. "But after all that has transpired, with the care of the grooms, Tom Hudson, the head of the best West Coast stem cell research facility around, all the MRIs, X-rays and tests, what we have seen in training, we feel very confident that he is sound. We are very excited. We will take it one race at a time and see what happens.

"Believe me, we knew we'd hear all the stories about greed and all the risks of what would happen if he was injured. Once the rumor mill started, I received many emails, most of them anonymous, telling me how we were hurting the horse. I've been in this business long enough to know the risks. But there are risks every time you step on the tack and the gates open. This horse has full body scans and everything else. He is as clean as a whistle. There is no pressure at all from the owners to run him. He is a happy horse.

"He was a horse during most of his career---when he was 3, 4, 5, and 6---who had chronic feet problems. Now, with time off and therapy, he has re-grown a whole new hoof. It's remarkable.

"This is very exciting for science. It could lead to more horses having longer careers and being retired soundly."

Dr. Herthel, who will be a presenting at a groundbreaking stem cell symposium next year, may have summed it up best by saying: "Horses may pave the way to improving human physical health. The idea is to prevent and heal, not by using medications, but by improved nutrition, stem cell and bone marrow procedures. This is the future of medicine."

Because he is much better at explaining his stem cell work over the past 15 years, here is a link to Dr. Herthel's groundbreaking research.

Dr. Herthel also tells me that he did work on an other well-known horse you may have heard of--Fusiachi Pegasus--who had "similar lesions and a very similar bilateral arthroscopy surgery in which we removed scar tissue and chip fractures from his fetlock joints one year before he raced in the Kentucky Derby. He rehabed at APEMC and was maintained on the same anti inflammatory and bone enhancing functional diet as Lava Man was for the last 14 months." 

Let's all hope Lava Man can be catalyst for the future. He is in good hands. This is a good thing people.



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