12/06/2002 12:00AM

A better racehorse through science

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Four-Footed Fotos
Kentucky Jockey Club winner Soto will be pointed to a 3-year-old campaign that could begin in New Orleans with the Risen Star Stakes or the Louisiana Derby.

NEW ORLEANS - A mystique surrounds the buying and training of racehorses, where instincts and an eye for talent are prized.

But Soto's powerful rally that won the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes on Nov. 30 struck a blow for hard science. Long before Soto's first race, sophisticated assessments of his heart and breathing stamped him as a valued racing prospect. The scientific method led a German baron's family to buy Soto last winter, and it has helped turn Soto into an undefeated Kentucky Derby hopeful.

Soto won all three of his races this year. After a rest, Soto will be pointed to a 3-year-old stakes campaign that could begin in New Orleans with the Risen Star Stakes or the Louisiana Derby.

Michael Dickinson, the enigmatic trainer based at Tapeta Farm, his custom-made facility in Maryland, has been only one ingredient in Soto's success. The other is Dr. Dave Lambert, an English-born veterinarian who has been assessing racehorses for 20 years. In Soto's case, not only did Lambert evaluate the colt's potential through a series of tests, but he also used the tests to suggest training and racing strategies.

Lambert serves as Soto's racing manager, and he is a regular visitor to Tapeta. Through a combination of Lambert's assessments, Dickinson's observations, and input from Soto's exercise riders, a training regimen was designed to maximize Soto's abilities.

Soto's sire, Dehere, and his dam's sire, Crafty Prospector, were speedy racehorses, but that is not Soto's game. Lambert's tests suggested that Soto was a horse whose heart and lungs would work best running at a slower, steady pace before accelerating late in a race.

"Dr. Lambert was able to measure a lot of characteristics and determine what Soto's best cruising speed is," said Dickinson. "I train him accordingly."

The program does not end on race day. Soto's jockeys - Larry Melancon rode him in the Kentucky Jockey Club - are instructed to let Soto settle into an easy pace and make a late run. "If he did it another way, he wouldn't perform as well," Lambert said.

The partnership between Dickinson and Lambert is rare. Veterinarians like Lambert, who concentrate on buying young prospects, rarely contribute to the horses' training.

"Dr. Lambert is a scientific genius," Dickinson said. "In my mind, he's the best equine exercise physiologist in the world."

Lambert, 54, moved to Kentucky from England 30 years ago. In the early 1980's, using sonograms, he began performing heart evaluations on young racing prospects, helping bring into vogue a practice that for a time was considered an essential part of the sales process.

"I think Dr. Lambert was a pioneer in that field," said Tom Van Meter of Eaton Sales Agency in Kentucky.

Sonograms - images produced by sound - help to evaluate the valves leading into and out of the heart as well as the thickness of the heart muscle and the walls separating the heart chambers. The data produce a raw score that rates a horse's overall heart function.

"I've done heart evaluations for years, and I continue to do them," said John Kimmel, the East Coast-based trainer and veterinarian. Lambert, Kimmel added, "is not only a good horseman, but a good scientist. His initial work on equine ultrasound was very important."

Others, like Van Meter, see such physiological assessments as one among many types of evaluations that pass in and out of popularity in the bloodstock business.

"I'll tell you where it all started," Van Meter said. "When Secretariat died, they did his autopsy, and his heart was two-and-a-half or three times larger than a normal heart. About five, six, or seven years ago, it was in great favor at the sales. In fact, people wouldn't even buy a horse without doing it. As it turned out, there wasn't much correlation found between heart size and performance."

Even Kimmel, who performs heart assessments, sees limits to their effectiveness. "It's a nice tool, yes," he said, "But is it the whole story? No."

Lambert argues that heart assessment isn't just about size. He doesn't rely on static measurements, he said, but tries to bring them into play with other characteristics about a particular horse - how the animal is conformed and the way it moves.

"This idea of a big heart being so important is rubbish," Lambert said. "It's a good heart that counts, one that fits the horse."

Lambert's first impression of Soto was the colt's striking physical attributes, but his testing suggested that Soto could be an exceptional runner. Soto was "a very powerful, very mature, correct horse," Lambert said. "He was a rather obvious kind of individual with great action, so he passed first scrutiny. When I put my heart machine on him, it was a bit of a no-brainer."

Lambert's recent physiological assessments - his Lexington, Ky., company is called Airway Dynamics - have concentrated on breathing. Attaching a tiny, sensitive microphone to a blinker-like hood, Lambert records every breath a horse takes during exercise. The recording is fed into software, and Lambert can perform a breath-by-breath analysis of the horse as it runs, an aerobic snapshot of the animal in motion.

"I think it's an ingenious system that has a lot of value," said Kimmel. "It can pinpoint certain pathogens that create disturbances in airflow."

Lambert sees the troughs and peaks of performance, and his measurements can glimpse a horse's racing future. "You take traditional observation of how the horse is moving, then we put in the tests to see if the horse could be a graded stakes animal," Lambert said. "Are they able to sustain that crucial pace?"

Lambert said he has selected for purchase horses such as Thunder Gulch, Favorite Trick, Countess Diana, and Honour and Glory. He also picked out Ten Cents a Shine, runner-up to Soto in the Kentucky Jockey Club in only the second start of his career.

"I'm sure Dr. Lambert has had his successes, and I'm sure he's had his failures, too," said Barry Berkelhammer, who bought Soto as a yearling and then sold Soto to Lambert's client, the Von Ullmans. "I'll say this: In four months of training, we learned that the horse was special. Dr. Lambert was able to figure that out in two weeks."

Airway Dynamics employs scouts throughout the country on the lookout for prospects, and last December, on a routine visit to Berkelhammer's Abracadabra Farm near Ocala, Fla., one of them saw Soto. Berkelhammer had purchased the colt at Keeneland's September auction for $50,000, broken him, and put Soto into training, intending to sell in February.

Soto didn't make it that far, winding up instead in the hands of the Von Ullmans, an established German racing family that operates a stud farm near Cologne. Lambert met the Von Ullmans through a veterinary friend and traveled to Germany to demonstrate his methods. Impressed, they asked Lambert to find choice American racing prospects. So far there are just two, Soto and Graziella, an unraced 2-year-old filly.

Soto's purchase price was private, but Berkelhammer said, "I did hit a home run when I sold him. I knew he was the best horse in the barn, and they had to pay for him. I think he made everybody happy."

For now, Soto will breathe easily as he gears down during the month of December, but when Dickinson starts cranking the colt up again, Lambert and his scientific program will help structure his routine.

"Dr. Lambert's in a different stratosphere than the rest of us," Dickinson said.

And the sky may be the limit for Soto.