12/10/2009 1:00AM

Lava Man a miracle of modern medicine


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It makes perfect sense that Lava Man is scheduled to make his improbable comeback on Saturday directly in the wake of the annual convention of the American Association of Equine Practitioners earlier this week in Las Vegas. After all, the soon-to-be 9-year-old gelding represents at least a seminar's worth of applied veterinary research and development. And his return is definitely a roll of the dice.

If Lava Man makes his planned appearance in the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park (there's always a chance the weather could impact trainer Doug O'Neill's decision to pull the trigger), the two-time California horse of the year will be making his first start in 14 months in an attempt to win his first race in 2 1/2 years.

He also will be making his first public appearance since his official farewell, announced with great emotion during the summer of 2008 by the families of owners Steve Kenly and Jason Wood. There ensued a restive retirement for Lava Man, during which everyone who saw the three-time Hollywood Gold Cup winner in his comfy paddock at Magali Farms swore he could go back to work without missing a beat.

But being fidgety in a field is a far cry from having the psychological grit and determination to emerge from a lengthy layoff and throw down in stakes competition. Moreover, the most recent memories of Lava Man as a racehorse are not inspiring. In the six races spread out over the year that followed his whisker-thin win in the 2007 Hollywood Gold Cup, the gelding seemed to have lost the swashbuckling, killer instinct that made him one of California's most popular performers.

So if the comeback is a success, Lava Man fans can send their thank you notes to Dr. Doug Herthel and his staff at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in the Santa Ynez Valley, just inland from Santa Barbara.

In 1995, Alamo Pintado surgeons began bone marrow stem cell transplantation to repair damaged ligaments. In 2001, they commenced treatment on the cartilage between joints. To date, Herthel estimates they have done nearly 4,000 transplant procedures, a number that puts things way past experimental. Major stakes winners Well Armed, Greg's Gold, and Ever a Friend are just three of the scores of horses who have benefited.

"Lava Man was too young to just be a lame pasture ornament," Herthel said. "It would be like telling a supreme athlete, like Lance Armstrong, to go sit in your room for the next 10 years. We felt he could easily be a hunter or a jumper. I was pretty sure we could get him back to that at the very least."

For now, Lava Man's show ring career is on hold. After undergoing arthroscopy surgery for the removal of a chip in his left front ankle and a series of stem cell treatments, his rate and extent of recovery surprised even Herthel.

"We don't look at this lightly," Herthel said. "Comparing the MRIs before his surgery and then six months later shows the cartilage has increased to normal thickness. Fortunately, he didn't have a full thickness defect, because I don't think we're truly regenerating new cartilage. We're just improving the health of what's there.

"We have access to new technology that measures bone strength, and we test a lot of them when they come to the clinic when they're under anesthesia," Herthel added. "Lava Man was off the charts. To this day, he has the strongest bone that we've seen. That makes me feel pretty comfortable."

Lava Man's stem cells were harvested from his sternum. All it took was a dab of local anesthetic and the insertion of a needle.

"We're using concentrated bone marrow, and we're actually able to grow the stem cells, then use

twenty, thirty, fifty million cells per treatment into the joint," Herthel explained. "I saw some time-lapse photography of stem cells in a petrie dish. They move around, hook up, test each other, then come back around and inject fluid. It's bizarre, and actually looked a little erotic. We still don't know why it works. But there's all kinds of growth factors, and there's basically zero complications."

Neither is the cost prohibitive, Herthel noted. A harvesting of concentrated cells runs about $2,500, and the number of subsequent treatments - fairly simple injections - will vary. Whether or not stem cell treatment becomes the default therapy for certain racehorse ailments remains to be seen. It is, however, every bit as revolutionary as going from fossil fuels to solar and wind.

"This has replaced steroids for us," Herthel said, referring to the harsh traditional cortico-steroids used in joints. "We switched to the biological approach to healing some 15 years ago, because there are no drugs that really cause anything to heal. They only deal with symptoms."

Significantly, Lava Man has gone without therapeutic medications or traditional joint injections for the past six months. O'Neill noted that the horse only has been given an intravenous joint health supplement, along the lines of glucosamine.

"The last thing we wanted to do was mask anything that might be coming on," said O'Neill, who added that Lava Man would get his normal racing doses of phenylbutazone and Lasix. "I wasn't an advocate to bring him back, but now I can't wait. He's happy and doing great. Hopefully, he'll run the way he trains."

Herthel will be at Hollywood Park on Saturday, and he's allowing for feelings of nervous anticipation.

"We kept thinking something would show up and we'd have a reason he couldn't go back to racing," Herthel said. "We never found that reason.

"Horses at seven, eight, nine - that's when they should be racing," he added. "If their joints weren't worn out by then, more of them would be. Something like this could be the best thing for the horse industry, because we've got to be able to keep horses sounder and stronger, especially these horses with a following and a fan club. We've got the best product in sports. All we've got to do is manage it correctly."