01/07/2004 1:00AM

More than one way to help the ailing

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ALBANY, Calif. - Marty's Zee, now 7, didn't make her first start until December of her 2-year-old year. But she romped by 10 lengths in just her second race, won a stakes in her fourth, and, overall, has won eight races from 25 starts and earned $292,504.

These accomplishments have come despite chronic back problems, and without regular chiropractic treatments, Marty's Zee may never have made it to the races.

"I could tell she had a problem when I worked her," said trainer Bill Mahorney, recalling her early training. "I had used a chiropractor with some of my horses before, and I've been using it on her since she was 2. She couldn't have done what she has without it."

Marty's Zee is one of many horses at Golden Gate Fields and other tracks whose careers have been saved or prolonged by alternative treatments - chiropractic work, acupuncture, or massage therapy.

One of the most notable recent examples is Ten Most Wanted, who injured his back in the Kentucky Derby and, after undergoing chiropractic care, finished second in the Belmont and won the Travers and Super Derby.

"Ten Most Wanted's spine got knocked out of line," said his trainer, Wally Dollase, adding that the chiropractic care "really helps."

Such specialized care is costly for owners. Chiropractic work or acupuncture can cost close to $200 for an initial treatment, with follow-up care around $125. A massage session, which usually lasts an hour, costs around $65.

"When I think it will help a horse, the first question I always ask owners is if they've ever been to a chiropractor," Mahorney said. "If they have, it's usually easy to get them to say yes."

Jerry Hollendorfer, northern California's leading trainer, has used acupuncture and chiropractic treatment with his horses. But such alternative treatment, Hollendorfer warns, won't make a slow horse run fast.

"They don't move a horse up that can't run," he said. "It only helps horses reach their potential."

Dr. Kerry Ridgway, who works on Marty's Zee, is a veterinarian who has extended his practice to include chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture. Ridgway experienced the benefits of chiropractic work and acupuncture when he nearly had to retire in 1986 because of the debilitating effects of Lyme disease. Acupuncture, in particular, was so helpful to him that he began to study its potential for horses.

"I've been doing this for close to 15 years, and have done more to help animals than in all the rest of my years combined," said Ridgway, 67. "And I graduated almost 40 years ago."

Ridgway said acupuncture helps a horse heal by promoting the natural flow of tiny electrical currents that run through the body. That helps control pain, he said, by releasing endorphins and decreasing inflammation.

Ridgway said horses often will respond immediately to acupuncture treatment, actually letting out an audible sigh and noticeably relaxing as they feel relief.

But as much as Ridgway believes in chiropractic work and acupuncture, he doesn't think they should be a horse's sole method of treatment.

"One thing I emphasize is that they are not a substitute for good veterinary medicine," Ridgway said. "But they should be included. Then you get the best of both worlds."

Paul Kypros is a chiropractor who works on horses and humans. He first saw his specialty used on horses when a friend took him to trainer Barry Abrams's barn in Southern California. Kypros says the chiropractic principles he learned in caring for people are "exactly the same with horses."

A former bodybuilder, Kypros says the benefit of chiropractic care is preventive, like brushing one's teeth to prevent decay.

"It increases range of motion, it helps fight off [muscle] spasms by getting rid of lactic acid," said Kypros, who owns racehorses. "Unlike human athletes, a lot of horses only work one hour a day and spend the other 23 in a stall. That's when lactic acid builds up."

Massage is another effective, and increasingly common, alternative method of treatment. Katie Maye holds a master's degree in nursing but left that profession to massage horses. She said massage can calm a horse and help it in a manner similar to stretching in humans.

"It helps alleviate soreness and tightness," she said. "They get a sense of physical and mental well being, a sense of confidence and calm."

Combine a chiropractic session with stretching and massage, and, Kypros said, "I believe a horse feels good and has better performance because his nervous system and muscular-skeletal system are at optimal function."

The bottom line with acupuncture, chiropractic work, and massage therapy is they work. Without such alternative treatment, Marty's Zee might have spent the past four seasons as a broodmare, and Ten Most Wanted might be best remembered for winning the Illinois Derby.