Making better horses out of thin air?

The Examiner is a newspaper that covers news centered around Allentown, New Jersey’s hotbed of horse farms, and other areas around the state.

Because it does, I glance at it from time to time, and paused last week to check out a headline reading, “Hypoxic training takes professional athletes to another level.” Sounded interesting, with color pictures.

Then the subhead, in small type, caught my eye.

It read, “Master runner, world champ boxer and Hambletonian winner all use high-altitude training.”

Hambletonian winner on high-altitude training? Broad Bahn, winner of that $1.7 million trotting classic for 3-year-olds at the Meadowlands? A winner of $1,020,000 this year who finished five times first and four times second in 12 starts.

The Examiner story, by managing editor Jennifer Kohlhepp, was a long one, well written, dealing in the lead and early paragraphs with Dina Alborano, who started running at 9, set junior records at 10, and won a full track scholarship to Villanova a few years later. Now 44, Alborano is the second highest ranking master 5-kilometer runner in the world. Ms. Kohlhepp wrote, “Alborano has taken her training to a new level, 20,000 feet above sea level, with high altitude training.

It turns out Alborano’s husband, Don Carmody, an athletic trainer for 20 years with a background in mechanical engineering and design, combined his talents and built a full gym with a chamber replicates the oxygen level of a base camp of Mount Everest. Air normally is made up of 20.7 percent oxygen, but Carmody’s athletes train in an atmosphere with an oxygen level of 10 percent.

“It’s like pumping weights while running,” he told Ms. Kohlhepp, saying that “everyone from Michael Phelps to Lance Armstrong to Tiger Woods has used it.” Everyone includes featherweight boxing champion Yuriorkis Gamboa, who hopes to move up to the welterweight division and fight Manny Pacquiao.

And, apparently, $1 million Hambletonian winner Broad Bahn.

Carmody and Alborano figured if the benefits of high altitude could lower her ranking from number 23 in the United States to number 2 in the world, and cut a minute off her 5K time in six months, it should have similar results for horses.

“We simply want to make the equine world stronger, faster, and healthier,” Carmody says. So they built climate-controled horse stalls, with floor-to-ceiling kickboard, rubberized walls, a pure-air monitor, a power-failure ventilation system, and generator limiters that simulate high-altitude training, and sold the first one to Australian Noel Daley, one of the top trainers in North American harness racing, based near Carmody in New Jersey.

Daley began using hypoxic training for Broad Bahn’s Hambletonian prep six weeks before the Hambletonian.

“I wanted to do everything possible to help him, but he obviously had been a good horse before the Hambletonian,” he said. And he still is. Racing away from New Jersey since, Broad Bahn finished fourth in the $500,000 Colonial at Chester, Pa.; won the $122,420 Zweig at Tioga Downs in New York; finished second in an elimination for the million dollar Canadian Championship; and then ran into disaster in that major race, finishing 10th. He came out of the Canadian race in good shape, training well since.

So where, what and when does racing address its newest problem, if in fact hypoxic training fact is one. Is there any reason to do so? Is hypoxic training a magic cure? Don Carmody may have answered the questions. “It’s a drug-free technology whose by-product is better health,” he said.

Noel Daley thinks the unit helps some horses, but not others. He says if a treadmill could be installed in the units, so that the horse could replicate actual training during his stay in the chamber, it would be a big step forward.

One thing seems certain. News that Broad Bahn won the Hambletonian after simulated high-altitude training, and that Big Bad John, winner of the $600,000 Little Brown Jug in Ohio for 3-year-old pacing colts, also did some thin-oxygen training in a unit in Lexington, Ky., back in July, will lead to others using and buying the machines, and that “others” includes Thoroughbred trainers. Big Bad John’s trainer, Ron Potter, says he had sent his charge to Kesmark, across from Keeneland and primarily a Thoroughbred rehabilitation center, for swimming and general overall improvement from a few respiratory problems, back in late June and again in late July. That overall rehab program included a hypoxic chamber there, but it is doubtful high-altitude training would affect performance one way or the other seven weeks after the fact.

When innovation occurs, breed lines – otherwise an unfortunate detriment to racing – disappear. As a very wise racing man once said, “If they tied a balloon to a horse’s tail, and he won by six lengths, the next morning the training track would look like barrage balloons over D-Day in France.”

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