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Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists tackle horse health challenges

A horse gallops on a high-speed treadmill at

A horse gallops on a high-speed treadmill at the Cornell Ruffian Equine Center in Belmont on Monday June 2, 2014. The treadmill was designed to measure a horse's breathing while exercising and determine ways to help them during racing and other competitions. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

The dark bay filly stepped gingerly onto the high-speed treadmill, snorting nervously as technicians at the Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists center held her head with ropes and spoke quietly to her.

"Walk! Walk! Walk!" treadmill technician Lisa Mitchell commanded from behind after she started the machine and the filly bucked and danced. Within minutes, the racehorse walked,

trotted and then -- egged on by calls of "Come On!" and the flick of Mitchell's whip -- broke into a full gallop.

On her back, the 2-year-old filly carried wireless recording equipment attached to a fiber-optic camera that went up her nose and photographed her airway. As she ran, veterinarian Norm Ducharme watched the screen's readouts and listened to her noisy breathing.

"She's obstructed at the nostril," Ducharme told the trainer, Bobby Barbara, who was standing nearby. "Her airways are too small."

Ducharme, an upper airway specialist, is one of three specialized surgeons at the Elmont center, which reopened in April after its previous owner, financially troubled International Equine Acquisitions Holdings, closed it in 2011.

The center was put up for auction, but ultimately was sold privately to Racebrook Capital, which is leasing it, with an option to buy, to Cornell University. The Elmont center's surgeons are teaching professionals in the Ithaca school's College of Veterinary Medicine and are experts and innovators in their fields.

"The purpose is to offer as much specialized and advanced equine care as we can," said Dr. Alan Nixon, the chief medical officer. "We don't do too much that is routine."

The center is across from Belmont Park's racetrack and, for now, treats mostly the thoroughbreds there. The hope is to draw all kinds of horses from across the region, including Long Island's equines.

The facility has several specialized surgery and recovery rooms, 30 stalls, a soon-to-be operating MRI, high-tech ultrasound and nuclear scintigraphy machines to detect soft tissue and bone injuries, a paddock for lameness exams, and the treadmill, for diagnosing airway problems.

"To have this facility here, where you can walk across the street, it saves so much money for the owners. And the vets, well, Ducharme is a big name in the business," said Barbara, who said the owner for whom he works bought the filly at auction six weeks ago. While the horse seemed fine before the sale, she developed breathing issues during training.

"I had never seen a horse blow that hard in my whole life," said Barbara, who later conferred with Ducharme about options, which ranged from waiting to see if the horse grows out of the problem to surgically removing her septum.

Ducharme said he always opts first for what is least invasive. "That surgery is a big deal," he said, but when necessary, he has an array of techniques he has pioneered to address breathing difficulties.

The Cornell specialists work with the owners' regular vets, who refer the cases and later take over the horses' recovery and rehabilitation.

"We work with the referring vet to enhance care. We provide expertise in areas where they run out of options," said Dr. Lisa Fortier, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in regenerative medicine.

So far, the center has done more than 100 surgeries, sometimes as many as six procedures a day. The center will hire a full-time clinic director and a staff of more than a dozen who, by late July, will handle emergencies of all kinds.

Fortier said the vets want to get out the message that the center is for all horses -- not just those at the track.

"Reaching out to the show horses and standardbreds is a little more challenging, because they associate us with the Belmont track. But we also treat sport and performance horses, whether they are barrel-racers or dressage horses," she said.

Last week, Nixon, an advanced fracture and joint repair specialist, was treating a European warmblood show jumper's leg injury with a stem-cell technique he invented a decade ago. The concept is to take stem cells from the horse's own body, grow and harvest cells, then inject them at the injury site to help regenerate cartilage.

"We think we get better results using the body's own cells," said Nixon, who has been at Cornell for 28 years.

The vets try to get the horses back into working form quickly. Sometimes, though, that is not possible.

"I had a trainer in here this afternoon and the X-rays suggested that the horse's fetlock joint is just worn out," Nixon said.

"I simply said to him, 'This horse needed to be retired. He's in danger of breaking something.' "

Asked about the fate of such horses, the doctor said, "We always worry about that. The issue boils down to, is there any way that this horse can be made into a jumper, or some other second career?"

Some horses that don't have a future in racing or jumping may find another purpose at Cornell. The university has a breeding program and uses donated equines to teach students and do research.

And if a problem arises at the center that requires even more expertise, the vets can turn to the resources of Cornell. Said Fortier: "We always have the mother ship."

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