Breeders' Cup Contender a Stem Cell Success Story

The day after winning a big stakes race in 2005, Greg's Gold turned up in his barn with a bowed tendon--the kind of injury that depresses owners and puts expensive Thoroughbreds out to pasture forever.

Not this time.

Using stem cells harvested from his own fat to repair his right front tendon, Greg's Gold returned to racing at the highest level. Now, he's one of the top contenders in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Sprint.

A full field of 14 was expected for the 6-furlong Sprint. The 11-race, $23 million Breeders' Cup will be run over two days at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J. The Sprint is Saturday.

A victory would cap a remarkable return for Greg's Gold following an 18-month layoff for the stem cell procedure and recovery. The 6-year-old gray gelding was being pointed toward the 2005 Sprint when the injury surfaced.

"We usually make riding horses out of them or they're retired," trainer David Hofmans said. "He has come back and is running very well."

A scan showed swelling in Greg's Gold after he won the 2005 Bing Crosby Handicap at Del Mar. The ligament in his right front tendon had been shredded.

"The prognosis was not very good," Hofmans recalled. "In my mind, it was the only procedure that would help the horse maybe make it back."

Typically, a veterinarian makes a small incision and uses scissors to trim out a small amount of fat near the horse's rump, although it can be taken from anywhere. The fat is shipped to the lab, where the stem and regenerative cells are isolated and the fat is gotten rid of. The cells are then returned and implanted at the site of the injury.

"Mini-liposuction" is how Hofmans describes the procedure he also calls "revolutionary."

"It's not like performance-enhancing drugs at all. It doesn't make them any better (athletes)," said Robert Harman, DVM, MPVM, whose company Vet-Stem in suburban San Diego holds the worldwide exclusive veterinary patent.

Previously, a Thoroughbred with a bowed tendon underwent surgery that created scar tissue. As a result, the tendon became rigid and couldn't stretch, which impaired its running ability.

"The tendon is a rubber band where energy is stored when a horse runs," Harman said. "If scar tissue is in there, it's no longer elastic and will break again."

When stem cells are injected into a horse's injury, they act as an anti-inflammatory that helps prevent scar tissue from forming. Harman compared it to a plastic surgeon injecting fat cells into a person's face to reduce wrinkles.

Harman is careful to note that his patented procedure does not involve embryonic stem cells, which are the focus of a highly charged political debate. President Bush has placed restrictions on federal funding for research involving those type of cells.

"They took the stem cells from him, they're not getting it from an embryo," Hofmans said. "That's a big difference."

After the procedure, Greg's Gold took a year off from racing. He slowly resumed working out, walking on an underwater treadmill for three months before jogging.

"Halfway through his training, I could see his tendon was acting differently," Hofmans said. "There was never any problem with it and he showed in his workouts that he was just as good as ever."

Hofmans is excited about Greg's Gold's chances Saturday. The 64-year-old trainer will be seeking his third Breeders' Cup victory, having won the 1996 Classic with Alphabet Soup and the 2003 Distaff with Adoration.

Wade Byrd, DVM, the veterinarian who did the procedure, is a bit pessimistic, Hofmans said.

"He's a laboratory kind of guy. He's very analytical," the trainer said. "He would be a horrible horse trainer. He doesn't see the horse all the time. He doesn't see that it's different than other tendons that I've seen in the past."

Byrd had cautioned Hofmans going in that Greg's Gold might be good for another 4-to-5 races. He'll be competing for the eighth time Saturday.

"We're using these animals for our own gain, so we have a responsibility of making sure everything is right with them," Hofmans said.

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The Associated Press

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