As the horses haul past the rail at the Preakness this afternoon, some scientifically-curious watchers may wonder whether the horses ever have all four feet simultaneously off the ground in the course of their travels.
The question actually was settled in 1878. Gov. Leland Stanford of California had proposed the thesis to a rich nabob, who thought it all so much poppycock that he wagered a cool $10,000 against the idea. Stanford hired Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer interested in motion studies, to train his cameras on one of the governor's horses. On June 19th, as Sallie Gardner was rounding the Palo Alto track, Muybridge snapped away. Sure enough, all four hooves were simultaneously off the ground at various moments.
A century later, on a 72-acre farm in Valley Forge, Pa., a 28-year-old Philadelphia lawyer is trying to carry on the tradition of Stanford and Muybridge with The Bionic Stables, Inc.
For the past several months, Jeffrey Seder has been assembling a team of researchers who hope to apply to the traditional art of horse training a heavy dose of ultra-modern technology, including thermography, electromyography, motion analysis, oxygen CO2 ratio studies and cardiology. The team already includes:
Dr. Marvin Clein of Denver University, known as The Six Million Dollar Man, who helped train Olympic skater Dorothy Hamill;
Dr. Frederick Fregin, cardiology specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, who developed the technique of radioelectrocardiography in horses;
Dr. Marjorie Owen, of Temple University, a specialist in biomechanics and motion analysis;
Dr. Maurie Pressman, chairman of the psychiatry department at Einstein Hospital.
"I want to show people that there's no reason why you can't train a horse as scientifically as you can train a rat," says Seder. "I want to be able to take a cheap horse and make him beat a more expensive horse."
If this sounds like the timless al-chemist's dream of changing dross into gold, don't trade in your Merlin's hat yet. Seder envisions superhorses named Bionic One, Bionic Two, Bionic Three, etc., in black and white tack ("Numbers, and the colors black and white for everything," he insists. "Very scientific and devoid of emotion.") winning the Kentucky Derby sometime in the future.
Other trainers scoff.
"I can't hold much stock in cardiographs and computers," says Middleburg trainder Ridgely White, "because they can't take enough into account."
But others think Seder may be on to something.
"I like the idea," says Billy Turner, the 37-year-old trainer who conditioned Derby winner Seattle Slew. "There's definitely too much traditionalism in horse training. People say, 'We've done things this way for 100 years and it's worked, so why change?' But compared with human research, horses are miles behind. When you talk about using infra-red film to find out where a horse is heating up, that's making a lot of sense. This guy sounds like he's come up with the ultimate in modern training."
And then there is the attitude of 74-year-old C. D. Alexander, who's been raising thoroughbreds in his 14,000-acre ranch near Guymon, Okla., since 1937.He was the first person to offer horses for training at The Bionic Stables a few months ago.
"I think this fella has something," he says. "I think maybe he can tell exactly how hard a horse is hitting on one foot, whether he's rubbing and things like that. It was just something I thought might be a right smart way to train race horses."
There's a lot at stake in race horses. The American Horse Council estimates that $7 billion was bet at the tracks last year, and that 78 million Americans turned out for races. That makes racing the nation's largest spectator sport by far, bigger than football and baseball combined.
While The Bionic Stables group was drawn together largely by scientific curiosity, Seder is not adverse to having one of his horses hit the jackpot.
"I don't know one guy who likes horses," he says, "who doesn't have some kind of dream about winning the Derby. But we're essentially selling a service. We can tell people: 'We'll help your horse earn more moeny.' And we know that our training program will be safer for any horse than most traditional training."
Cardiologist Fregin, for instance, has developed cardiac monitors that transmit pulse rates from a racing horse to a trackside print-out oscilliscope. He was surprised to discover that's a horse's pulse goes from a normal rate of 30 to about 250 while racing, with the heart pumping 220 liters of blood through the arteries every minute.
"The traditional way of training is to run the hell out of horse every day to build up his stamina," says Seder. "Well, we're finding out that you have to change that for every horse. Some don't need to run every day. In fact, it's better and safer for some not to run every day."
All this is called exercise physiology, along with measuring the lactic acid levels in blood to test how efficiently energy is being expended, and measuring the amount of oxygen the horse is using, and how efficiently its muscles are working. Exercise physiology is a way of looking at the metabolic mechanisms that support exercise.
Then there's biomechanics, a way of mechanically analyzing biological behavior that involves high speed photography and computer analysis of the way a horse is moving its joints and muscles.
"You try to identify and quantify what the horse is doing," says Denver's Clein. "You get a numerical vale for everything he does and then you can plug that into a computer and figure out the best way to train him. It's been successfully used on human athletes, and I'm very curious to see if we can turn things around and apply it to animals."
"What you're really trying to find out," says Seder, "is what angles joints should be at when they're acting most efficiently, precisely what forces are being created. We haven't gotten to the point yet - and I hope we never do - of taking muscles off and putting them back in a different position. But it's very conceivable that something like that might really help a horse run better."
Meanwhile Seder is concentrating on non-surgical ways of bettering the race of horses.
And also thinking about writing a later to Lindsay Wagner, a.k.a. The Bionic Woman.
"I'd really like to offer to train her to be a jockey," he says, half in jest.