Saratoga Racetrack

Trainers Treating the Horses Like Human Athletes by Allen Gutowski

By Matt Hunter
Sunday, July 31, 2016 at 02:33 PM EDT

Destin in the ECB Spa at Todd Pletcher's Barn

Destin in the ECB Spa at Todd Pletcher's Barn

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Racing at the sport’s highest level, the Spa’s signature athletes suffer soreness and tightness just like humans.

That’s what keeps Carlos Melendez so busy.

"15 or 16, 22 a day. I'm a busy man. 5:30 in the morning until when I am done. That's what I do," Melendez said.

Working for 12-time Saratoga leading trainer Todd Pletcher, the 40-year veteran of the backstretch has one job: running the barn’s cold water spa machine.

“This is like therapy like the football players get when they go in the ice tub, this is the same thing," Melendez said.

“We are just trying to keep the legs cold and tight and make sure we don't have any inflammation," Pletcher said.

On this morning, the horse standing knee-deep in the water-epsom salt mixture is Destin, the Belmont Stakes runner-up and third place finisher in Saturday’s Jim Dandy.

"The water is 35 degrees Fahrenheit, that is cold, freezing water," Mendez said. "This is very nice, the horse does not feel it. You and I could not stand in it for five minutes”

“Logistics don't allow us to do it with all of them, but we try to do it after their exercise as often as we can," Pletcher said.

The Pletcher barn is one of the few with its own equine spa machine.

“Most trainers don't have it because it is a lot of money," Melendez said. "It cost $90,000, this one.”

“We decided that we were liking the results of it so we decided to buy our own and it is helpful," Pletcher said.

In a sport where results on the track are everything, Melendez looks at the Pletcher team’s run of six consecutive Saratoga titles as proof that his busy days are paying off.

"A lot of people don't believe in it but it does, it works and I know so," Mendez said.

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The Spa at The Spa - Burke Equine Therapy in Saratoga Springs by Allen Gutowski

Burke Equine Therapy

Many of the best race horses in the world, including Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, will attempt to add to their legacies at this month's Breeders Cup Championships, while others are simply trying to return to the race track. As Time Warner Cable News' Matt Hunter reports, a new facility in Saratoga Springs is helping them do that. Full article and video on TWC News.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Like the rest of us who like to start our days with a little exercise, Dr. Stowe Burke leads a three-year-old racehorse into a specially designed treadmill early Monday morning.

"We can adjust the speed," he said. "We find somewhere in the area between two to three miles per hour to be the most beneficial."

The only one of its kind in the Northeast, the equipment, known as an Aqua Pacer, is by no means your average treadmill. It allows the horse to exercise partially underwater.

"The idea here is we are giving him some buoyancy,” Burke said. “He's 60 percent buoyant, so he is not putting too much stress on that soft tissue."

The runner, who's recovering from a soft-tissue injury suffered in training, has been under Burke’s care for the past several months. Last year, the longtime racetrack veterinarian left the back stretch to open Burke Equine Therapy.

"Mostly people just turn horses out, which has varied comebacks,” said Burke, who could not identify the horse out of respect to its owner and trainer’s privacy. "Yes, sometimes time can heal all wounds, but sometimes it doesn't."

Opened last year on his family's Saratoga Springs breeding farm, Burke's rehabilitation facility also features a salt-water spa that’s designed to reduce inflammation.

"The horses tend to like it,” said Burke, who led the colt into the spa after its 15 minutes on the Aqua Pacer were up. “We only put them in for 10 minutes. The water is chilled to 35 degrees."

His team also makes use of both dirt and turf galloping tracks for horses further along in their recovery.

"We make sure here, whether the issue is orthopedic or soft tissue, to get them to a point where they are sound and they are ready to go back to the track," said Burke, 43, who used to gallop racehorses at Saratoga Race Course when he was younger.

With room for between 16 and 22 horses at a time, Burke's clients include some of racing's top competitors, including Saratoga leading trainer Todd Pletcher.

"As of the spring, 40 percent of the horses that went back to the track won,” said Burke, who’s dubbed his practice ‘The spa at The Spa.’ “That was awesome. We had four winners this summer at Saratoga."

If all goes well, Burke expects the 3-year-old colt to return to training in about two months. The Spa City native says it is that chance to help runners reignite their career that drives him.

"If you are going to get up at 4:30 in the morning, you have got to love what you do," he said.

Burke Equine Therapy