It's like a piece of Kentucky, hidden in the hills east of Redmond and overlooking the Snoqualmie Valley. Pegasus Training and Equine Rehabilitation Center, the vision of heart surgeon Dr. Mark Dedomenico, has the lush pastures, immaculate barns and fences that mark the finest horse farms in the Bluegrass State.
But behind the bucolic exterior, some serious science takes place. Part research hospital, part equine Club Med, the 100-acre compound is a state-of-the-art training and rehabilitation facility that combines Dedomenico's two passions: medical research and Thoroughbreds.
Besides getting injured horses back to the racetrack, Dedomenico — a pioneer of open-heart surgery and one of the founders of Seattle's Hope Heart Institute — is conducting experiments that could have implications for humans, too.
Dedomenico, 73, is so fit he could pass for 20 years younger. And although his demeanor is low-key, his devotion to medicine comes through as he talks about the medical research — on humans and horses — that has been his focus since he quit performing surgery more than 20 years ago. That fuels him as he works full time at Pro Sports Club, which he owns, and weekends and mornings on the farm.
"I love to get up every morning," said Dedomenico, who lives on the property and can watch horses work out from his house.
Pro Sports, with 50,000 members and gyms in Bellevue, Redmond and Seattle, is known for its upscale facilities and large contingent of Microsoft employees. Likewise, everything is first-class at Pegasus, which opened in 2005. Stalls have mattress floors, walkways are paved with rubber bricks and the four-legged tenants are constantly pampered by grooms. Each horse even had its own Christmas stocking.
"As soon as a horse gets here, I insist that people start petting them and paying attention to them," Dedomenico said.
Owners and trainers from across the country — and as far away as Dubai — have sent horses to Pegasus to train or rehabilitate. One of the horses to spend time at Pegasus is Blind Luck, who won the Eclipse Award this week as the top active female Thoroughbred in North America. Dedomenico is half-owner of the horse, which spent a couple of weeks at Pegasus last winter.
"It is on par with the finest places in Kentucky, and the places in Kentucky don't have some of the facilities he has," said Jack Hodge, vice president of Emerald Downs and a prominent horse owner who once sent a yearling to Pegasus. "It is difficult to recoup your costs building a facility like that, and it just shows the passion (Dedomenico) has for the entire industry. He is very concerned with new techniques, from a racing and rehabilitation point of view."
Pegasus has 17 buildings and a staff of about 40, including five full-time jockeys and 10 grooms, many of whom live on the property and care for the horses 24/7.
Mark Dedomenico Jr., 44, oversees operations for his father and keeps the farm spotless and uncluttered. Anything to keep the horses safe.
"That's why you won't see anything broken or half-done," Dedomenico Jr. said.
Business is brisk these days, with 52 horses in training (mostly young horses getting ready to race) and 44 rehabilitating injuries.
Horses train on a 5/8th-mile track that surrounds a large pond with a fountain. The starting gate came from the old Longacres racetrack in Renton, which closed in 1992. The surface of the training track and the indoor arena where young horses train is Polytrack, also used at famed Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. It is believed to be safer for horses and jockeys.
At the gym and farm, Dedomenico Sr. refuses to accept conventional wisdom: that an injured horse can't be as valuable as before, and that humans require medication for certain chronic conditions.
The 20/20 Lifestyles program he developed two decades ago uses nutrition and exercise to help people manage Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure without drugs.
Horses often weigh more than 1,000 pounds and can hit speeds over 35 mph, putting amazing forces on their fragile legs. Specialized therapies help speed recovery from what could have been career-threatening injuries.
"Horses that were worth $100,000 before they were injured, become worth $50,000," said Dedomenico. "We're trying to stop that."
Prices vary, including training ($55 per day), rehabilitation ($60 per day) and hyperbaric chambers ($250 per treatment or $1,000 for five).
Areas of research
There are four major research projects taking place at Pegasus, in collaboration with other equine-health experts:
—Detection and treatment of osteoarthritis: "We have a bio marker for osteoarthritis. I can measure how much osteoarthritis is going to occur by the bio marker that is building up in the blood," Dedomenico said. "In horses, if you go into their knees (surgically), they are going to start having osteo in two to three years. Now we've figured out a way to stop that, or slow it down considerably."
—Knee injuries: The specialized equipment at Pegasus is key to experimental treatments on middle-knee injuries. Twelve horses are undergoing conventional treatment, while 12 others are using hyperbaric chambers, swimming and underwater treadmills to stop the progression of osteoarthritis. "It seems to be working because the horses that have gone out of here have not only won at the level they were winning before, but three have gone on to win graded races," Dedomenico said.
—Plasma treatment: Another project in the early stages involves using platelet-rich plasma in injured horses. "Platelets carry a lot of growth factors, so it kind of seems to form a structure that things can grow on a little bit," Dedomenico explained.
—Stem cells: Pegasus is working with stem cells in suspensory and other ligaments, Dedomenico said. "It is our opinion that stem cells don't go in and become a new cell — in other words, you don't inject stem cells into a hole in the tendon and then they fill it in and create all these new cells. It looks like they're kind of like architects, they go in and begin to direct what should happen and how to heal that area. We're getting good healing."
He compared that to human stem-cell research. "It's interesting — we're looking at stem-cell patches on areas of the heart, where somebody's had a heart attack, and what it can do for them. We can find out right here a lot easier, then we can take it to the human. It's not going to be any different in the human."
The research in horses is pure science, with equal numbers receiving experimental and conventional treatments. And Dedomenico, while expressing optimism, cautioned that no conclusions can be drawn until all of the horses have gone through the entire process.
He collaborates with other experts in the field, including C. Wayne McIlwraith, director of Equine Orthopaedic Research Center at Colorado State University.
Dedomenico's passion for horses comes from his late father, Paskey, who owned several horses that competed at Longacres. Longtime race fans may remember his stable of horses with Roni at the end of their names — Sing A Roni, Luv A Roni, Heather Ala Roni — references to Rice-a-Roni, a signature product of Golden Grain Macaroni Co., which the family founded.
Mark Dedomenico Sr., who attended Seattle's Franklin High School, spent years overseeing Golden Grain — while still finding time for medical research — before it was sold in 1986 to Quaker Oats.
Dedomenico became a horse owner early: He was 30 when his father sold him a horse with a bum leg for $1. "He won three or four times, and was claimed for $1,500" by a new owner in a claiming race. "My father was so mad he wouldn't even talk to me."
In 1970, father and son bought a training farm for Thoroughbreds in Monroe. Mark still owns it but envisioned something grander; 35 years later, Pegasus was finished at a reported cost of $25 million.
That it looks like a Kentucky farm is no coincidence. While Dedomenico drove near Versailles, Ky., Ashford Stud caught his eye. That was the look he wanted at Pegasus, and Dedomenico got the original plans from the architect.
Dedomenico recalled getting a call a couple of years ago from the owner of Secret Gypsy, who had been told by three veterinarians the horse's racing career appeared over after injuries to both knees and one ankle. The owner, however, was looking for a miracle.
"The impossible happens here right away," Dedomenico told him. "Miracles take a little longer."
Secret Gypsy underwent surgery to the three injured joints, then went through rehab at Pegasus and returned better than ever last year, winning three stakes races and competing in the Breeders' Cup in November.
Sport horses and other breeds also are welcome at Pegasus. Poggio II, a two-time equestrian Olympian with rider Amy Tryon of Duvall, came to Pegasus in 2006 after cutting his leg six weeks before the World Championships in Germany.
"I brought him to Pegasus each day for swimming," Tryon said. "They did a fantastic job with him. He was able to keep his fitness level up without putting stress on the leg. Without going to Pegasus, there is no way he would have been able to compete."
Tryon and Poggio II not only competed, they won a bronze medal.
Not every recovery is miraculous, but success is the goal. When a horse is in shape to begin, or resume, training at Pegasus, it's in the hands of Mike Puhich, a successful trainer at Longacres and then in Southern California, who runs Dedomenico's training operations at Pegasus and in Monroe.
Puhich typically works with a horse for 60 to 90 days. "With our research horses, we keep them here until they are doing 5-furlong workouts," said Puhich, who calls this his dream job. "And they are close to being ready to race when they leave here."
That kind of success with injured horses makes the job worthwhile to Dedomenico Jr. "When they leave here, they're no longer afraid and they're healthy again," he said. "They're able to go back to doing what they love, which is to race, and at a high level. That's really nice to see."
Just like his father envisioned.
Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com