After a year's worth of work with high-speed cinematography and force plates and computer digitizers, Carole Zebas and Rob Gillette have proved what handicappers have known for years it's not easy to pick a sure-thing greyhound.
Zebas, director of Kansas University's biomechanics lab and professer of health, physical education and recreation, and Gillette, a veterinarian-in-residence with KU's Animal Care Unit, have been working with a one-year grant from the Kansas Racing Commission to study the way greyhounds run.
"Everyone is interested in what makes a greyhound run fast," Zebas said. "We're looking at stride length, stride frequency, how much time is spent on the ground by each set of legs, how much time is spent in the air. That's not that exciting, but it's needed to go on to some other things."
"ACTUALLY, it's kind of boring," said Gillette. "When I'm at a party, or having a cocktail with friends, and I start talking about how a dog contacts, I get, `Yeah, well, back to what the president's doing. . .'''
The two are not working to provide yet another tip sheet for dog-track devotees.
"We're not interested in helping people identify a winner," Zebas said. "Our goal is to really study movement patterns. A lot of times that will carry over to human movement."
As handicappers have known for years, there are too many variables to accurately predict a winning dog.
"There are certain kinds of things that would predict speed," Zebas said. "You could say a dog displays all of those kind of characteristics. But just like humans, greyhounds are very variable. Some of the trainers have said some of the dogs cannot psychologically handle the pressures. I suppose you could come closer to predicting. At least you could say, `This dog could do it.' Whether it will do it, you can't predict."
"SOMETIMES, just like a human, greyhounds will perform to their peak," Gillette said. "But maybe a dog in the kennel barked all night and the dog got mad and just won't run very well. Those things are impossible to predict. Biomechanics don't help you win bets. Nothing helps. That's why it's gambling."
Their one-year grant expired June 30, and they've applied for four more. They'll learn the status of those applications this fall.
Zebas and Gillette began their research at Kansas City's Woodlands track. They started with films of schooling races. Using a camera that takes about 150 frames per second, they used digitizers to analyze the images from the greyhound's 40 mph sprints.
"When I first saw them run, it was all a blur," Gillette said. "I didn't see any of what we've learned. Greyhounds make about three strides a second. Watching a greyhound running at peak performance really gives me a thrill."
Some of their findings are hardly novel their discovery that dogs tire over the course of a race, for example. Still, their research provides documented proof of the importance of endurance.
"AS A DOG runs, and its back legs move forward and its front legs move backward, they criss-cross," Zebas said. "There's a long muscle that runs from the neck to over the back. When the front legs are all the way forward and the back legs all the way back, that muscle gets stretched tightly.
"It acts as a spring. Like a spring, it bounces back and the dog is able to push off the ground. When it becomes tired, there isn't as much spring. The winnner of the race is generally the one that can escape the loss of what we call stored energy."
One potentially original discovery was that dogs are not ambidextrous.
"Some dogs are right-lead dogs. Their right foot touches the ground first," Zebas said. "Some are left-lead dogs. Left-lead dogs change to right-lead when they're rounding a curve. That might be a potential area for some problems. No one has ever mentioned that before. That may be something new."
Gillette initiated the research project. A veterinarian at the Woodlands during the track's inaugural season, he started greyhound research on his own.
"BEFORE I came here, I started working on cow and pig vaccines," Gillette said. "But when it came to seeing what I wanted to really research, I was more interested in this. I was interested in bones and athletic injuries. I wanted to see if I could get something going, so I called Carole and said, `I'm a vet interested in this stuff. Can you help me.'''
Their initial research could lead to different applications. Gillette said he's interested in the prevention and rehabilitation of greyhound injuries, and Zebas said she's more interested in applications to humans.
"Humans are so far advanced as far as veterinary care," Gillette said. "A human with a rotator cuff tear can come back right away. If I can learn what to do with humans, I can back-apply that to dogs. What I found out was that a lot of human stuff is based on what normals are. There aren't many normals for dogs."
"Ultimately, what the racing commission would like is to understand more what greyhounds do," added Zebas. "Our intent from the beginning was to look at injuries. I was looking at human injuries, but sometimes it's easier to work with animals to see if the technology could apply to humans."