No Hoof, No Horse, No Metal Shoes

Entries for the 133rd Preakness will be drawn this evening, and I am as anxious as the next fan to see whether my sojourn to New York in three weeks will have historical implications.

But as has been suggested by more than one writer in the tragic aftermath of Derby 134, and in light of Big Brown’s well documented foot issues and short rest between classics, I’ll be holding my breath until the broadcast ends.

As we all have learned the hard way, the potential for catastrophe doesn’t end at the finish line.

Among the myriad suggested solutions, including my own, made in the wake of heartbreak to solve a problem that ultimately has no solutions--accidents do, and always will, happen--a unique one crossed by computer courtesy of Mark, HRI’s invaluable webmaster.

Much of the following is almost verbatim from a piece written by Joe Camp, author of “Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd.”

As it turns out, not only was Big Brown the first horse to win the Derby from post 20 (Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 won his from a walk-up start) but, according to Camp, apparently was also the first winner not wearing metal shoes.

Says Camp: “Mother Nature designed the horse's hoof to flex with every step taken. That flexing acts like a secondary heart, pumping blood throughout the thousands of capillaries in the hoof mechanism, which keeps it healthy and provides an excellent hydraulic-like shock absorption [system] for the tendons, ligaments, and joints of the leg. When a metal shoe is nailed to the hoof, it cannot flex. Blood flow is restricted. And the concussion upon impact is far worse than that of a bare foot. In short, fifty-five million years of genetics are constrained.”

Camp continued: “When I first learned that Big Brown had been fitted with some sort of plastic/rubber-based glue-on shoe, I was ecstatic. I had been researching the horse's hoof for my book ‘The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd’ and the information I had found caused me to pull the shoes off all of our horses immediately. So, I recognized what shoe designer Ian McKinlay was accomplishing. He was allowing Big Brown's hoof to flex as Mother Nature had designed it to do. And he was providing much needed shock absorption. This is huge for horses. Huge!

“Big Brown had lameness issues, cracked hooves, and hoof wall separation allowing him to run only three races prior to the Derby. His traditional metal nail-on shoes were pulled and McKinlay's flexible glue-on rig was fitted on each of Big Brown's feet. His hooves healed, and the rest is history.

“When he burst across the finish line five lengths ahead of Eight Belles, I burst into happy tears because I knew what this would mean for horses. It is an acknowledgement that a horse's hoof does not need to be constrained by the traditional metal shoe nailed into his hoof.

“The death of Eight Belles, even more clearly than that of Barbaro, focuses on another need: to find a way to push these races off until the horses are old enough to have matured skeletally.

“The growth plates in the joints of a horse do not all fully mature into strong bone material until the horse is four to five-and-a-half years old. Yet the horses in the Derby are running at three years old, after usually being trained hard from the time they are one-and-a-half to two years old. It's way too young.

“Could the concussive impact of a pounding hoof wearing a traditional metal shoe have contributed to the cause of Eight Belles’ collapse? Could two years of hard training hammering immature growth plates have weakened her joints? Absolutely it's possible. Even probable.

“Would she have had a better chance with McKinlay's new shoeing technique, or rubber boots that are now available, or the plain plastic flexible shoes that can be popped off after the race? Or even running the race completely barefoot? My belief is yes. But it's just a belief because, of course, there's no way we'll ever know. Eight Belles is dead.”

Strong stuff, to be sure, but clearly suggestions requiring research. Perhaps this is an area the Jockey Club’s new Committee on Equine Safety should look at. Beta testing could take years. But, as we said last week, making American horse racing as healthy as humans can make it could take a half century.

Continued Camp: “Throughout [Eight Belles‘] years of training, had her hooves been able to flex, and pump blood, and provide much needed shock absorption for ankles and knees and tendons and ligaments, I know in my heart what the difference would be. My happy tears for Big Brown's amazing win would not have turned to tears of pain. And that beautiful filly would still be alive.”

His suggestion that lifting the upper age limit to “say, eight years old [for] major races,” is impractical, of course. But racing cannot dismiss Camp’s other thoughts as cavalier.

“Require a complete x-ray exam of all growth plates to accompany every entry. Whenever a [young] horse is found with growth plates that are not mature, not closed, the owner would be advised, but not forced, to withdraw his entry.

“The owner would understand that if he doesn't withdraw and something happens to the horse, the exam will be made public. This puts the responsibility, and the heat, solely on the shoulders of the owner of the horse.

“Remove the requirement that the horse wear shoes in the race, leaving the hoof wear, if any, totally up to the owner. He can race the horse barefoot if he chooses. And lastly, lobby insurance companies to exclude from coverage any horse that does not pass the skeletal development exam.” {Ed. Note: In New York, horses have raced bare-footed after receiving stewards’ permission. The public was informed via the track program or over the loudspeaker system}.

“I believe these two rule changes and a willing insurance industry would be relatively easy to effect and could revolutionize the effects on horses. It's amazing what can happen when an owner knows that the spotlight will be on him if he makes a mistake.”

If racing doesn’t effect change, the industry might learn what can happen to it if more accidents occur and it has not taken meaningful steps. The unfortunate glare from this year’s Derby spotlight doesn’t figure to dim anytime soon.

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If Brown Delivers in Baltimore, a Titanic Triple Crown Battle Looms

We interrupt our coverage of the Preakness Stakes for a brief moment to consider what might lie ahead four weeks from now.

Two weeks between the Derby and Preakness is a concern for Rick Dutrow, the trainer of Big Brown. Big Brown and the two weeks between starts ultimately is such a concern for the connections of the 19 Derby participants that none will make the sojourn to crab cake country.

(It’s been a while since I’ve been there, but Michael’s, near the Timonium training center, makes great crab cakes. You know; more crab, less bread crumb. Please forgive this digression).

Actually, Dutrow has a reputation for being a master of the quick turn-around. He has great stats with horses returning in less than 10 days. Sometimes, the shorter the layup, the better. But he's not shown he can get those results at this level and has had most of his quick turnaround success with sprinters. This doesn't mean he can't, and doesn't mean that two weeks is somehow equivalent to five days.

Let’s all remember, too, that Big Brown's tender feet and the hard, sealed Churchill Downs surface over which he remained undefeated and became the stuff of Derby lore, are a concern.

In all likelihood, Big Brown will get passed a dozen rivals or so and head back home with a chance to become the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

I realize we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, but the repatriated Casino Drive conjured memories of Coastal winning Saturday’s Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. For you youngsters, or the brain-addled, such as myself, Coastal , in his role as safety-pin helper, foiled the Triple Crown bid of the great Spectacular Bid in 1979.

The drying out Belmont Park surface was getting faster as day turned into evening, but 1:47.82 is rolling on anybody's racetrack. Considering it was only his second lifetime start, and his first since late February, winning by nearly five lengths following a slow start while breaking from the rail out of a chute, we have a potentially exciting Belmont Stakes match-up.

Hey, has anyone ever won the Belmont in his third lifetime start? And, considering that Kent Desormeaux was aboard Casino Drive in the Peter Pan, who will ride the Japanese star in the Belmont?

Well, here we go again. But for now let’s soldier on to Baltimore and hope that Big Brown takes care of business. They’ll be putting ‘em in the Elmont infield if the undefeated winner of the first two legs meets another undefeated rival whose siblings, Jazil and Rags To Riches, just happened to win the last two runnings of the Test of the Champion.

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