This quarter crack repair uses the lacing technique rather than the sutures used on Big Brown. Photo taken at a demonstration by Dr Scott Morrison of Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.
In the run-up to Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, everyone was counting the years. It’s been 30 years since we’ve had a Triple Crown winner. It’s been 35 years since Secretariat won the Crown.
(By the way, how sad is it that two out of the last three Triple Crown winners died of laminitis?)
But since the Belmont was really more about quarter cracks and the big bad feet of the favorite than much of anything else, let’s count some other years.
Did you know it’s been 44 years since the “invention” of the modern quarter crack patch?
Farriers have been stitching and clamping quarter cracks together for well over 100 years now, but a unique “modern” quarter crack patch was patented in 1964 by an enterprising Los Angeles racetrack horseshoer named William R. Bane. In January of 1964, the US Patent Office awarded him a patent, #3,118,449, to protect his secret method for repairing hooves of Thoroughbred and Standardbreds so they could race again. And win.
It was enough of a big deal to be written up as a headline story in the New York Times.
Bane’s plan had been to train others at racetracks around the country, much like a franchise, but he ended up spending a lot of time on airplanes because owners and trainers wanted him to personally patch their horses.
Bane’s patented secret turned out to be to cover the crack with a synthetic rubber called Neolite, a material very popular in the early 1960s for rubber-soled shoes, which were quite a sensation at the time.
In 1962, Bane was called east to work on Su Mac Lad, who at that time was the world’s all-time high-money winning trotter. It took Bane eight hours to patch that crack, but Su Mac Lad was training the next day and raced a week later, and went on to be horse of the year, with a patched hoof. That was unheard of; a quarter crack usually meant several months at the farm to recover.
The steps listed for Su Mac Lad’s eight-hour ordeal were:
1. remove some of the wall behind the crack
2. reshoe the horse;
3. apply the rubber;
4. apply plastic cement;
5. wrap with tape;
6. heat treatment for an unspecified time;
7. remove the tape;
8. finish the patch to conform to hoof wall contour.
Fiberglas soon gained popularity over rubber, and then in the 1990s, PMMA adhesives came along for rebuilding walls and covering cracks after they were dry.
As for Ian McKinlay, he is following in his father’s footsteps as a crack specialist, which is distinct from being a horseshoer. As long as I have been studying the hoof scene, there have been crack specialists who tended to the unfortunate horses with cracked hooves at the racetrack. Ian is one, Jud and Brett Butler another. (What is it about father and son teams?)
The patching was always done sort of secretly, with the materials and technique being a closely guarded personal formula. In the mid-1980s, Dr Jud Butler claimed 100% success on 3000 cracks he had treated with fiberglas. Among those was the great Slew 'o Gold.
The earliest book I have showing a patch over a crack is the American translation of Lungwitz’s text. Lungwitz was the great German professor of farriery at the University of Dresden. Lungwitz carefully distinguished between full cracks and what he called “coronary cracks”, similar to Big Brown's crack. He hot-seated the metal patch into the wall. His treatise on cracks is recommended reading!
If you double-click or right-click or whatever your browser demands, on the image below, you should be able to see it in a larger size and read the captions.
In 1897, Dollar and Wheatley, in the landmark text Handbook of Horseshoeing, gave recipes for creating artificial hoof horn from gutta percha (natural rubber) for covering cracks. They also listed as patching techniques: clips on shoes, metal plates with wood screws, rivets (which they said was the oldest remedy), Koster's sandcrack band (which sounds brutal), crack straps around the heel bulbs, linen tape used much as we use casting tape today, and a vise-like shoe that paralyzed the bars and preventing the crack from opening and closing.
Back in 1903, Professor William Russell, the famous farrier from Cincinnati and that most prolific of American farrier authors, said it succinctly: “If horses’ feet are kept properly balanced, the wall pliable and flexible, and the hoof shod with shoes suited to the work required, there will be little danger of quarter crack.”
But, then again, he advises this aftercare for a quarter crack: “Before nailing the shoe to the foot, take fat pickled pork, (and) fill the bottom of foot with long slices thereof, pressing them wall into the commissures with the hand.” The foot was then bandaged with his secret salve, made from shoemaker’s wax, beeswax and mutton tallow. Yum.
That has all changed now. We have big Quarter horse, Appaloosa and Paint halter horses with quarter cracks, and more than a few Warmbloods have chronic cracks. I had a photographer's epithany at a horse trial a few years ago, taking pictures of all the different types of crack patches, although steel plates were the preference for that rough sport. Tom Curl is one crack specialist who might turn up at the showgrounds or the racetrack on any given day.
For those who doubt that Big Brown might be Big Again, or even Bigger Still, consider that an infected quarter crack kept the great champion Buckpasser out of the Triple Crown races in 1966. He came back and won just about everything, with 15 consecutive victories, setting track records and earnings records as he went.
I should mention that 13 (by my count) of those victories where in the second half of 1966. Most horses today don't have that many starts in a lifetime.
Buckpasser's owner, Mr. Phipps, did not opt to have him patched. Ultimately, the crack bothered the horse enough to warrant his retirement after one of the most successful US racing careers in history. His jockey, Braulio Baeza, told the trainer that the horse had had enough and was running on heart alone, not hooves.
Buckpasser may have been a negative influence, in hindsight. By continuing to run with his crack, he showed that it was possible to keep going with a crack. He was obviously an exceptional animal.
In the 1980s, the great Standardbred Nihilator raced with quarter cracks that were patched by farrier Joey Carroll. His heel was basically removed, and he wore a z-bar shoe. Breeders Cup winner Wild Again, now a retired successful sire at Three Chimneys, will recognize Big Brown's foot problem when he arrives at the breeding farm.
In 1986, Dr Bill Moyer claimed to have worked on 74 horses with quarter cracks as a clinician at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center. That's more than six per month. He said that most were Standardbreds. Moyer received funding from Standardred leader Billy Haughton to study cracks. He loaded them in a vise and found that the crack closed when the horse was weighbearing, and sometimes even overlapped, which must cause a horse a lot of pain.
Quarter crack repair is still a task best left to the experts. Done incorrectly, an imperfect lacing and/or patching job can seal in infection so that a major problem erupts or it could impede normal growth from the coronet, causing a hoof deformity. The goal of patching is a clean, dry crack growing out under a protective patch so that the horse is sound and painfree.
I am fortunate to have a great library of new and old books, and files that bulge with notes and proceedings from the hundreds of meetings I've attended and farriers and vets who have shared their experiences and photos.
In spite of the experts, in spite of the technology, and in spite of medications and great veterinary care, a quarter crack is still a debilitating injury to a normal horse. Perhaps for a superstar horse like Big Brown, with unlimited expertise at his beck and call, it is just a bump in the road. We'll find out. He'll have a file all his own in my library, that's for sure.