Sunday, July 20, 2008

Barefoot Racing in California? State Board Seeks More Time for Input, But Bans Heel Nerving and Steroids

A decision had been due in California last week about a proposed rule change that would allow Thoroughbred horses to race barefoot at the state’s tracks, all of which have recently been converted to artificial surfaces.

At yesterday’s meeting at Del Mar Racetrack near San Diego, the CHRB sent two the regulatory amendment back out for 15-day public notice with minor changes to the texts. The Board indicated it would suspend the portion of the rule that requires horses to be shod, as long as it is publicly noted in the official program. The memo from the CHRB indicated that a public hearing will be held.

Vice Chairman Richard Harris noted that while this proposal to allow horses to race unshod has been around for some time. He said that the installation of synthetic surfaces in California has helped push it forward because some horses appear to be training better without shoes on the new surfaces.

The amendment would allow a horse to race unshod if the trainer feels the horse might run better without shoes. Any changes would be noted on the official program.

According to the CHRB, the issue was first raised by the California Thoroughbred Trainers at a meeting of the CHRB Medication Committee last November. CTT Executive Director Ed Halpern indicated there had been sentiment among some trainers “for a long time to allow horses to race unshod, but with the introduction of synthetic tracks, the idea has gained support for moving forward. Some horses are more comfortable without shoes.”

Dr. Diane Isbell, one of the CHRB’s official veterinarians, provided some details during a special meeting on February 20 that focused on synthetic surfaces. Dr. Isbell was among seven veterinarians on a panel that discussed the safety of synthetic surfaces in terms of injuries to horses.

“We have much sounder horses (on the synthetic surface at Golden Gate Fields) and I’m finding that we have a lot less joint filling in the horses on pre-race (examinations) than we do when we have the sealed surfaces,” explained Dr. Isbell. She went on to say, “What we’ve found with the synthetic surfaces is the foot does not have the slip that it had with the dirt surface.”

Dr. Isbell continued, “A number of trainers in Northern California are starting to train their horses barefoot. There are an increasing number of trainers doing that (and those horses are) working as well or better as they did when they had shoes on. We do know from research work that the bare foot is better able to utilize the internal shock absorption system of the horse, which does help to take some of the stress off the legs.”

Dr. Isbell did not give a reference for that research.

If the regulation change passes, the official program will note when any horse adds or removes shoes. To date, the CHRB has heard no testimony in opposition to allowing horses to race unshod.

Written comments should be addressed to: Harold Coburn, Regulation Analyst, California Horse Racing Board, 1010 Hurley
Way, Suite 300. Sacramento, CA 95825.

For additional details, he can be reached at (916) 263- 6397 or Fax (916) 263-6022 or e-mail (

Most states and racing jurisdictions require horses to be shod. Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown recently spent a few weeks barefoot while in light exercise at Aqueduct, but has since had glue-on shoes re-applied, according to hoof repair consultant Ian McKinlay.

Standardbred farrier Conny Svensson recalled in an article recently that he pulled the shoes on champion Moni Maker in 2000 when she she raced in France. She went out and trotted the fastest mile in European history. A few weeks later, the trainer gambled and tried it again when she was racing in Italy. She broke stride and was eliminated.

Artificial arena surfaces have been detrimental to the hooves of some unshod sport horses, although ill effects of racing surfaces have not been reported, perhaps because horses in most states are required to be shod. Farrier Bob Pethick in New Jersey documented the deterioration of hoof wall thickness in a barefoot warmblood when it was moved to a new stable with a more abrasive indoor arena surface. The case was documented in Hoofcare and Lameness Journal, issue #78. Click here to read the article online.

In other news, California added horsewoman and celebrity Bo Derek to the Board, banned the four major steroids from use on racehorses in the state, and unanimously adopted a regulatory amendment prohibiting posterior digital neurectomies, or “heel nerving.” Any horse that undergoes such a procedure after October 1, 2008, will be prohibited from racing. This prohibition was opposed by the Thoroughbred Owners of California, which believes California should wait for a national policy.