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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Pedal Osteitis Sent Grand National Champion Red Rum to the Beach, with Pop Marshall's Blessing

by Fran Jurga | 5 April 2009 | Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog

Riders on the beach at Ainsdale, between Liverpool and Southport, England. This image was originally uploaded by ~ paddypix ~.

Yesterday was a special day in the racing world. You may have heard that a 100-1 longshot won the 162nd Grand National steeplechase at Aintree racecourse near Liverpool in England. This year's winner, Mon Mome, was noteworthy because he was a Frenchbred and because he's trained by a woman. Add the fact that he won by ten lengths and that it was his jockey's first time to ride the famous race and you can see that it was quite a day for that team.

The Grand National always makes me thinks of the great champion Red Rum, who won the race over and over. I think he won it three times and was second twice. By the time he won it the third time, he was 12 years old...and had started in over 100 races.

Red Rum was trained by a hard luck fellow named Ginger McCain who drove taxis at night and kept the horse out behind a used-car lot. McCain bought the horse at a sale for one of his owners, only to find out that the horse was lame. So he took him to the beach, and noticed afterwards he wasn't quite so lame. And Ginger McCain wondered if he might be onto something.

Veterinarians diagnosed pedal osteitis as the horse's problem. Technically, that is an inflammation of the pedal bone, or coffin bone, or P3--whatever you call it, wherever you are from. It was the 1970s, though, and just to take a radiograph of a horse's foot was a big deal in those days. There was certainly no nuclear scintigraphy like we would have today to diagnose pedal osteitis.

Veterinarians examine radiographs of horses that show foot pain, particularly ouchiness or tenderness on landing. Instead of lateral radiographs, they might look at the bottom of the coffin bone, to see if there are irregular edges on the bone. Horses with tender feet often do have irregular bone edges, but the problem is that many sound horses do, as well.

Pedal osteitis is a controversial diagnosis today, but was a much more common diagnosis 20 or 30 years ago, particularly in racehorses who are trimmed short and run on hard ground. Dr. Bill Moyer of Texas A&M University has written some thoughtful papers on the subject of the murkiness of the diagnosis of pedal osteitis.

McCain was a genius in the way he trained Red Rum. He was the first trainer to harrow the beach, marking the gallop--this came after another horse of his cut its tendon on a broken bottle that had washed ashore, but it also softened the hardpacked sand. Other trainers had given up galloping on the beach because they felt it made horses more lame, but the harrowing really seemed to work for Red Rum.

If you've ever taken a horse to the beach, you know that it can be an interesting ride the first few times. After a while, horses usually love it, but the waves, open space and the shifting sand take some getting used to. But not for Red Rum: the first time McCain took him to the beach, the gelding walked right into the ocean up to his chest.

McCain supplemented the gallops on the flat sand with lots of time standing or walking in the water; surely the cold Irish Sea was good for any inflammation in the horse's feet. He also trained him up and down the forgiving sand dunes, which were great for the horse's muscles without putting a lot of stress on his feet.

I can see a lot of readers nodding their heads on that one; the sand would spread the load over the surface of the foot, rather than pinpointing it on the wall or shoe, if he was shod. On the other hand, wild horses that live on the beaches and dunes tend to get quite splay-footed, which might be fine as long as you're on the sand, or if the turf of the racecourse is soft.

Finally, McCain had a very good farrier working at his side to keep Red Rum's feet as balanced as possible. The late Bob "Pops" Marshall Sr., father of World Champion farrier Bob Marshall of Canada, lived right down the road and was Red Rum's personal farrier.

This video shows Red Rum winning the grueling and dangerous (and, many say, cruel) Grand National for the third time. He was also second twice, all in five years. Not bad for a horse they said would never race again.

If you ever have a chance, find a copy of the book Red Rum by Ivor Herbert. It might be a challenge to find it in the USA, but it's worth it. Or, let me know and I'll find you a used copy.

To learn more about pedal osteitis, dig out issue #64 of Hoofcare and Lameness and read "Treating Septic Osteitis of the Distal Phalanx (P-3)" by Andy Bathe MRCVS, or find Dr. Moyer's paper "Nonseptic Pedal Osteitis: A Cause of Lameness and a Diagnosis?" in the Proceedings of the 1999 AAEP Convention.

And put Red Rum on your list of legendary horse heroes. I suppose if he had come along now, they would have just paid to have him glued up but this is now and that was then. This horse and trainer did it the old-fashioned way, and moved a nation to tears...tears of joy.