Irish champion Rip Van Winkle may be a bionic horse. He will run in Saturday's Breeder Cup Classic in spite of a history of hoof problems that would have sidelined many. His trip to California from Aidan O'Brien's training center in Ireland is the culmination of a stellar performance record in recent months...and the result of a concentrated focus at managing hoof problems so that the horse can have a chance to prove his worth.
Traveling at the side of Rip Van Winkle is Ballydoyle training center farrier Michael O'Riordan. Eight horses made the trip from Tipperary, but it is Rip Van Winkle who occupies much of the farrier's time and concerns.
In an interview this week, O'Riordan described the process of monitoring the hoof health of the Ballydoyle group. He provided more details about the horse's problems in the past, which he believes are related to some sort of structural deficiency in the horse's hoof walls.
"He's a beautiful horse," O'Riordan told me. "He has near perfect conformation and is very free moving. He doesn't pound the ground when he runs so that's not it.
"His hoof walls are so thin. I believe it must be a mineral imbalance of some kind that has weakened the wall."
Rip Van Winkle's problems had O'Riordan on the problem-solving mission much earlier this year when he began using Yasha glue-on shoes on the horse for the quarter crack problems. When a wall separation compromised a hind foot, Ballydoyle brought in the Yasha shoe developer and quarter crack repair specialist Ian McKinlay, who traveled to Ireland to work on the hoof.
Wearing Yasha shoes on his patched feet, Rip Van Winkle was able to race this summer and win major stakes races. This fall, a quarter crack in the fourth foot was a shock as the Breeders Cup approached.
Over the past year, Rip Van Winkle has had his feet resected and rebuilt, his cracks laced. His feet have grown out and his hooves are now reinforced with acrylic. The new hind foot problem has been laced.
How will Rip Van Winkle like the Pro-Ride surface? O'Riordan said that training on it has gone well. At home, the horse canters on wood chips and works on grass, and his stakes races have been on grass.
Rip Van Winkle's Yasha shoes are cushioned Victory racing plates without toe grabs. O'Riordan said that most of O'Brien's horses had been switched to small toe grabs on their hind feet, but not Rip Van Winkle or Mastercraftsman. All the Yasha shoes have toe clips, front and hind. Rip Van Winkle has a normal size foot, a size 6 Victory plate.
Mastercraftsman is also wearing the Yasha shoes glued to all four feet, but O'Riordan said that the shoes were put on that horse for comfort and that the horse has no problems and is a nice mover. He feels that the soft heels on the Yasha shoes are kinder to the foot and don't wear down the heels.
O'Riordan's job this week is to keep an eye on the hooves of eight horses. He won't blink until Saturday's races are over. He'll head straight back to Ireland on Tuesday, but will hope that his trip includes the scenery of the winning circle at the culmination of the Breeders Cup Classic.
"We wouldn't be here without the Yasha shoes and Ian McKinlay's lacing technique," O'Riordan stressed.
"If you see paramedics in the winner's circle, you'll know they're reviving me," he joked.
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