What makes a racetrack a racetrack? Horses running. And horses won't be running without a legion of horseshoers swinging their toolboxes down the shedrows each day. They squeeze in their hoof duties between a horse's hotwalking and feeding and vet treatments and gate schooling and all the other important appointments in a Thoroughbred-in-training's day.
But the horseshoer's visit is important. It's the one that aligns the wheels of the runner, fixes the flats, re-balances the imbalances, patches the punctures, checks the valves.
No one knows that better than the shoers at the New York Racing Association tracks. They drive back and forth across the intersection of Long Island and Queens as the meets move between Aqueduct and Belmont. These are suburban blacksmiths, who are more likely to shoe a horse in the shade of a highway overpass instead of a chestnut tree. That is, until July comes and they move to bucolic Saratoga.
What you don't see in this video is the ghosts. The ghosts of horseshoers past. New York has a great tradition of fine horseshoers, solid craftsmen who shod the best racehorses in American history for the best trainers who based themselves at Belmont to be close to their wealthy New York owners. The legends range from John Dern who flew around the country working on horses like the tender-footed Assault with legendary trainer Max Hirsch (who actually lived right on the grounds at Belmont Park), to Elmer Campbell who shod the last winner of Triple Crown, Affirmed, back in 1978. Going back even further would be the ghost of Irishman Andrew McDermott, who shod the horses of August Belmont, including Man o' War. And hundreds more, each a legend in his own way, as horseshoers tend to be.
The nonchalant attitude of the New York shoers in this video belies the high-pressure stakes that are played each day with valuable horses and a year-round racing schedule that is breathing shallow breaths, exhaling toward Albany with a cough now and then.
At the top of the politicians' heap, with the power to influence the fate of hundreds of horses as well as the jobs and livelihoods of many hundreds of people and entire communities, sits Governor David Patterson. If you think New York's first African-American legally-blind governor is out of touch with New York racing and the important role it plays, think again: Patterson is the grandson of a New York racetrack blacksmith. His grandfather's skill and hard work helped him to an advanced degree and a career in politics.
Would he know a Queen's Plate from a Clydesdale shoe? Maybe not, but maybe it's not too late to teach him, either. Wake up some repressed genetic memory code and Governor Patterson could build a new plan for New York racing starting on the backside, with the welfare of the horses and the people who care for and about them at the top of the list. He might feel right at home.
A morning on the backside with the horseshoers might put the whole thing in perspective. It always works for me.
15 May 2010 | © Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog at Hoofcare.com