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Friday, May 04, 2012

Derby Day: Thoroughbreds Start Running Toward the Roses From the Day They Are Born--If They Can, That Is

The foals in this video from Juan Carlos Blazquez, farrier at the University of Madrid 
in Spain, may not be American Thoroughbreds but that hardly matters. "JC" is
someone who obviously enjoys the challenge of helping foals in need--and the reward 
they give him when they respond to treatment.

It happens every year: thousands of Thoroughbred colts and fillies hit the straw bedding of foaling stalls in breeding farm barns across the United States. An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 future racehorse foals are bred each year, according to Jockey Club statistics.

This year, 21 of them made it to the Kentucky Derby.

Today, when the Kentucky Derby comes on tv, think about the foals eligible to race in 2015. They're on the ground now, although some just barely are.

And some are on the ground, literally, because they can't get up. Maybe they can barely stand to nurse. Their spindly little legs give way beneath them like rubber stilts. They walk on the fronts of their fetlocks, or the backs of their pasterns are on the ground. Their hind legs might cross when they try to walk forward. They stand bow-legged. Or even cross-legged.

At most farms, foals go through periodic evaluations by the farrier. Their legs change as their bodies develop and change--for better or worse--can be rapid. (Richard Clay photo)
Phones ring in equine clinics and farrier shops around the country. "Can you come out and take a look?" There will be x-rays, there will be examinations. Decisions will be made based on dollar signs and question marks that will hang in the air.

Some will be sentenced to an early and perhaps merciful death, in spite of their expensive breeding.

The fate of others will be left to the "wait and see" approach.

Some will respond naturally--and positively--to the forces of weightbearing and increasing maturity. A tendon will almost overnight go from lax to taut, while its opposing tendon will go from taut to lax. The foal is soon not only standing, he's walking and jumping around just like the rest of them.

For others, especially those whose problems are in the bony column and joints rather than in the tendons, there will be weeks of splints on, splints off, braces on, braces off. For some, surgical intervention will be needed; for others, the prescription is for special shoes, glue-on levers, massages.

Some foals respond naturally, by themselves to the forces of weightbearing and simultaneous growth. (Richard Clay photo)

More x-rays. More evaluations. As with the tendons, sometimes the legs will start to straighten as the chest develops and the weight changes the pressure of gravity on the tiny hoof at the bottom of the column. Maybe he doesn't toe in so badly after all.

For others, the newborn foal looks fine and a problem in the limb will only become obvious after a week or two. Or a kick in the pasture creates a pain reaction that in turn leads to a club foot.

Heads will be scratched. Tears might be shed.

Foals may only need to wear splints or bandages briefly. (Richard Clay photo)
Maybe while we're all watching the Derby, the potential winner of the 2015 Derby will be trying out a new set of glue-on baby shoes that re-direct its weight down the leg where the foot should have been. An extension will stabilize the tiny hoof and it won't buckle anymore. Maybe it will never buckle again.

It is possible: each year we hear about colts running in the Derby against the odds. Colts so crooked they never made it to the sales. Colts who grew up in a vet clinic. Colts who defied the odds. And each year that goes by, the body of knowledge of foal deformities expands. New products come on the market. This might work...

People try new things. People try old things. They look in the historical books by breeders and vets and farriers and re-try methods that have been forgotten or ruled out of date. Everyone knows Assault had a club foot. And Big Brown won the Derby with a wall separation. Mine That Bird toed out as a yearling. Swaps had a chronic hoof infection. Sir Barton, the first winner of the Triple Crown, was as famous for sore feet and lost shoes as his racing ability.

Removing the bandages is a suspenseful moment. Did the plan succeed? (Richard Clay photo)
The horses running in the 2012 Derby weren't all born with perfect legs and feet. They don't all land flat, some of them wear bandages because they need to protect their front legs from hooves that don't land exactly where they should. The old timers used colorful terms like cross-fire, scalp, paddle, dish, forge, interfere, over-reach, brush, wing, rope walk,  step on themselves--all descriptive terms to put a word on a horse's not-quite-straight path through life.

Splints and bandages and shoes are worthless without people who know how to use them--people who also know and care about a foal. (Richard Clay photo)
Against all the odds, some of those foals grow up to be racehorses. Some grow up to be extremely fast racehorses. Sure, they're always pulling shoes and whacking themselves. And there's a good chance their careers won't be as long as the straight, strong and truly conformed Thoroughbreds they race against.

Two years from now, their first foals may be on the ground.

Foals soon catch up when the bandages come off. (Richard Clay photo)
Sometimes it gets really crowded in the winner's circle after the Kentucky Derby but there are always a few people in a horse's past who deserve to be there, but never are.

Single Rose

You know who you are. Your work and care put these colts on the road to the Derby, whether they were--or are--crooked or straight. They're running for the roses today because they can, thanks to you.

If the crowd only knew, 100,000 or so Derby hats would be rightfully tipped to you.

SHF-2009-520Note: Richard Clay's beautiful photos were taken in Virginia on May 5, 2009. That's right: three years ago today. Is that little black colt running in the Derby? He could be. If so, it's because the people you see in these photos gave him extra attention and care and concern. Thank you, Richard, for documenting that foal and his people.

About Juan Carlos Blazquez: In his notes to this video, he remarked that he had donated his services to one of the foals. He said that he hoped that someone somewhere might see this video, realize how many lives of horses have been wasted, and be moved to work for the betterment of future horses; if knowledge can be shared, he will be satisfied. I think he speaks for all of us.

© Fran Jurga and Hoofcare Publishing; Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog is a between-issues news service for subscribers to Hoofcare and Lameness Journal. Please, no use without permission. You only need to ask. This blog may be read online at the blog page, checked via RSS feed, or received via a digest-type email (requires signup in box at top right of blog page). To subscribe to Hoofcare and Lameness (the journal), please visit the main site,, where many educational products and media related to equine lameness and hoof science can be found. Questions or problems with this blog? Send email to  
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