Saturday, April 13, 2013

Shoeless Thoroughbred Wins at Keeneland; Track Lists Barefoot Entries as Trainers Experiment with Polytrack Surface Effects on Hoof Slide

The racing surface known as "Polytrack" is one of several artificial surfaces that have been installed at racetracks in North America to improve safety and help cope with bad weather. But it also changes the way the hoof interacts with the surface. The characteristic slide that horses experience on dirt can be "sticky" for some horses. Experimenting with and without shoes during training and racing has led some trainers to try some unorthodox combinations of shoes--or no shoes at all.
Update: A second "no shoes" designated horse won a race at Keeneland on Sunday, bringing the total of winners to two in three days. Updated information has been added at the end of this article.

Barefoot hoofcare is catching on in a new area of equestrian sports. But it might not be for the reasons you would think.

Judicial Power won the second race at Lexington, Kentucky's Keeneland Racecourse on Friday without shoes; not far behind him, in third place, was Esplendido. Judicial Power is trained by Lisa Smith and Lee Rossi.

The two are the most successful of six horses who have raced without shoes on the Polytrack since Wednesday. Four horses are entered to race barefoot on Sunday, April 13.

Keeneland is now posting information about shoeless horses, as well as bar shoes, in the equipment change announcements that flash on the video screen before each race. Racing rules generally require announcing shoeing and other equipment changes like the Cornell Collar to the betting public. "Blinkers off" is an example of notifying the public that equipment has been removed since the horse's previous start.

In many states, horses are required to be shod in order to race, and the definition of what an acceptable shoe is may be open to interpretation of track officials.

Lexington Kentucky - Keeneland Race Track "Time for Autumn"
Time for a change? If the Keeneland shoeless experiments are successful, will it reflect positively on the efforts of natural barefoot advocates? (Photo by David Paul Ohmer)
What the shoeless horses at Keeneland have in common is that all but one are trained by the same two conditioners at Keeneland: Wayne Rice and Tim Richardson.

Richardson made the news during Keeneland's fall 2012 meet when he sent several horses out without shoes.

In an interview with the Daily Racing Form, Richardson commented, “I wasn’t getting enough slide out of their rear end, and it was starting to cause them some soundness problems,” he said. Racing without shoes “went against everything I was taught, and I’ve struggled with it, but I have to say my horses have gotten sounder and are training better and running better on the Poly.”

Keeneland - 45
Polytrack surface at Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky. (Dan Hancock photo)

What the racing program doesn't tell racegoers is that the other horses headed to the post may well be shoeless behind. Removing hind shoes has been a method tried by trainers to overcome the stickiness of artificial surfaces. A complaint about training and racing on Polytrack has been that it is kinder to bones and joints, but horses are more likely to come back with soft tissue injuries, including sore backs and hind-end strain.

No research has been done to document an increase in slide when shoes are removed but testimonials like Richardson's make sense.

A 2012 press release accompanying Polytrack's launch in South Africa stated, "(In America) there does...appear to be a higher incidence of soft tissue injuries, which result from a horse’s hooves not sliding forward on impact in the same way as on sand. These injuries can be minimized by trainers adapting training methods, particularly in terms of giving horses time to become accustomed to the surface."

In the 2012 American Society of Biomechanics research abstract Breezing Racehorse Limb Kinematics on Different Race Surface Materials by Symons, Garcia and Stover of the University of California at Davis, some good news / bad news figures were attached to the differences between surfaces on five horses:

"Statistically significant differences were observed in the hind limb fetlock and hoof. Horses breezing on a synthetic surface had a lower degree of maximum hind fetlock hyperextension (dorsiflexion), compared to that observed on a dirt surface. Reduced fetlock hyperextension may contribute to lesser strain of the suspensory apparatus on the palmar side of the fetlock. Lesser strains likely contribute to lower risk for fetlock injuries, the most common site of racehorse musculoskeletal fatalities.

"Horses also had a straighter hind fetlock configuration (178º, Δθ=14º, p=0.013) at heel strike on a synthetic surface compared to the dirt surface (192º).

"Horses running on a synthetic surface also had 40% less horizontal slide of the hind hoof compared to the dirt surface. Differences in the hoof-surface interaction between different surfaces may affect propagation of ground reaction forces applied to the limbs."

The UC Davis research tested only shod horses, and gave no details about hoof length, conformation, angle, etc. Combined with the Keeneland experiments, we are left with questions:

  • What, if any, portion of the 40% slide differential is restored by removing the shoes?
  • Did the five horses in the California study have comparable conformation?
  • What, if any, trim parameters are Rice and Richardson using?
  • Do Rice and Richardson see differences in how horses respond to shoe removal? Did they pull the shoes on all their horses?
  • Friday's track at Keeneland, when Judicial Power won, was rated "fast". As the meet continues, will barefoot horses do better on some track conditions?
  • Is it possible that removing shoes does not affect the slide but some other phase of the stride or biomechanics of effort that is helping prevent soft-tissue injury?
Will the bettors be charmed by the idea of the barefoot racehorses? When will the first barefoot exacta hit the boards? Keeneland's spring meet is short, but it could be one to remember.


Gentle One won the first race at Keeneland, wearing no shoes. A 30-1 long shot, she paid $51.80. Her stablemate Intimidating Woman, also shoeless, finished last. Gentle One came from last and did not have an easy trip. She won decisively. Both horses are trained by Wayne Rice. Barefoot Mellow Fellow finished fifth in the third race and Rice's Clear Code was up the track in the fourth.

--By Fran Jurga
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The Unshod Racehorse: Racing Commissioners Table Model Rule on Barefoot Racehorses
Barefoot Racing in California? State Board Seeks More Time for Input, But Bans Heel Nerving and Steroids
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