Thursday, April 03, 2014

Dubai Hoofcare: What--or Who--Was Underneath the Horses in the World's Richest Race?

Australian farrier Rob Stevenson now lives and works in Dubai. He demonstrated shoeing a lead pony with
gold raceplates before the Dubai World Cup last week; this week he's in China.

The emirate of Dubai is a tiny speck on the map, but it is growing into one of the world’s premier destinations for farriers and innovations in hoofcare. Saturday’s Dubai World Cup races in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) brought not just the world’s best horses and trainers and jockeys to the tiny desert nation; it brought farriers and some horses left with more interesting equipment on their hooves than when they arrived.

It matters what is on a horse’s feet on race day in Dubai. The flagship new racecourse at Meydan has very strict shoeing rules that are enforced. From the time a foreign horse arrives from the airport, its feet are under scrutiny before it can race on the Tapeta artificial-surface track or the wide, long turf oval.

When you’re looking for farriers at Meydan, you could be confused by the signs; the main restaurant is called “Farriers”.  To make things worse, everything seems to be in the shape of a horseshoe. It's like a theme park!

The panorama of the new Meydan Racecourse in Dubai on World Cup Day.
Irish ex-pat farrier Michael Hunt is the quarantine barn farrier in Dubai; you’d also have found him in the paddock on World Cup day. He shared some information about shoeing rules in quarantine for horses that have to be kept separate on arrival:

“Any farrier coming with a horse or entering the quarantine must use quarantine tools and work under my supervision,” Michael shared.”You would be surprised how many people don't read the shoeing rules!

“Even though there is a photo of grabs in the shoeing rules, it (is) for dirt and no grabs or protrusion more than 2 mm from the bearing surface are allowed at Meydan; also, no horse can run in steels.

Dressed for work: Four of the six paddock farriers at the Dubai World Cup on Saturday: (left to right) Tom Runnels, Mike Hunt, Eric Payet, and Greg Little. (Rob Stevenson photo)
I asked Michael if the farriers were required to change their clothes for biosecurity, and then he had more to add, “Because outside farriers only come to deal with a single horse or trainer, they are restricted to a single barn. It is usually the only work they do that day and we provide (their) chaps (shoeing aprons) and tools.

“We have five sets of tools for individual quarantines and we will change our shirts between barns. With 10 barns in international and 12 in World Cup, it's a lot of shirts.”

Dubai Gold Cup winner Centerarch was flown to Dubai by Irish trainer Michael Halford. He was shod with raceplates that met Dubai's strict shoeing regulations by World Cup farrier Michael Hunt. (Dubai World Cup photo by Andrew Watkins, used with permission)

Michael happily reported that he shod Dubai Gold Cup winner Centerarch for Irish trainer Michael Halford.  The six-year-old gelding survived a steward’s inquiry which, had he been disqualified, would have given the victory to local horse Cavalryman, owned by Godolphin, the racing stable of the UAE’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

The big winner of the day was Godolphin's African Story in the title race, the $6 million Dubai World Cup. He was shod by Luke Thompson and, thanks to Kerckhaert's publicity, it is known that he wore Kerckhaert Kings Plate Extra Sound plates.

Race day doesn’t start at high noon in Dubai; it’s just too hot for that. The biggest races are run under lights. If you could find your way to the paddock at this huge complex, you’d find no less than six paddock farriers on duty. One of them is Australia’s Rob Stevenson, featured in the video, and in this article about Dubai farriery in Gulf News.

Rob has kindly sent over many of the photos you see in this article.

Paddock farriers Justin Cowley and Rob Stevenson in the winner's circle after a Godolphin horse won a race.
The farriers didn't have much time to talk about the World Cup or rest on their laurels; Rob and Michael were off to China this week with a shipment of 60 horses. This Sunday is Chengdu Dubai International Race Day at the Jinma Racecourse in Sichuan province. China supplies the track, Dubai supplies the horses...and the farriers.

More paddock farriers: Tom Runnells is on the right; Shaun Moss is also in this photo.
Michael’s quarantine experience will be put to use coming and going for the China trip; this will be the first Chinese race meet that will have foreign horses shipping in and then shipping out again. Until recently, shipping to China was a one-way prospect for a horse because of international disease-related regulations.

Michael reported that Japanese farriers had traveled to Dubai in March with their horses, and a farrier from Hong Kong, as well. When asked about unusual shoes, he said that the Japanese had used shoes with three clips on hind feet. Apparently there's no rule against that.

French-trained Flotilla finished third in the Godolphin Mile; she wore Polyflex urethane glue-on shoes in front and was barefoot behind; this was a strategy for the artificial Tapeta surface. Most of the horses who shipped in had never run on the surface before. (Randi Sokoloff photo via Dubai World Cup)

If you pick up a horse’s foot and it’s shod with a gold raceplate, you know it’s just come from Dubai. The plates are reportedly made exclusively for use in Dubai by Cemtec in Sweden.

It’s interesting to get to know a bit about some of the many, many ex-pat farriers working in Dubai. South Africa’s Derek Poupard has been there for quite a few years, and many others have spent their time. Still others fly in to do specialist work or consult. Chris Nurse has been there for many years; his Dubai World Cup cap hangs in the Hoofcare + Lameness office.

At most events, the official farriers are lucky to get a golf cart. At the Dubai World Cup, the official farriers had a car for the night: a new, golden Range Rover. 

The farriers who stay in Dubai are a long, long way from home. They’re living farriery on an intense level, working for clients who take winning very seriously. They work on some of the best horses in the world, and have little tolerance for error.

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were these farriers hyper-focused on their careers, so they ended up being well-suited to the demands of working in Dubai? Or is it because they are working in Dubai that they become naturally tuned in for new products, new ideas, and better ways to do things?

Shoeing horses in the world’s most modern city in the middle of a desert thousands of miles from home might not be for everyone. But for some, it’s where the hoofcare action is, so they’re there. If it works for you, it’s the place to be.

The signature raceplate of Dubai is golden. If you pick up a hoof and it glistens gold, you know where that horse has been. (Rob Stevenson photo)
Thanks to Michael Hunt and Rob Stevenson and all the ex-pat farriers in the Emirates for their help with this article and their friendship.

Here are the shoeing rules and permitted shoes for racing at Meydan (scroll down for the continuing article):

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