Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Shoes, Half Shoes, or No Shoes At All: Swedish-Trained Trotters Ruled Hambletonian Day

horseshoe and pad  worn by Trixton in 2014 Hambletonian victory
Think Swedish: Some of the most interesting horseshoes come from Sweden. But just as interesting is the way that the shoes are used. Swedish-trained and shod Father Patrick, the 4-5 favorite, and Trixton, the winner, both went to the post wearing cut off American-made Thoro'Bred Queen's Plates with Grand Circuit Flapper pads that farrier Conny Svensson cut to fit. (Conny Svensson photo)

Say "Sweden" and what comes to mind: Saabs and Volvos? Singing along to an Abba song? Swedish warmbloods? Mustad nails? Furniture shopping at Ikea? Lars Roeppstorf's hoof research at Upsaala University? How about a martini made with Absolut vodka?

But you really should think of harness racing. And horseshoes. Maybe after reading this article, you will.

In harness racing, Swedish-trained horses have dominated the headlines here in the USA this summer, especially when Swedish owned, bred and/or trained horses swept a majority of the races on the biggest Standardbred racing day of the year. Hambletonian Day at the Meadowlands' one-mile track in New Jersey was a showcase of speed, but there was nothing normal about how the Swedish-trained horses did it.

And to understand how they did it, you need to look at the shoes they wore. Or half wore. Or didn't wear at all.

Conny Svensson horseshoer
Swedish farrier Conny Svensson of New Jersey speaking at a Hoofcare@Saratoga event at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York. (Hoofcare Publishing file photo)
The $1 Million Hambletonian is North America's richest and most prestigious harness race. Comparable to the Kentucky Derby, it is open only to qualified three-year-old trotters.

American-based Swedish trainer Jimmy Takter had three horses in the 2014 Hambletonian, including the favorite, Father Patrick, who unfortunately broke stride at the start. However, two of his "other" horses, Trixton and Nuncio, finished 1-2.

The Swedish connection doesn't end at the trainer; Takter's horses are shod by his fellow countryman and longtime strategic collaborator Conny Svensson, who kindly shared some details of how the winning horse's hooves were conditioned and shod for the race.

It's important to not take the term "shod" in Swedish Standardbred terminology too literally. The fact that horses may not be wearing shoes at the exact moment they win a race seems to be a mere technicality of Swedish racing strategy. And it's often a brilliant one--just check this team's race record and earnings.

All three Takter horses train in the high-tech flexible Swedish-made Razer shoes. It's not unusual in harness racing to make last-minute changes to shoes and pads, sometimes just before the race. And at other times, the horse races in the same shoes he has been training in.

Trixton training pad and shoe
This is where it gets interesting: Trixton trained in the high-tech Swedish Razer shoe, as did the other Takter entries. Compare the coverage and nailing in the training shoe with a cut-out Pro Pad (above) with the racing package (Flapper and demi-Queen's Plate) at the top of the article. The coverage is comparable but the training package is held on with only four nails and the frog cover would be held in place by the heels of the shoe. On the racing package, the pad is not attached to the foot behind the widest part of the foot. (Conny Svensson photo)

In some countries, racehorses are shod right before the race anyway. You see this in Australia, where the horses are in open-top stalls to be "plated" in aluminum to replace their steel training plates.

But the Swedish Standardbred trainers might be just as likely to try to take the shoes off entirely as to be putting different ones on, if they think the track conditions and weather are suitable--and that the horse would benefit from such a quick change of equipment.

"Racing bare foot is not a standard practice in (harness) racing but it's also not unusual," Conny offered cautiously. There are many factors that go into decisions about the feet on race days, especially when the horses are required to race in multiple heats. This year, however, the Hambletonian was a one-heat race.

"When we do it, we warm the horses up with shoes," Conny said. "And we put them back on asap so that they don't wear (their hooves) out."

"That's why we keep track of toe length and angles so that we can keep them the same at all times during the racing season. They get done every 2-3 weeks," Conny said.

Conny Svensson and Jimmy Takter tried removing the shoes entirely and succeeded in a very big way in the Hambletonian Oaks with the filly Lifetime Pursuit.

Razer horseshoe worn for training by Hambletonian Oaks winner Lifetime Pursuit
Lifetime Pursuit, winner of the Hambletonian Oaks for fillies, lives and trains in these Razer shoes, but they were pulled just before the race, which she won barefoot. (Conny Svensson photo)
"They pulled off her shoes and I think that made the difference," her driver said in an interview. "She is always good gaited but that really helped her today.”

Conny was not so quick to give credit to pulling the shoes, however. When reminded that he pulled the shoes on the great Moni Maker in Europe back in the 1990s, with the effect of setting a track record, Conny Svensson replied, "Yes...Moni Maker raced barefoot twice. Once she won and set a new track record. The second time she went off stride..."

But Lifetime Pursuit not only won the Oaks, her shoeless time of 1:50.4 surpassed the previous world record of 1:51 set last year by Harness Horse of the Year, Bee A Magician.

Her Razer shoes went back on after the race. But Lifetime Pursuit was soon in the racing news (and the hoof news) again when she came back a week after the Oaks and tied the world record (1:51.3 for a 5/8 mile track) in the Pennsylvania Sires Stakes at The Meadows in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, but this time with her Razer shoes on.

Two other Swedish-trained horses won notable races without shoes on Hambletonian Day. Working social media, the Swedish camp of new-to-America driver/trainer Ake Svanstedt announced via Twitter that Centurion AFM would trot shoeless for the first time in his career in the $355,500 Peter Haughton Memorial for two-year-olds, and he won, as well.

World-record holder (and Swedish import) Sebastian K is described as "the fastest trotter in harness racing history", thanks to his 1:49 mile at Pocono Downs in June. He raced successfully without shoes in Europe and continues to do that here; he put on a great show at The Meadowlands. 

Sebastian K
Swedish world record holder Sebastian K has had a winning career in Europe and North America without shoes on race night. Notice he does wear bell boots, however. He's currently the top-rated Standardbred in North America. (Photo courtesy of Ken Weingartner and Harness Racing Communications)

Steve Wolf of HarnessLink has looked into the shoeless racing phenomenon. Here's a brief report from Steve:

"In Sweden, as in many European countries, you must report to the officials if you intend on racing your horse without shoes. In France they have the stiffest rules as you must declare six days before you race whether or not your horse will wear shoes or go barefoot and after that you cannot change back. The rules are different throughout the harness racing world." 

Steve did some research on European entries and found, for one day in May 2014 that "At Caen, France, a feature race showed that 14 of the 19 horses entered were racing without shoes."

“(Sebastian K) always raced without shoes in Sweden,” assistant trainer Bjorn Noren told Steve. “He’s a different horse without shoes. Of course, you have to look at the racetrack; the racetrack cannot be hard. Ake (Svanstedt) warmed the horse up and felt the track was very good, the track crew did a very good job to get a nice cushion, so he decided to race him without shoes.

“If the track is OK, every time he races he’s going to race barefoot.”

The trainer explained the difference in shoes vs. no shoes to the USTA's Ken Weingartner this way: "He feels best without shoes. He has a very long step without shoes. He goes much longer without shoes than with shoes. When he qualified, he qualified with shoes and he got so wide step behind that he hit the bike. When he is without shoes, he is not so wide."
Sebastian K is eight years old; Steve Wolf reports that the star's feet are cared for by Dutch farrier Pascal Harbors.

Count on Swedish ingenuity to keep Standardbred shoeing (and unshoeing) interesting!

Special thanks to Steve Wolf of HarnessLink and Ken Weingartner of Harness Racing Communications for their help with this article and to Conny Svensson for his photos and interview.

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