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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Prix d'Amerique 2015: 15 of 18 Horses Will Race "Barefoot" by Pulling Shoes Before Race

72 hooves. 6 shoes. (Maybe.)

That's the ratio for Sunday's Prix d'Amerique trotting race in Vincennes, France. The purse is worth $1.15 Million (US). It's the world's richest harness race. You'd take your shoes off, too, for that kind of prize money.

This is not just another horse race. It is a 1 11/16 mid-winter downhill then uphill push to the limits for the world's hardiest Standardbreds. These are the strongest, fastest two-beat trots you'll see anywhere in the world.

But minutes before the race starts tomorrow, the shoe pullers will come out and dozens of shoes will be left behind.

When these horses prepare for a race like the Prix d’Amerique, they plan to remove the shoes. So do they also plan to condition the feet to reduce any chance of the horse feeling the pain through the adrenalin of racing?
For more about how shoe pulling before a race affects a Standardbred, please read about special research by Professor Jean-Marie Denoix and Claire Moiroud of the CIRALE group in Normandy, France on The Hoof Blog. "Barefoot Research: What Are the Consequences of Shoe Removal for Trotting Racehorses?" was published on January 20, 2015.
Farrier Conny Svensson of New Jersey has a lot of experience in this strange-sounding practice of deliberately removing a horse’s shoes when you would think they’d need them most. In 1999, he and trainer Jimmy Takter prepared the great American trotting mare Moni Maker for the Prix d’Amerique. She won.
That was the last time an American horse won this race. She was far from barefoot; she wore Grand Champion aluminum egg bars in front and Equine Forgings full swedges with double trailers behind. But then, at Cagnes Sur Mer, they made the decision to pull her shoes before the race and not only did she win, the American horse set a new European record.
Conny tempered the story of Moni Maker’s success in France by pointing out that they tried it again, a while later, when she was racing in Italy. It didn’t work that time; she broke gait.
Fifteen years later, Taker and Svensson prepared another American mare for the big race at Vincennes. This time it’s Maven. And this time, the shoes are glued on instead of nailed.

Maven, the American Standardbred mare racing in France on Sunday, was shod before she left New Jersey in front and behind with Thoro'Bred Queens Plates adapted with Yasha glue rim pads by Ian McKinlay. This photo shows the front feet. The white/beige areas are adhesive and do not represent reconstruction. You can see the red stripe of the rim pad. (Conny Svensson photo)

Conny Svensson said that Maven's feet will be fairly long when she races in France on Sunday. 

Conny sees both upsides and downsides to pulling shoes before a race. He firmly believes that a racehorse will perform better without a rigid shoe on its foot, and that that fact would be true even of Thoroughbreds except for inherent hoof capsule weakness problems that the Standardbreds don’t have.
However, it’s not going to work every time for every horse. “Too many trainers believe too much in barefoot because they do it over and over, and they over-stress the foot,” he warned. At that point, the horse will require shoes in order to complete a race.
He said that a racing horse will tend to place its feet close to the centerline at speed when barefoot but that rigid shoes will change that. His work with flexible Razer shoes has shown him that there is a need for a non-rigid shoe.

A photo posted by Harness Racing Fan Zone (@harnessracingfanzone) on
Conny said that the typical procedure will be to warm up the filly through the first and second warmups with her shoes on. Only then, right before the race, will the shoes be removed.

He said that he doesn't expect this type of "barefoot" racing to become popular in the United States because the racetracks are simply not of the quality of the European tracks. US tracks tend to be too hard and not maintained for the horse's foot. "There are some tracks in the US where I would never race a horse without shoes," he said. "It (hoofbeats) sounds like they're racing on asphalt."

Trainer Jimmy Takter, interviewed in the Daily Racing Form this week, commented on the shoes pulled on Maven for the first time. “I think the effect is never as good as it is for the first time,” Takter stressed. “We don’t pull their shoes often in the U.S., as the tracks are harder there.”

This video shows Maven training in the lovely forest at the training center near Chamont a few days ago with her caretaker Tobias Gustafsson (sorry, French only, but you can see her). (Click the center icon to play.)

Here's a flashback to 2000 and the great General du Pommeau, who had an incredible record in the Prix d'Amerique. His nickname was  le Général aux pieds nus” ("General nude feet"). He raced without shoes in the famous race five times, won it once, and never finished worse than fifth. (Click the center icon to play.)

In France, trainers must declare their intention to race without shoes six days before the race. The shoeing status of each horse is listed on the program. The trainer is obligated to pull the shoes or else scratch the horse. The listing of shoes in the program is not unlike the "first time Lasix" and "Lasix" designations on some US racing programs.

In the US, pulling the shoes is considered an equipment change. Conny Svensson said it is a matter of informing an official in the paddock and the information flashes on the board to inform the bettors, but they are not informed in advance.

This racing program lists the starters for the 2015 Prix d'Amerique. The red circle draws your attentions to the "Fers" column, for fers a cheval, or horseshoes. 4 in the box means the horse races without all four shoes. P means posterior unshod but anterior shod and A means anterior unshod but shod. Maven's box is clear because it is her first time racing unshod. Thanks to Claire Moiroud of CIRALE for help with this.

The inevitable question about this form of barefoot racing comes when you have a race like the Prix d'Amerique, in which virtually all the horses are barefoot, and have raced barefoot before. If racing without shoes gives an advantage and all the horses are racing without shoes, no horse has an advantage over the others in this aspect of the race. Bettors will have to look elsewhere. Only the trainers know the condition of their horses' feet and how well their horses are like to go when the shoes are pulled.

CIRALE researcher Claire Moiroud summed it up nicely, “ If the shoe removal is well planned and the foot of the horse adapted and prepared, I think that this practice is acceptable.”

To learn more:

 Barefoot Research: What Are the Consequences of Shoe Removal for Trotting Racehorses?

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

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