Tuesday, May 12, 2015

All for Want of a Shoe: Lost Horseshoes Subject of Nine-Hour Irish Turf Tribunal and Australian Rule Change

One of horse sports' great wild cards has always been the lost shoe. Some horses lose a shoe and stop in their tracks. Some keep running and jumping--even winning. Sometimes the shoe sparkles in the sun. Sometimes it's never found.

Some people just shrug it off. Some people want to do something about it. And sometimes it's just a mystery. 

Lost shoes were under the microscope recently for the Irish Turf Club, governing body for racing decisions in that country. A special tribunal explored a post-race situation in which the front shoes seemed to magically disappear from a horse before a veterinary inspection for a steward's inquiry. You can read the entire transcript of the nine-hour evidence review online, which will certainly become the reference document for footnotes on lost horseshoes in papers forevermore.

The basic story is that a horse named Foxrock finished the Weatherby’s Ireland GSB Handicap Steeplechase at Punchestown in December 2014 without a lot of urging from his jockey. In the interest of the betting public, jockeys are required to urge a horse on. Should he have been more insistent? Or did the horse lose a shoe--or even two? The officials were prepared to accept that a horse that lost a shoe would lose enthusiasm to run, as this horse seemed to; a jockey would be less likely to whip a horse he knew was missing a shoe. That is, until someone noticed afterwards in a video that the horse was seen walking from the finish with shoes clearly visible.

But when he arrived for inspection by the vets a few short minutes after being hosed off, he was only wearing hind shoes and he was slightly lame. The vet assumed that both front shoes were lost in the race and accepted that as the horse's excuse.

Just how common is it for a horse to lose two shoes, the vet wondered. He even made a note of it.

The inquiry came after someone watched a video of the race. A tribunal of some of Ireland's leading flat and jump trainers, farriers, veterinarians and racing officials was convened. English farrier Simon Curtis, author of Farriery: Foal to Racehorse submitted an affidavit on how and when horses are likely to lose shoes.

The trainer even brought in leading Irish veterinarian Des Leadon for his defense.

Much ado about nothing? Or something?

The tribunal document is interesting reading, as Thoroughbred trainers like Coolmore's A.P. (Aidan) O'Brien and leading jump racing experts like Willie Mullins testify how common (or not) it is for racehorses to lose shoes. Both these leading trainers were not surprised at all that a horse lost both front shoes, while others said it was practically a miracle if it had happened. Farrier David Boyne said that the rubber mats in the wash rack could have done it.

The tribunal even considered the amount of time it would take someone to remove a shoe--if the individual had the skill to do the task, and if not. Only a few minutes transpired, and yet the shoes disappeared from the horse's hooves. No one seemed to notice where or when they dropped off.

The obvious question seems to be what the hooves looked like, and if the veterinarian picked them up or just could see without doing that that the shoes were missing. If the feet had been lifted, it might be obvious that a race hadn't been run without shoes on those feet. But if he could see easily that there were no shoes, and there was no reason to be suspicious at the time, he probably wouldn't pick up the feet. The transcript only mentions the vet's observation of the outer wall.

Is anyone else a fan of film My Cousin Vinny? The peak moment of that movie is when character Mona Lisa Vito (played brilliantly by actress Marisa Tomei, who won an Academy Award for this role) testifies that the tire tracks at a crime site could only have been made by a car with a Positraction rear differential, which the innocent defendant's car did not have.

Even New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick mentioned Mona Lisa Vito's expert testimony when his team was first accused in DeflateGate. As it turns out, the Patriots could have used an expert like her.

And in Ireland, someone finally pointed out that if the trainer or one of his assistants had pulled the shoes off that wet dirty horse after a long jump race, he would have either had to put on a farrier's apron, or else have had dirty pants. (And hands, no doubt.)

Also, where were the tools that would be required to get the job done, and what became of the shoes?

No one remembers seeing anyone in the trainer's entourage with dirty pants. Or an apron.

In the end, the jockey was found to be at fault for not urging the horse on. The trainer was cleared of any wrongdoing.

The 37 sections of testimony and fact-finding never solved the mystery of the lost shoes. How and when and why and where the shoes disappeared will probably remain one of those Irish mysteries topped only by the disappearance of the Aga Khan's great champion racehorse Shergar from his stable back in the 1970s.

The answer to what became of Foxrock's shoes will be known only to those who stay up for the late-night storytelling down at the pub. It will be one of the tales that are only told in a whisper. Someone in some pub somewhere might even try to show you those shoes, as long as you promise never to tell another soul. Ever.

Ferry Inn (Cast Shoe) (Restrike Etching) by Robert Walker Macbeth
A problem for the ages: this old image, Ferry Inn (Cast Shoe) (Restrike Etching) by Robert Walker Macbeth, depicts a farrier helping a traveler whose horse has lost a shoe. 

Lost glue-on shoes

What if Foxrock had been wearing glue-ons?

One of the strikes that glue-on shoes have against them is that horse owners and trainers fear that a horse will lose a shoe and no one will be around who can put it back on.

What happens when a horse loses a glue-on at the track?

The problem of lost shoes comes up in unusual places--like Western Australia, for example, where a racing rule change last year was initiated specifically to deal with horses whose glue-on shoes fell off.

It's hard to tell if this rule was put in place because glue shoes fall off a lot in Western Australia, or if trainers would like to use them more but worry about what happens if one falls off. What if no one is available with the adhesive and/or skills to replace it? Should a horse race with a bare hoof if it was shod with a therapeutic shoe?

"Official Thoroughbred Policy 22" reads:

Horses losing Glue-on plates or plates that have been secured to the foot by the use of Synthetic Hoof Repair Material, either at the barrier or just prior to the race, will not be permitted to race bare. These horses have a foot condition which requires a therapeutic shoe. Racing “bare” is likely to be detrimental to their race performance and welfare;

Any horse losing Glue-on plates or plates that have been secured to the foot by the use of Synthetic Hoof Repair Material, where the on course farrier is physically able to secure a replacement normal shoe to the foot in a timely manner, may be permitted to be inspected by the Official Veterinarian to ascertain soundness to start. In this case the horse will only be permitted to start if the Official Veterinarian finds the horse to be sound once the replacement shoe has been secured.

In circumstances where a plate has become cast in the preliminary and cannot be located the options should be discussed with the on course farrier. i.e. race with 3 plates or remove another plate to race bare in front or behind.

In the case where a therapeutic plate (bar plate, heart bar, pads, shock shods, egg bar etc.) has been lost or cannot be reattached, the Official Veterinarian should ascertain whether the horse is sound to start without that plate. In these circumstances input should be sought from the trainer, who is in the best position to advise why the horse is using therapeutic plates. If the trainer cannot be contacted by mobile phone, an announcement via the course broadcast may be required to have the trainer summoned to a designated area to discuss the matter with the steward in charge.

In the event that the trainer cannot be contacted, the steward in charge should order the horse to be declared a late scratching. 

The rule change won't make the shoes stick on any better. The dearth of adhesive skills among the rank and file racetrack shoers is the problem but, with time and encouragement, that will remedy itself. 

Horses will always lose, spread and twist their shoes. And we'll keep telling stories about it, but there's always a new angle on one of the horse world's oldest problems.

To learn more:
The Foxrock Lost Shoes Tribunal documentation from Ireland

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