Saturday, March 25, 2017

Underfoot in Dubai: World Cup Hooves, Shoes and Farriers for Thoroughbred Racing’s Superstars

horseshoes at the Dubai World Cup Thorougbred races

When the world’s best racehorses pack their bags for a trip to the golden global hotspot of Dubai to race in the World Cup, what do they pack? These days, trainers are sending more than coolers, halters and haynets with their horses.

They’re sending farriers, who in turn are shipping in a surprisingly diverse assortment of raceplates and nails. The flip side of the coin is that several of the top racehorses now don their shoes only on the morning of the race--and have them promptly removed the day after it's over.

Travel to Dubai with us, as we check in on an international troop of farriers, hard at work in the desert on some of the world's most valuable horses. What comes out of the desert may be headed for you.

Dubai for World Cup Arrogate training
The USA's Arrogate, trained by Bob Baffert, during a training session early in the week, under exercise rider Dana Barnes. The colt will run with a three-quarter raceplate on his right hind, as described by his farrier Wes Champagne in this article. (Photo courtesy of Dubai Racing Club and Mathea Kelley.)

Conventional wisdom suggests that the globalization of Thoroughbred racing would homogenize the hoofwear. Thoroughbred bloodlines are international, so hoof genetics would suggest similar feet. But the rising tide of skills and brainpower of today’s farriers is bringing a problem-solving mentality to the once physical-first profession.

The shoes may look the same, but they are made in different countries and used to different ends.

And the ending each farrier works toward is seeing his horse in the winner’s circle after the race.

Chasing down the farriers in Dubai is predictably difficult. Farriers aren’t known for returning phone calls or emails, and most are not publicity-seekers. In fact, farriers who are looking for the limelight are often regarded with suspicion.

That’s because farriers don’t often make news. To coin an old advertising phrase, they don’t make headlines...They earn them. And they still earn them the hard way.

This is their story and before today is done, the hooves of their horses will have written their own headlines on the track at Dubai’s Meydan Racecourse.

The races

First, the facts. The "where" is Meydan Raceourse in Dubai, capital city of one of emirates of the United Arab Emirates.  Each March, Dubai’s Meydan Racecourse, the world’s largest racetrack facility, hosts a one-day festival of Group 1 and Group 2 races on multiple racing surfaces over varying distances and conditions. Many of the world’s best horses make the journey from the far corners of the world, hoping to take home a share of the day’s US$30 million prize money.

The horses this year come from Bahrain, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Qatar, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, United States, Uruguay, as well as the Emirates, of course. Britain sent the most horses (17), followed by the United States (14) and Japan (11).

The World Cup has been hosted by Dubai since 1996, but this year is noteworthy because NBC Sports Network will broadcast three hours live from Dubai on March 25; the program will include four group 1 races, culminating with the 2017 Dubai World Cup, featuring American champion racehorse Arrogate, currently the highest-rated Thoroughbred racing on the planet.

The farriers

Farriers at the Dubai World Cup this year include both “local” farriers, many of whom are ex-pat contractors from abroad, and “traveling” farriers who have made the trip to Dubai to be on-site and see to the needs of the horses they regularly shoe. Straddling the two tribes is the quarantine center, a set of isolation barns where horses from foreign countries are protected by strict restrictions related to the possible spread of disease.

raceplates for Dubai World Cup Thoroughbreds
The shoes in Dubai and nails today are just as international as the horses. Quarantine farrier Michael Hunt captured this shot of the typical shoes used for international stars. The shoes are Thoro'Bred Racing Plates from the USA, at top is the square-toed Taiwa plate from Japan, front center is a raceplate from the USA's St Croix Forge and on the right, a Kerckhaert plate from the Royal Kerckhaert horseshoe manufacturer in Belgium. At the top are the popular new copper-plated (left) and hammerhead nail designs used on racehorses. (Michael Hunt photo)

Locally-based farriers are proud of what Dubai offers in the World Cup. International traveling farriers are impressed with what they find there.

One of the international farriers in Dubai this week is Stephen Kielt, DipWCF, who is based in Newmarket, England. He has traveled to Dubai to serve Newmarket-trained horses at the World Cup several times since 2007. Stephen is attached to the powerful Roger Varian stable in Newmarket; previously he was the late Sir Henry Cecil’s farrier.

Stephen, like all the farriers interviewed, mentioned the positive contacts and working conditions. “Both local farriers and international farriers travelling with the horses are very friendly and helpful. We all get along and everyone seems willing to share knowledge and experiences,” he shared.

three-clips Taiwa raceplate from Japan
Japanese horses racing in Dubai may well be wearing the three-clipped Taiwa raceplates. Photo courtesy of Ireland's Michael Hunt, head quarantine farrier for the Dubai World Cup.

“I find I always return from a foreign trip like this with more knowledge than when I left,” he commented. “I have noticed a vast increase in the number of farriers traveling with horses.”

Once the foreign farriers arrive at the quarantine complex at Meydan Racecourse, they find a welcome mat laid out for them by Michael Hunt, an Irish expatriate farrier for the Dubai Racing Club for the past 17 years; he will be in the paddock in an official farrier capacity on Saturday. Michael's been the senior quarantine farrier at Meydan for six years now and worked at the retirement and rehabilitation stables before that. He was the Hoof Blog's key contact for the World Cup this year. If you like this article, thank Michael.

Japanese Taiwa raceplate
Note the ground surface and shape of the Taiwa raceplate worn by the Japanese horses in Dubai. (© Michael Hunt photo)

Stephen Kielt and others mentioned Michael and the hospitality his facility offers as instrumental to getting their jobs done. “A big thanks is due to Mike, who has been so friendly and helpful in the supply to tools, if needed, each time I have come over here,” Stephen stressed.

Billy Mulqueen, DipWCF, of Mulqueen Farriery and Consultancy, Ltd. and Ed O’Shaughnessy, AWCF, of O’Shaughnessy Farriery, Ltd. are two farriers from Newmarket, England also tending to their horses’ needs. O’Shaughnessy is a fixture on the international horseshoeing competition scene, and has represented his native Ireland on the Irish Farrier Team. He's there to shoe Jack Hobbs for trainer John Gosden.

Billy Mulqueen was featured on both The Hoof Blog and CNN’s Winning Post television series last year. At Dubai, he’s providing service to Newmarket trainer William Haggas, and the stakes horse Mutakayyef owned by Shadwell Stable, the racing operation of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai. Mutakayyef will run in the Dubai Turf “with a decent chance, I'm told”, Billy quipped.

shoeing hammer of gold in Dubai
All that glitters...fits right in in Dubai. A few years ago, it was "gold" raceplates for the World Cup. This year, English farrier Billy Mulqueen was handed a golden hammer when he showed up to shoe one of his horses in the quarantine barn. You can also see some of Mustad's antimicrobial copper-coated "hammer head" nails. Quarantine farrier Michael Hunt said that the "golden" glitter of the copper nailheads are appropriate for the Dubai World Cup. (Billy Mulqueen photo)

He described Mutakayyef as a horse that has “always been quite a straight-forward shoeing job.” Reached on Wednesday, Billy said he was planning to plate the six-year-old chestnut on Thursday. Equipment for Mutakayyef was set to include St Croix Concorde raceplates all round, with copper “hammerhead” race nails.

While the international farriers may be hoping to maintain the status quo, some Dubai-based farriers continue to push the hoofcare envelope and prove that a barefoot training regimen can work successfully--with an eye to the environment.

Godolphin Thoroughbred trains barefoot in Dubai
Right hind of one of the Godolphin barefoot program trainees. The eight-year-old gelding Baccarat  races in the Al Quoz Sprint (Race 5).

Farrier Derek Poupard, originally from South Africa and formerly a resident of the United States, shoes the Charlie Appleby division of Godolphin Racing, shuttling alongside the horses between Dubai and Newmarket, England with the seasons. He maintains his horses barefoot. On the day of the race, he shoes them, and removes the plates the day after the race.

“Our horses have run really well to now, and we have a strike rate of 28%, which is very high in racing with 14 horses winning 11 races (according to statistics),” Derek reported. He has four runners on World Cup day.

Dubai World Cup farriers
Farriers working at the Meydan quarantine facility this week included (from left) Stephen Kielty from Newmarket, England; quarantine center head farrier Michael Hunt from Ireland; Billy Mulqueen from Newmarket, England; and Declan Cronin of Ireland, a farrier from Ireland now providing an innovation barefoot training program for South Africa's Mike de Kock. (Photo courtesey of Billy Mulqueen)

Derek stressed the importance of evaluating environment before considering a barefoot racing regimen. “Training barefoot depends entirely on your training environment and in (this) desert stable of ours in Dubai, we have no tarmac, with sand walkways and warm up rings. The horses then work on the sand or grass with no difference felt by the riders at all. They were skeptical about traction on the grass originally but this has never been an issue to date.”

Derek is not the only farrier training barefoot. Irish farrier Declan Cronin has been a pioneer in this area, as farrier for South African trainer Mike de Kock. Declan’s barefoot system was used for de Kock’s Mubhaatij, who ran in all three Triple Crown races in the United States in 2015 after training without shoes. Mubhaatij is still with us; he runs in the big race, the Dubai World Cup, in 2017.

Derek noted that Mike de Kock has Tapeta walkways along with Tapeta, sand and grass surfaces to train on at Meydan.

hoof-friendly racetrack path made of Tapeta
The massive racetrack and training complex at Meydan features hoof-friendly Tapeta walkways like this one. More supportive than pavement used at US racetracks, artificial surfaces can be abrasive to hooves, making barefoot hoofcare not quite a no-brainer. Here you see Postponed on a Tapeta walkway. He will race on turf in Dubai's Sheema Classic, a race he won last year. 

“Tapeta can be abrasive if worked on extensively, as there is less hoof slide on impact,” he reminded. “In Newmarket, the environment is too harsh for our stable to use the barefoot model at this stage, as our walkways to the track are tarmac and far too abrasive.

“Trainers like Mike de Kock are right on the Heath (training grounds) there,” he continued “and if there are no flint stones on the walkways, they can and do barefoot whenever possible.”

Racehorse shoe manufacturers won’t sell much volume to Derek, who said he re-uses the same plates again and again, just for race days. He said, “I use the same plates for the entire season here (in Dubai), as there is no wear at all.”

Derek also has specific preferences for the few shoes that he does use. “I take the toe clips off a Kerckhaert Extra Sound (aluminum raceplate) as I do not need the added security of them for such a short time and loathe cutting in a clip on an unshod foot due to the aesthetics when removing it the following day,” he explained. “My nail of preference is the Mustad hammer head as it does not move once seated into the shoe.”


One of Stephen Kielt’s chief concerns is the effect of the change in environments on the horses’ feet. “As we are traveling horses from the UK, which has a colder (and) wetter climate, I find the feet dry out here and possibly shrink very slightly, as a result of not having as much moisture in them. I have been told from friends in Australia that this has also been noticed when horses move from (the) UK to there.”

St Croix raceplate at Meydan Racecourse, Dubai
A hind foot of the Britain-based Mutakayyef from Newmarket, as shod by Billy Mulqueen with St Croix raceplates and Mustad copperized hammer-head nails. (Billy Mulqueen photo)

The hoof reacts to the change in environmental moisture in ways that perhaps only farriers would see, or perhaps feel with their hands. “Shoes tend to move more causing the hoof wall to weaken. Clenches will also rise quicker,” Stephen offered.

He keeps an eagle’s eye on his charges’ feet. “From observing the big international meetings over the years, I think the amount of horses that have to withdraw from their races due to foot issues is disproportionately high...There may be many different reasons why this happens--climate, stress of travel, change of terrains and surfaces.”

Stephen offered the comparison that it is not just northern horses traveling to the desert who have foot adjustment issues. “Horses that travel to Newmarket very often will have to walk on (paved town) roads (to get to training grounds) which they may not be used to,” he reminds.

English farrier Billy Mulqueen
English farrier Billy Mulqueen shoeing Mutakayyef for trainer William Haggas in the quarantine facility. (Photo courtesy of Billy Mulqueen)

Coolmore's Ballydoyle contingent

One of the biggest stables at Dubai this week is the Coolmore group, whose racing and training empire is headquartered at Ballydoyle in Ireland. Their regular traveling farrier for events like this, American Jeff Henderson, is at home in Ireland, where his wife has just given birth to a son, Cormac.

Representing the Coolmore farriers this year is Irish Master Farrier, Rory McGrath, MF, of Laois, Ireland.

“All of our runners are in good order and have pretty straight-forward foot needs,” Jeff reported earlier in the week. For him, it will be tough to ever top Coolmore’s 1-2-3 finish in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France in November; all three were shod by Jeff. “I would have to say that has probably been the highlight of this amazing adventure,” Jeff said.

America's Arrogate

Arrogate three quarter shoe twitter Jay Privman
Daily Racing Form journalist Jay Privman shared the news of Arrogate's 3/4 shoe in January before the Pegasus World Cup in Florida, which Arrogate won easily. He defeated Dubai World Cup winner California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby winner's final career start. 

California Chrome's stall at Meydan filled by Arrogate
American star Arrogate in his
stall in the quarantine barn. The
doorplate commemorates this
as the stall of California 
Chrome, last year's winner and
also from the USA. (Michael
Hunt photo)
Michael Hunt reported candidly that three of the 14 US-based horses were wearing a ¾ shoe.

Was one of them Arrogate? He wouldn't say.

Arrogate blazed past his rivals in the Pegasus World Cup in Florida in January wearing a shoe with only one heel, as reported in the racing press.

On Friday, his farrier, Wes Champagne of California, explained his engineering of Arrogate’s hoof problem that sent him on to Dubai with the abbreviated shoe. “He popped an internal crack two weeks prior to the Pegasus,” Wes began. “The crack was traveling from the bar all the way to the bulb.”

But that was then. Wes is known for managing problems like this. He said he chose to use a Dremel burr to expose the area. When he was done, “it basically looked as though he had grabbed a quarter six weeks prior,” Wes explained. “This allowed the crack to move in a different direction, kind of as if you had water running down a trench and cut a deeper trench to the left or right: the water would follow.

“Arrogate is fine now,” he stressed. “It should be fully grown out soon!”

This file photo by Alan Crowhurst of Getty Images illustrates a 3/4 shoe, as worn on Arrogate's right hind, and on two other USA runners today. Photo was taken at Goodwood Racecourse in England, and is not from Dubai. The horse is wearing a 3/4 on his left hind, which also shows a laceration further up the limb.  This is not Arrogate's foot. (File image courtesy of Getty Images)

What do farriers do all day at a race meet like the Dubai World Cup? Like the horses themselves, they work hard when asked. Standing by is an important skill. Patience should not be underrated.

The presence of more international farriers for a championship day like the Dubai World Cup makes perfect sense to Stephen Kielt. “I believe when dealing with these horses, who can be worth huge sums and also be running for huge sums, it is best to minimize as many risks as possible. Having your own farrier whom you know and trust and who knows your horse not only will reduce the risk to the horse but will (also) give the trainer and his traveling staff one less problem to worry about. Generally, the trainers I work for are used to having a first class service and this is an extension of that service.

"When I travel with the horse I will be in the stable each time the staff are present with the horse, which means I am on hand instantly if there is a problem with the horse,” Stephen explained.

“Also, I can shoe the horse at the most optimum time for the horse as opposed to perhaps having to fit him in around a long list of other horses to tend to.

“Thankfully the profile of farriery (has risen) over the years. Trainers and owners are more aware of the importance of the farrier and effects (of farriery) on a horse’s ability to perform, so as a result they would like their own farrier to shoe their horse.”

On race day, the official track staff farriers based in Dubai will head to the saddling enclosure. You might not be able to pick them out of the crowd; they will be meticulously turned out in suits, although there are surely toolboxes and aprons tucked away somewhere, to be used if they are needed.

Michael Hunt reports, "There are six Emirate Racing Association official farriers working at the races." Emirates rules require reporting any non-standard shoes in use, although Polyflex glue-ons from the USA are an exception and are specifically allowed under racing rules. Michael said that he has seen one international horse shod with Polyflex shoes. Other shoes, if they meet requirements for toe grab height, may be glued on if they are declared.

Soon it will be time to pack up and watch the horses get on flights back to all parts of the planet. Life will return to normal, if there is such a thing as normal in the desert racing mecca. The farriers will also return to their home camps, taking new knowledge, friendships, and memories with them.

Billy Mulqueen summed it up the night before the race: "I have found that all the international farriers who travel over and meet at these events are happy to share knowledge. I always come away feeling like I've gained something from these trips."

In particular, Billy thanked head quarantine farrier Michael Hunt for his hospitality, time and equipment "in whatever situation it's needed". Far away from home, on a rainy day in the desert, a farrier might find some unusual demands on his services and on his horses, and Michael's just about seen it all.

Professionalism prevails at events like this, but personality is still a factor, as it always will be when farriers get out their passports and try to work far from home. Hard work still matters, but so does a good heart and a quick smile.

Dubai is building a golden reputation as a home away from home where farriers can do their best work in spite of the distance from home and suppliers and apprentices and helpers. It may be in the desert, but it's rich in many ways.

Hoofcare has a valid place on the list of priorities in this deluxe equine encampment on the Persian Gulf. Each year, when the festival is over and the horses move on, there's more to celebrate than just who won.


Thank you to all the farriers who contributed to this article, especially Michael Hunt, and to all the farriers worldwide who care for the dozens of horses who will run today and every day. This article’s for you.

More on hoofcare at the Dubai World Cup in other years:

Dubai World Cup: Will the Dirt Track Renaissance Affect the Shoeing for the World's Richest Race? (2015)

Dubai Hoofcare: What--or Who--Was Underneath the Horses in the World's Richest Race? (2014)

And on shoeless Thoroughbred training, Dubai-style:

Coolmore's Daddy Long Legs to Run Without Shoes in Dubai Stakes Race; Interference Given as Reason for Rule Exception

Dubai Horse Fair: No Nails

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