Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Shoeing under the microscope: Much ado about Justify's shoe as the Preakness looms

horseshoe news from the Kentucky Derby

It should be part of the winner's circle ceremony. If you win the Kentucky Derby, they award you three things: First, a blanket of red roses to drape over your withers. Next, a gorgeous trophy for your owners to hoist in the air. And last but not least, there's a microscope, which you will live under for the next five weeks of your life.

Writer Fran Jurga
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You might not be able to see the microscope, but it's there. And no one knows that better than the winning trainer of the Kentucky Derby winner.

This year, the microscope was put to use immediately. The roses hadn't even begun to wilt on the morning after the Kentucky Derby when Justify, the spectacular (and undefeated) 2018 winner, emerged from his stall to greet the media.


As the horse crunched his way across the loose-stone lane between the barns, the court of public opinion quickly judged the horse to be lame on his near hind.

Confusion reigned as trainer Bob Baffert shrugged off the sensitive foot as being related to the muddy track on Derby day. Then came a mention of a heel bruise.

Whatever the injury was, it didn't bother the colt after Baffert opted to remove the full shoe and continue training with a three-quarter shoe for a week. (The colt had raced with a full shoe on the foot; "three-quartering" a shoe means simple cutting off one heel, usually the inside.) Justify was declared a definite entry in the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, the second leg of the Triple Crown--a race that Bob Baffert has won six times before.

 three-quarter shoe worn by Justify
Justify headed to the track to continue training with the heel
removed from his shoe to alleviate a sore heel. (Tom Amoss 
photo, used with permission)
On May 10, Elliott Walden, President/CEO and Racing Manager of WinStar Farm, and a part-owner of Justify, said in a report compiled for Churchill Downs Communications by Kevin Kerstein, "He has dealt with a cracked heel off and on and that is typical of horses. The track was rough Saturday with all the rain. The first time we saw it (the heel) was when he came out for you guys (the media) Sunday. We had to figure out what it was and work on it.”

With the Preakness less than a week away, trainer Baffert decided to re-shoe the foot on Sunday, May 13. From under the microscope, he assured America that the colt would be ready to race before shipping to Baltimore the following Wednesday.

Justify's specialty shoeing treatment is designed to get the horse through the Preakness on May 19, while acknowledging that that race is merely Step 2 in a three-part campaign--and that the rest of his three-year-old career is still ahead of him.

• • • • •

On Sunday, May 13, most people were celebrating Mothers Day, but Florida farrier Curtis Burns was on his way to the airport. A longtime adjunct farrier for some of Bob Baffert's special cases, Burns is known for his work with hoof repair, adhesives and his own shoe, the Polyflex urethane shoe, used successfully by racehorses like Curlin, Shackleford and Mucho Macho Man. Shackleford, in fact, won the Preakness wearing Burns's shoes.

Embed from Getty Images
The photo above shows Justify's uninjured off hind foot during training for the Preakness.

Justify, however, was not a candidate for glue-on shoes.

Shoeing for the Preakness

Curtis Burns arrived in Louisville equipped to do some serious work on the colt, but he said he instead found a pretty standard heel injury -- and one that didn't require many of the tools in the hoof repair case he had carried with him.

The treatment began with the removal of the three-quarter shoe; Curtis re-shod both hind feet with regular Victory toe-clipped raceplates. The new near hind shoe covered the bruised heel area that had been left exposed by the three-quarter shoe.

Burns then applied a support wall reinforcement; it does not touch the shoe, and is not nailed. The nailing pattern is forward of the adhesive.

© Curtis Burns Kentucky Derby winner Justify heel quarter floated and hoof wall repair
Farrier Curtis Burns took this cell phone photo of Justify's famous near hind foot after shoeing to avoid pressure on the inside heel.  A Poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) adhesive reinforcement was added on the inside wall, and only on the near hind on May 14. The little notch at the bottom of the wall reinforcement indicates the location of the soreness. From that notch back to the point of the heel, the hoof is "floated". PMMA is an industrial adhesive with many medical applications and is commonly used to attach artificial fingernails to nail beds. The trade name for the PMMA used on Justify is "Equilox".  Photo © Curtis Burns.

Curtis answered the obvious question before it was even asked: Why not a bar shoe? "A lot of times, people would use a Z-bar on a heel bruise like this," he told the Hoof Blog. "But, over time and with racing (in the Preakness this weekend), it would distort the foot.

Burns also said that the shoes for Justify did not have "bends" or "turndowns", typical shoe modifications worn by horses at Churchill Downs, where hind shoe turndowns up to 1/4" are allowed. The full shoes that Justify wore in the Kentucky Derby did not have bends or turndowns, either.

Bends are not allowed under Pimlico shoeing rules, where the Preakness is run. Burns said that bends or turndowns would also have put more pressure on the injured heel quarter.

"This colt has a big campaign ahead of him," he continued. "The least amount of change is best. Sometimes, simpler is better."

With the foot set up as it is, it can be soaked or medicated, if needed. "They can do anything they want with it," Burns said.

© Derek Poupard Z bar horseshoe for heel pain or quarter crack
Example of a Z bar on a horse with a sore inside heel quarter who was being prepared for a season-end race. This is NOT Justify. Thanks to Derek Poupard for this photo.

One thing Burns did do is very slightly "float" the inside heel where the bruise is located, after he applied the Equilox adhesive to the hoof wall in the area. He said he inserted a fine hacksaw blade between the shoe and the heel, creating a regional float that is roughly the thickness of a business card, if you were to insert one under the heel.

"It looks really good," he said. For the rest of the day, he watched the colt work 1 1/2 miles on the track, felt the foot, checked everything over, and waited. Finally, after he watched the colt at feeding time, he decided it was safe to head to the airport for the trip home.

© Curtis Burns Kentucky Derby winner Justify

Bob Baffert gave a press briefing after the shoeing, in which he gave a few details about what had been done to the hoof but didn't mention that he had brought in a consulting farrier to do the work.

Background: Hoof repair in context 

Reinforced hoof walls are seen commonly at the racetrack. Industrial poly(methyl methacrylate) or "PMMA" adhesive is standard. It is used proactively to reinforce hoof walls and attach glue-on shoes; it can also be used to protect a hoof repair procedure, such as a quarter crack repair, or cover a hoof that was damaged by acute injury or that needed partial removal for a condition like white line disease. Damaged hoof walls don't heal back together, but they can be "repaired" with the adhesive so normal wall growth can proceed from the coronary band.

For some applications, colored PMMA is used to blend in with the natural hoof pigment and is rarely noticed. Bell boots are often used to cover the repair in the barn area or on the way to the track.

© Ian McKinlay Big Brown hoof repair
Who could forget Big Brown? His patches had
patches, but he won both the 2008 Kentucky
Derby and the Preakness. Like Justify, the Derby
was his only his fourth career start, but his injury
was much more severe. (Ian McKinlay photo) 
Depending on the severity of the injury and the age or racing/showing class of the animal, horses may be shod with special shoes and adhesives to get them to a big race in their careers. This often happens before the Breeders Cup, which comes at the end of the year, or for one of the required qualifying races for it. Hoof treatments are calculated with the racing calendar.

Horses with a serious injury, as we saw with Big Brown in the 2008 Triple Crown, and others since, may receive multiple adjustments or changes of repair materials and shoes over the course of treatment.

Once the application is done, the goal is to keep the horse comfortable and sound for training, but also to facilitate healing of the injury and minimize distortion of the hoof capsule as it grows. Barn staff will provide daily monitoring and care for the foot, including any topical medications, poultices, wrapping or soaking.

In other cases, horses with minor problems are shod and equipped with an eye to a long campaign, particularly when an injury occurs early in the season. This might also be done for horses who have had problems since they were foals or yearlings.

Todd Pletcher trainee Audible, who finished third behind Justify in the Derby, was shown before the race training with wall reinforcements on both the inside and outside walls. Farriers can choose to make the patches superficial, as seen on Justify, or the shoes can be nailed on through the material.

Brittle or weak hoof walls are often given as the reason for applying hoof wall reinforcement. Trainers aren't required to disclose the exact extent of an injury or weakness; they may use subjective or ambiguous terms, particularly when referring to the region known as the "heel".

Hoof repair following white line disease treatment at The Clinic at Oakencroft in New York
Hoof repair materials are not always visible. This
horse's hoof repair was part of a treatment for white
line disease. (© Hoof Blog file photo)
On the same day as the Derby, a horse with wall reinforcements completed the grueling Badminton Horse Trials cross-country phase in England. The same adhesive is also used to attach shoes like the Polyflex to the foot.

Hoof repair history

Adhesives have been used for hoof repair and shoe attachment for decades; German veterinarians and farriers researched adhesive shoe technology 100 years ago. How to create a synthetic, nailable hoof wall repair material has kept people up at night for generations.

The first published veterinary article (in English) found on adhesives for hoof wall repair was a 1965 paper from the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "Hoof repair with plastics" by clinicians Jenny, Evans, and Raker stated that self-polymerizing acrylics had been used by that university "for many years". Their paper documented New Bolton Center's use of hard polymer repair material for horn defects, hoof cracks, seedy toe (white line disease), chronic laminitis, hoof deformation, and attachment of shoes.

Jenny's paper was published the year after California farrier Bill Bane patented his adhesive hoof patching process for quarter cracks, which had been used successfully to allow Stanley Dancer's champion trotter Su Mac Lad to continue racing and become the all-time leading money earner in history, at that time.

Bane's patent publication was covered as news by the New York Times. The same or a similar patch was credited with holding champion Thoroughbred Buckpasser's hoof together, helping him win 13 Grade 1 races in his three-year-old campaign in 1966, even though his hoof problems had kept him out of the Kentucky Derby that year.

• • • • • 

Should Justify be successful and defeat the field of fresh horses waiting for him in Baltimore for the Preakness, he will have three weeks to rest before the 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes in New York on June 9. In the first week of June, the microscope will be turned up to its highest power and we'll see if another Triple Crown champion is in its sights.

Thanks to Curtis Burns, Bob Baffert and staff, Derek Poupard and many others for assistance with this article.

To read the landmark Jenny article on hoof repair, ask a reference librarian to help you locate:
Jenny, Jacques, L. H. Evans, and C. W. Raker. "Hoof repair with plastics." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 147.12 (1965): 1340-1345.

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Wouterus Verschuur (1812-1874, Dutch) "At the Farrier"
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