LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The shoes. It's gotta be the shoes.
Or, at least to some degree, it's the glued-on poly-flex horseshoes worn by Big Brown and Pyro that have helped to make them two of the most well-regarded contenders in the 134th Kentucky Derby.
The vast majority of racehorses are shod with nailed-on aluminum plates when they race on a fast track, which is the forecasted condition of the Churchill Downs surface Saturday. But for horses with feet ailments or conformation defects, including those whose hooves are brittle or prone to cracking or carrying heat, a relatively new solution to those problems has been to have their front feet - but not their back - shod with glue-ons.
"I think they run faster in them," Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Pyro, said immediately when asked about glue-ons. "Maybe almost half my horses wear them."
Overall, however, "probably less than 5 percent" of active racehorses wear glue-ons, said Todd Boston, a Kentucky-based farrier who works summers at Saratoga and winters at Gulfstream Park and the Palm Meadows training center in Florida.
As opposed to more rigid aluminum plates that are nailed on, the glue-ons are made of a pliable synthetic rubber, affixed with an epoxy, and "tend to make a noticeable difference in allowing a horse's foot to grow," said Boston. "Generally, the horses needing the shoes are carrying heat in their feet, or have brittle hoof walls or growth problems, or we're having problems getting the nails in properly. You very seldom see a healthy-footed horse wearing glue-ons."
The shoes have been available for "maybe 10 years" and have become more heavily used in recent years, he estimated.
Trainer Rick Dutrow has noted Big Brown has had problems with quarter cracks, and after the colt easily won a March 5 allowance race at Gulfstream Park, Dutrow said of the glue-on shoes: "We got an opportunity to put these on, and since then, I haven't been worried about his feet. He carried kind of a heavier pulse, had some heat in his feet all the time. Now, his feet are real cold. So I'm hoping this ends all the stuff with his front feet."
Glue-ons generally are kept on for about six weeks, as opposed to the usual 30-day period when standard plates are changed, said Boston. A change of four standard shoes usually costs about $150. One pair of glue-ons can cost anywhere from $400 to $550, which would make it cost-prohibitive for lower-end claiming horses to be shod with them.
However, Asmussen said he uses the shoes on some of his $5,000 claimers.
"They can be expensive," he said, "but it can also be expensive to lose. They could make the difference between 60 percent of the purse and 20. I honestly think they really move horses up. In 30 to 60 days, you get good growth from the hoof where otherwise you wouldn't. I've gotten to the point where I'm asking the farrier, 'How many can you glue on today?' "
As for Pyro, Asmussen said the colt began wearing his glue-ons sometime after moving from Kentucky to New Orleans for the winter. The colt won the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby to become one of the favorites for the Derby, after which his star fell somewhat when he finished 10th last month in the Blue Grass Stakes on Polytrack at Keeneland.
"He was prone to quarter cracks, so we went to the glue-ons," Asmussen said. "We've had no problems since then."