Wes Champagne has shod racetrack legends, including American Pharoah, Justify and more recently, Accelerate. He’s offering up some trade knowledge about his contributions, innovations and techniques that have led horses with a stone bruise to later win the Triple Crown, as reported by the Thoroughbred Daily News.
Champagne was an exercise rider nearly 40 years ago. Instead of following in his jockey father’s footsteps, he pursued blacksmithing school near Sacramento, Calif. His impressive client list includes trainers and horses that have made reputable careers for themselves, all with the help of Champagne’s shoeing ability.
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When it comes to tempering, Champagne discusses the main difference between farriers now and then. The difference he sees is in the shoes, now that they’re manufactured when they used to be all handmade years ago.
“You can’t beat the manufactured shoe,” Champagne told Thoroughbred Daily News. “They’re not off one one-hundredths of an inch. I can pull a shoe off, go right back in the same nail holes the next month if I need to. There’s no way you can duplicate that.”
The shoes have also become heavier and sturdier. They can’t be bent like they could in the past. While it’s good to have a sturdy shoe, the foot needs something a little more pliable.
“Out of the factory, it’s just too rigid — it locks the foot up too much,” he says.
To fix this, Champagne takes the hardness, or the temper, out of the aluminum shoe by heating them and cooling them quickly. The shoes can become soft enough to bend with your hands.
The process is tricky because the toe should be relatively stable and solid along the widest portion of the foot, Champagne says. Around the heel is where you want it to be more flexible. Tampering with the temper of the shoe does pose its risks. “Sprung” shoes are more common, where the shoe snags and bends out of shape, but this is far less dangerous than leaving the shoe overly sturdy where a snagged shoe could turn into an injury.
Heavier, more rigid shoes have shown to be correlated with suspensory injuries. The suspensory tendons are the shock absorbers in the legs, and if the shoe is more rigid, it impacts the natural movement of the foot, altering the working mechanics of the suspensory tendons. Since tempering his shoes, Champagne has noticed a 75% decrease in suspensory injuries.
“I used to get them all the time,” he says. “Upper suspensory, lower suspensory. Now, I don’t hear of it, or only rarely. There really is something to the pliability of the shoe.”
Racehorse feet are getting bigger, according to Champagne. In the 1980s, racehorses wore size five and six horseshoes. Now, they’re wearing sevens and eights. Previously, farriers used to believe that smaller feet were a necessary foundation to soundness. This thinking has changed along with the hoof size.
Champagne compares the East Coast tracks to being more forgiving, so the farriers can trim the feet a little shorter. However, the West Coast tracks are harder, and the horses can’t handle short feet.
“The main thing is just making sure they’re balanced, and they have that support,” Champagne says. “The shoe should be centered in the very middle of the foot, and you can gauge that by the frog. The frog will never lie to you — it’ll sit over the very center of the coffin bone.”
In the past, farriers used to fit shoes very tight and wrap them around the heel, according to Champagne. However, the heel is where the greatest force is exerted on the foot during each stride. Nowadays, horseshoers have learned to put the shoe back under the foot, with the heel of the shoe under the widest part of the frog.
Trimming the Toe
In the past, there has also been an accepted way of trimming the toe, as in over-trimming it. By doing that, Champagne says you start to shift the weight toward the front of the limb. The pressure transfers from one area to another, but everything needs to work in harmony.
This idea raises eyebrows among trainers, but in most cases where the toe looks long, it’s more often the heel that is too short.
“The first thing a trainer will tell you when they see a horse like that, ‘you’ve got to get the toe off.’ They think you can just shape it anyway you want, like a block of wood,” says Champagne. “You can’t. There are a lot of components inside the hoof, and you have to take that into consideration. The hoof capsule is like a shell similar in thickness to a coconut. It’s only so thick.”
And because the hoof capsule is only so thick, that’s where issues can arise in something Champagne coins “high-speed pain.” By this, he means that horses can feel certain types of pain only when they’re extended at full race-pace.
“Dr. Steve Allday once told me, if a horse runs the first part of a race and he stops in the stretch, it’s always one of three things: it’s either they’ve lost their air, their hocks are hurting or their feet are hurting,” he says. “If their ankles, knees or anything else is hurting, they won’t even run the first part of the race.”
The reason farriers keep over-trimming the toe is because of the long-held consensus that a short-trimmed toe promotes soundness. Champagne believes that concept is flawed because if a horse gets a little sore, it doesn’t want to run that fast again. It’s a measure of self-preservation.
A horse that runs 12 seconds a furlong might be fine. If he then runs an 11 and feels pain, he will only ever run at 12 seconds because at that speed, he didn’t feel pain.
Adhesives in Racing
Champagne was an early pioneer of the glue-on shoes, including the high-profile winner Fusaichi Pegasus, which was the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby with glue-on shoes. The idea came about in the early 1990s because a horse belonging to trainer Vladimir Cerin had lost a good portion of her foot. Unable to use traditional nailing methods, Champagne made the connection after seeing someone with glue, which was used in robotics and the auto and aircraft industries.
Champagne glued the shoe on Cerin’s horse, and when he came back to remove it, Champagne needed a hacksaw to get the shoe off the hoof. It was then he figured out the holding power was in the heels.
While the glue seemed to work a little too well, there were a few things he had yet to work out. Iodine, which was previously used more prevalently to harden and disinfect the hoof, and glue didn’t work well together. Once the glue-on shoe took off, people were very innovative with plastics, rubber shoes and glue-on plastic shoes, says Champagne.
His technique for glue-on shoes hasn’t changed much, but new plastics have been developed. He can “virtually build a new foot,” he says. When selecting glue-on shoes, Champagne keeps two things in mind — the shoes’ long-term impact on racing and the breed.
While glue-on shoes give some horses a second chance when they might not have gotten one, their second chance might also end them up on a breeding farm. At the same time, there’s something about helping these horses walk without suffering.
“There’s real satisfaction there,” Champagne says. “I think it’s helped a lot of pain and suffering — horses that were being pinched on a daily basis due to thin hoof walls.”
Another of Champagne’s inventions includes the Blacksmith Buddy. It is an anatomically correct prosthetic horse leg. It features a detachable and recyclable hoof for trainee farriers. The contraption took about a year-and-a-half to develop in collaboration with several experts including a Harvard engineer, a BMW body design expert, a Navy prosthetist and special effects experts from the movie industry.
The limb is used in almost every veterinarian hospital in the world. Champagne’s device has been well-received at blacksmith schools as well, he says, including at Pacific Coast Horseshoeing School.
“The director told me the difference is phenomenal for him because, when he takes his students to the horse for the first time, they already know how to use their tools,” says Champagne. “They’re not fumbling with their rasps. They already know how to use their tools and work around the horse.”
Champagne’s Blacksmith Buddy can also be found in China, Australia, St. Kitts Islands and other places.