Trainer Todd Pletcher appears to have a formidable hand going into this year’s Kentucky Derby.

Or should we say “foot”?

If Pletcher wins his second Derby in four years, the man who takes care of his horses’ feet will be one of the first people he thanks.

“Like everyone has said for years, ‘no hoof, no horse’, or ‘no foot, no horse’. That’s really true at the end of the day,” said Pletcher. “I don’t think you can even calculate how important having a good blacksmith is.”

By all accounts, Pletcher’s blacksmith, Ray Amato Sr., is one of the best in the business. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a backstretch worker who relishes going to work more than Amato, even though he’s been doing the same thing for 65 years.

“I love shoeing horses,” said Amato. “I’m 80 years old, and I still go to work in the mornings. It’s a labor of love.”

Amato learned the blacksmith trade from his father, an Italian immigrant who began shoeing in Naples and came to America when he 23.

“He was shoeing the wagon horses around New York City, and then around 1940, 1941, he noticed that a lot of the wagons were being traded for trucks, and he said, boy, I gotta do something. I’ve got seven sons and daughters at home.”

So Amato’s father began plying his craft on racehorses at Aqueduct. Ray joined him as an assistant in 1949.

“You were supposed to be 16 years old as an apprentice,” Amato said. “I was 15, but I told them I was 16 because I really wanted to shoe some horses.”

After a stint in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division during the Korean War, Amato made his way back to the racetrack, fitting shoes for Hall of Fame trainer Hirsch Jacobs. Amato’s resume since then reads like a Who’s Who of other training legends: Frank (Pancho) Martin, Bobby Frankel, Laz Barrera, Scotty Schulhofer, to name a few. The first Kentucky Derby horse he shod was for Martin, trainer of 1973 runner-up Sham.

“Sham turned for home in front, and I says, ‘Frank, we’re gonna win the Derby!’” Amato recalled. “And then by the time he got to the 1/16th pole, here comes Secretariat by him so fast, I think Sham caught a cold.”

Over the next two decades, Amato made and fit shoes for many a graded stakes winner, but never one draped in roses on the first Saturday in May. In 1996, he was asked to go see a young trainer who had half a dozen stabled at Belmont Park. Amato had such a backlog of work, he didn’t really have time, but he agreed to shoe the trainer’s horses for him.

“I said, well, he’s only got six horses,” Amato laughed. “Six months later, I think he had 60. After that, he had 100.”

The trainer was Pletcher, and that day on the Belmont backstretch was the beginning of a unique relationship that is still going strong.

“He’s not only a great blacksmith, but he’s a great person and a great friend to me,” said Pletcher. “Me and my staff have a tremendous amount of respect for him. He’s an asset to have in the organization, comes in with a great attitude every day, and I think that’s contagious.”

“He’s a beautiful man,” Amato said of Pletcher. “Just a very respectful guy, good to his help.”

While a farrier can fit shoes, a blacksmith can also make them. These days, blacksmithing is a bit of a lost art, but Amato is proud of both skill sets. He said the top priority for fitting a horseshoe is to make sure the foot is level and that the shoe is beveled so it’s not pressing on the horse’s sole. It’s also important to take off the right amount of toe and heel.

“It’s like if you wear a size 10 shoe, and you’ve got a size 10 and a half on. That’s no good.”

Amato believes the best trainers in the business are ‘foot crazy’, meaning they’re obsessed with proper shoeing. When Amato first went to work for Pletcher, he said the trainer was eager to learn.

“I said, ‘Todd, I’ve had so much luck over the years shoeing the horses the day they run,’” Amato recalled. “Don’t ask me why, but we’ve won a million races that way. When you trim the feet down properly, you put a brand new pair of shoes on the horse, the horse’s legs get very comfortable with that.”

“It’s something that over the short term, if you don’t have a good blacksmith, you might get away with it for a little while,” said Pletcher. “But over a period of time, horses that are improperly shod are going to catch up to you and cause significant problems, even if it’s not with their feet.”

Super Saver’s feet must have been feeling pretty good on May 1, 2010, as the colt stormed home to win the Kentucky Derby. Despite Pletcher’s consistent success, it was the first Derby victory for him, and more remarkably, for Amato.

“I’ve shod so many good horses over the years, it ain’t funny,” he chuckled. “Sixty years it took me to break my maiden. Unbelievable!”

If Amato returns to the winner’s circle at this year’s Derby, it’ll be somewhat bittersweet. His wife of 37 years, Joanne, died of cancer last September. Pletcher said getting back to work and being surrounded by so many people that love and respect him has helped Amato get through a very difficult time.

“If you’ve ever driven around the backside with him, he knows every groom, every hot walker, every owner, every trainer,” Pletcher said. “He treats everyone the same, respectfully, says hello, knows everybody by name. He’s just that kind of guy.”

Though he has no plans to retire yet, Amato has passed on his trade to his son, Ray Jr., and both will be at this year’s Derby with Pletcher’s string, which could include likely Derby favorite Verrazano as well as Revolutionary, Palace Malice, and Overanalyzed.

If any one of them happens to not only win the Derby but also the Triple Crown, Amato will find a brand new Bentley convertible parked in his driveway.

“Yeah, we were at Palm Meadows one day, and there was a Bentley parked there, and he said, man I love that car, I’d love to have one of those,” Pletcher laughed. “And I said, if we win the Triple Crown with one horse, I’m going to get you one of those. I’m sure I can get some help from the owner if that happens.”

Clearly, Amato doesn’t do his “physically demanding” job for the prospect of a new car. He hasn’t taken a vacation in 60 years because, as he says, everywhere he goes is a vacation.

“All I can tell you is that I love being a racetracker,” said Amato. “I’ve been fortunate – beautiful job, beautiful guys. I’ve always been treated with respect.”

It’s a respect Amato has earned, one foot at a time.