As the field of horses made their way to the starting gate for the running of the 2015 Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y., Wes Champagne decided to take a break from doing what he does best — shoeing a horse.
Champagne made his way to the tack room at Tim Yakteen’s farm at Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, Calif., to watch American Pharoah’s bid to become just the 12th horse in history to win the Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.
The pressure was building for Champagne. After all, he had been shoeing the 3-year-old since October 2014.
“Nobody wants to be the one to drop the ball,” says Champagne, who is the inventor of the Blacksmith Buddy and the glue-on horseshoe. “Everybody has to do their part. So, I would say there is a lot of pressure.”
Champagne is no stranger to horses and racing. In fact, you can say it’s in his blood.
His grandfather was a USDA veterinarian; his father was a successful jockey, trainer and breeder; his brother is a farrier and their sons are, too. You can safely say that Champagne cemented his legacy in the industry even before he began shoeing American Pharoah. A who’s who of horseracing trainers — Bobby Frankel, Neil Drysdale and Bob Baffert, among others — have counted on Champagne to help them on the track. In October, Baffert asked Champagne to tend to American Pharoah.
“Bob has two blacksmiths,” he says. “I just kind of mainly do his projects. I do an average of about 15 horses a month for him. So, horses that need special care, he usually gets me to shoe those.”
Champagne is reluctant to publicly discuss specifics about how he shoes the colt because the team doesn’t always look kindly upon disclosing certain information. However, Baffert told The Associated Press that American Pharoah suffered a bruised frog on his left front foot. As a result, Baffert says, the horse wears a protective half plate to act as a shock absorber.
“I recommended a half plate for the horse and we OK’d it with Bob,” Champagne recalls, noting that the colt wore Thoro'bred racing plates on the other three hooves. “The horse instantly went sound. He just started getting better and better every day.”
As the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., approached in March, American Pharoah was still wearing the shoe.
“He opted to run him in it,” Champagne says, “and he ran really well.”
A month later, the team decided to keep the horse in the shoe at the Arkansas Derby, the third leg of the Oaklawn 3-year-old stakes. The race was run in muddy conditions, and although the right front shoe was sprung while leaving the starting gate, American Pharoah won it handily.
By the first Saturday in May, the injury had healed but American Pharoah was having such great success that they didn’t want to change up the shoeing plan for the Kentucky Derby.
“The horse’s leg was perfect,” Champagne says. “He ran well at the Derby, so we just kept it on him all along.”
After winning the Preakness, Champagne reshod the colt on May 28 with low toes on front and plain hinds in preparation for his run at history.
Back at the tack room, nearly 3,000 miles away from Belmont Park, Champagne joined 22 million Americans in front of the television and watched as his greatest client got off to a slow start. He wasn’t discouraged, though.
“I saw the fractions,” he says. “They went slow in the first part of the race. I know the way Bob trains. When he went to the three-quarter mark, I knew he had a lot of gas left in the tank.”
As the field made its way around the track, American Pharoah had a three-quarter length lead.
That was the closest any horse would get the rest of the race.
“As each horse tried to pass American Pharoah, he would open up on them and I don’t know if Victor [Espinoza] smooched him or clucked to him,” Champagne says, “but when I saw him turn for home and he pinned his ears forward, I knew he had it.”
The memory leaves Champagne laughing with joy and admiration.
“It took about 5 minutes for my heart to calm down,” he says. “It was a thrill. I feel grateful that I was able to work on that great horse.
“He’s just an amazing horse. He has an amazing stride and I just hope we get to run some more.”