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Racing Hearts

Barbaro, Candip and racing’s ‘L word’ that nobody loves

On that balmy Saturday in Maryland, the Kentucky Derby winner broke from his gate and accelerated with each stride. As his jockey maneuvered for position, his back right hoof twisted, shattering his leg upward. The rider, veteran Edgar Prado, forcibly slowed the half ton of forward motion and flung himself to the track to hold the horse.

Many a new fan of racing had been captivated by the perfection and speed of Barbaro. But in those moments broadcast to millions a narrative was born about the science of racehorse physiology. For Barbaro's fans, Alex Brown’s bulletins from the New Bolton Center, where the champion went for treatment, often delivered updates. The fans showed support in return through a newer medium: Facebook.

The emotional energy that poured into Barbaro’s stall during those months shaped the hopeful medical miracle saga on social media and Brown’s website for 32 weeks. Then, just as suddenly as the Preakness misstep, the news broke that owners Gretchen and Roy Jackson, along with their world-class surgeon, Dean Richardson, were forced to euthanize their champion due to his suffering from suspensory laminitis.

This colt’s story did not diffuse with his death, as it had begun to illustrate the importance of research into laminitis rehabilitation. Barbaro’s fan following morphed into fund drives and memorial gatherings often attended by the Jacksons, Brown and Prado. The efforts culminated in the celebration of a new statue in front of the Kentucky Derby Museum, at an occasion wherein Dr. Richardson opened his remarks with an affectionate, “Y'all are crazy!” salute to the crowd.

Crazy good. The ardent Fans of Barbaro, the keyboard warriors, had become advocates for treating laminitis.

A laminitis solution emerges

More than 1,000 miles due west from Pimlico Racetrack, another animal veterinary expert that had been working on hoof solutions from an client-need perspective. The ranching community of Shawnee, Oklahoma that surrounds Dr. Micheal Steward’s clinic on Kickapoo Road depends on him for a myriad of animal needs. His clientele is a mixed bag of performance horse owners, farmers and cattle ranchers with leaner wallets and even slimmer tolerance for complicated explanations.

Steward can work it both ways. He has a strong, reputation these days with growing regard for his innovative wooden clog solution to laminitis, yet remains a local practitioner who often delivers a fat calf with a chain. An inductee in the International Veterinarian Hall of Fame, Steward was then and has remained an owner-friendly large animal specialist, fond of quoting Einstein on the importance of simplifying complicated things. His practice is in the country and he is used to drilling down protocols for an easy absorption by an anxious owner and even for this curious fan. The complexities of hoof care benefits from his fondness for the layman’s analogy.

“Imagine a house where a roof is packed with snow,” he said. “The roof begins to sag downwards through the struts and frame from the weight overload until it crashes. The snow is the overloaded weight, the weakened house frame is the soft tissue lining of the hoof detaching itself from the hoof frame for lack of blood and nutrients and the crashing are the bones sinking downward …what we call founder.”

Founder is, simply, an old nautical term for sinking.

“If you have a heart attack, the EMTs are going to put you on the floor because they need an even platform underneath your body to re-start the pumping action,” Steward said. “The engineering of the clog is based on the same principle. The clog’s stability offers protection for the bad hoof and allows the horse to move naturally, because the plywood is light, gives that roller hoof action, avoiding too much pressure on good support limbs. It re-starts the pump.

“Support limb laminitis is a poorly understood pathology where the primary injury to a limb results in an overload to a good, healthy limb and begins to restrict that good leg’s internal hydraulics. Those hydraulics constantly move  blood and nutrients through the leg and down to the hoof. An injured horse, a gastrically bloated horse or even a heavy mare in-foal, is going to, predictably, shift their feet, and that overload of weight sets the laminitis pathology in motion.”

How the clog works

The slim wallet of a young barrel racer with her lame partner was the genesis of Steward’s innovation. He had been tinkering on the design.

“My original design is customized to the horse’s hoof, made from compressed plywood, wood that has more give that a metal brace,” Steward said. “It allows for the horse to move. I have also worked on a user-friendly composite version. Both versions offer the stabilized surface that allows the farrier to continue trimming and cleaning the hoof as it grows out. The hoof will grow because the horse can move on his clog and keep his blood flowing to the leg. Besides a performance horse, particularly a racehorse, has to keep moving…it’s their nature. A horse has two hearts — one is his pulmonary system and the other is located in his hooves.”

Dr. Steward doesn’t advocate speed work during rehabilitation, although one Texas veterinarian used the wooden clog on a cutting horse in the finals of the National Cutting Horse Association after a bout of laminitis between the qualifying round and the finals.

“The wood that I originally used, compressed plywood, is custom shaped and held onto the hoof by wooden screws or a hoof glue,” Steward said. “I do it fairly quickly. Drill the holes first, if the horse didn’t have nailed shoes, insert and tighten the screws, then wrap the hoof and the clog together in casting material. The position of the clog is thicker in the front and allows the horse to pivot as he would normally on a horseshoe, and it’s lighter than metal…It’s like trimming a human nail and the procedure causes no discomfort.

“The shape of the clog permits a full roller motion while allowing stability. I realize the  concept of screwing in to a laminic hoof is unnerving to some vets and farriers, but that is easy to offset with minimal training. The horse remains standing, which is key.”

The mechanics of the Steward clog are so simple, yet as the doctor was quick to point out, every laminitis case is different because the disease is a secondary effect of a primary cause that differs from case to case. Steward's clog stabilizes the foot while the hoof grows back and allows the horse to move, improving their mental condition while reducing the symptomatic pain. As blogger Fran Jurga noted, a “sick horse can retreat, lose appetite and basically surrender.” And as with a human, comfort helps the recovery. The clog provides that comfort while stimulating the flow of nutrients that promote regrowth of the hoof itself.        

Industry reaction varied

At the beginning of the clog's use, there was resistance from some established farriers and equine professionals. No “eureka” greeted Steward’s initial introduction of the clog design at major equine practitioner gatherings in the US. 

Changing anything is a messy business, even in the scientific fields. Innovation can be a slow process because of human resistance.

“I realized that the pushbacks would come because as a vet, I had heard numerous sales pitches,” Steward said. “Farriers often have biases against systems that are outside their box of goods for hoof care.

“One of the main reasons that I did not patent my clog was that I felt that I would be able to promote the concept if people realized that there wasn’t any money gained on my part and I usually included how to make the shoes in my lectures or papers. The primary success of this clog is consumer driven, successes of numerous cases that were deemed unfixable…economically and medically.”

Dr. Steward noted the assistance of introducing his clog by Dr. Ric Redden of Versailles, Kentucky, at the Bluegrass Symposium of Racehorse Hoof care as well as Dr. Stephen O’Grady and the noted Dr. Larry Bramlage.

And now, saving Candip

A recent case exampling the wooden clog is his patient, an injured racehorse named Candip, a 7-year-old gelding royally bred by WinStar Farms and with the same sire as the illustrious Gun Runner, Candy Ride. Sponsored by the Oklahoma Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation initially and now owned by Sidna Baker Madden, Candip presented a severe case of laminitis due to surgical recovery.

 Support Candip's recovery through GoFundMe

His story moved me, as it synopsizes a tale of a $500,000 stakes-winning athlete who fell through the cracks. The information detailed Steward’s work on Candip’s feet, something that I found to be interesting and helpful, not only as a race fan, yet also as a Fan of Barbaro, my forever source of advocate curiosity . Candip’s story took me back to those days after Barbaro’s breakdown, the sculpture celebration at Churchill Downs and Richardson’s sardonic, yet hilarious, remark to the gathering of fans; “Y'all are crazy.”

Crazy takes time to mature into innovation  and the search for better methods.

We have come a long way from those New Bolton days. With laminitis research and with my layman’s discovery of Dr. Steward’s wooden clogs via Sidna’s campaign, it would appear that some good crazy strides are being made to treat this awful disease.


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Meet Kate Richards

From an early age, Kate liked to watch horses run and get dressed up. And while she has outgrown the patent mary-janes, the sport of horse racing still holds a magical allure for her. 

“It’s the whole look, smell and feel of the track” says Kate. “I like to watch the people in all their craziness, the drama of the actual race and fashion statements during the big days.” Yet it is the whole industry that has her in thrall…the business side of it, from the boutiques selling racewear to the bars shilling specialty beverages, the track backside thick with intrigue and secrets to the colorful track employees… it’s the whole magilla that makes the sport have flavor unlike anything else. 

Everyone has an event, a person or a situation that is cathartic. For Kate, it was Barbaro who induced the awareness of rescue and retirement in to her consciousness. One vow that she made from that acknowledgement was to support rescue and retirement facilities, jockey and equine safety. Protecting the athletes is a key issue. “With any sports entity that is ticketed there is the duality of exciting entertainment and risk” says Kate.”Both are needed…the entertainment value to keep the sport worthy of new fans and the risk to remind the industry to be diligent about safety.”

Kate grew up in a tiny town called Proctorville in North Carolina, graduated from Stephens College in Missouri and will collect her Doctorate in Organizational Development and Change from Colorado Tech if she ever finishes her dissertation, which oddly, is not about horse racing. 

Kate claims to be an amateurish handicapper who just gets lucky.

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