Rarely has one family been so closely identified with one trade through several generations as the Amatos are to shoeing horses.
The story begins with Salvatore, who learned the fundamentals of being a blacksmith as a teenager in a town near Naples and continued to hone his skills after immigrating from Italy to the United States in the mid-1920s. He shared his knowledge with three of his four sons – Ray, Tony and Pat. Ray taught his son, Ray Jr. With Tony's death in 1990, Ray Sr. also began overseeing his nephew, Chris.
Their skill level is reflected in their clients. Ray and Ray Jr. have worked exclusively for Todd Pletcher, winner of a record seven Eclipse Awards as leading trainer in North America, since 1996. Chris shoes horses for Pletcher and Chad Brown, winner of the last two Eclipse Awards.
To the Amatos, the family reputation is at stake with every foot they examine, every new shoe they expertly hammer into place.
“It's a family business, and I can share in this tradition of grandfather, father, uncles, cousin,” said Ray Jr. “That means more to me than anything. Family, that's important.”
To the Amatos, family is everything.
“I try to take care of the horses and take care of the clients,” Chris said. “But mainly I take care of the Amato name.”
What other family can lay claim to shoeing the winners of each of the Triple Crown races in one season as the Amatos did last year?
Ray Jr., who turned 60 on July 30, equipped Always Dreaming in giving Pletcher his second Kentucky Derby triumph. Chris did the honors when Cloud Computing supplied Brown with his first victory in one of the spring classics in the Preakness. Ray Jr. did the handiwork when Tapwrit recorded a third Belmont triumph for Pletcher.
“An Amato Triple Crown,” Chris said proudly.
That success all stems from the same vigorous, all-knowing source – Ray Sr., 85. He worked for such distinguished trainers as Laz Barrera, Hirsch Jacobs, Frank Martin and Flint “Scotty” Schulhofer.
He shod Super Saver, who comfortably navigated a wet track at Churchill Downs to give Pletcher his first Derby triumph in 2010. The more Pletcher speaks of the Amato patriarch, the more his admiration shines through.
“One thing you can learn from Ray is one of the greatest joys in life is doing something you're passionate about,” Pletcher said. “He loves shoeing horses, he loves being a blacksmith and he's passed that on to other family members.”
If Ray Sr. does not arrive at the barn by 4:45 a.m., he is definitely there by 5 a.m.
In his heyday, Ray Sr. could shoe 10 or 12 horses each morning. Now, balance issues limit him to more of a supervisory capacity. He scrutinizes everything about the way the horse approaches and stands as his son works around each needy Thoroughbred at one of Pletcher's barns in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Lesser horses receive the same meticulous attention as champions.
“I look at the horse when he walks up and when he stands,” Amato Sr. said. “I see if he needs his toe back or his heel up or he needs his heel down.”
How does he know?
“It's hard to explain,” he responded. “I look at a horse and know right away.”
There is much about their craft that the Amatos struggle to explain. “Shoeing horses is all feel,” said Ray Jr., “which is why we don't wear gloves.”
When Ray Jr. was unable to relate what he meant by feel, he turned where he always turns. “Dad,” he said, “how would you explain feel?”
Ray Jr. ultimately answered his own question. “You need that direct contact with the tools, with his foot, with the way you hold his leg,” he said. “You'd be all thumbs if you had gloves on.”
Once the last shoe is fitted, the job is still not done. “We never let a horse walk off that we don't look at,” said Ray Sr. “It's very, very important that I see the first two or three steps he takes when he has his new shoes.”
Slight errors can become major issues for horse and trainer. The importance of the Amatos' contribution to the Pletcher operation cannot be overstated.
“It's kind of obvious that every horse is standing on four feet,” Pletcher said. “If that part is not correct, then most of the rest of the stuff is not going to fall into place. You could say that a lot of the success starts there.”
Ray Jr. and Chris were driven to excel at a young age. “With the Amatos, you either do it right or you get the backhand,” Chris said. “That was the old-school way, and the way I still believe it should be. Unfortunately, for the young kids today, you yell at them once and they run away.”
Whatever each horse requires, the Amatos find a way. The knowledge they began building almost a century ago in that town near Naples is hardly textbook. What they see and feel is everything. The result of their care can be eye-opening.
That was the case when Audible romped earlier this year in the Florida Derby. According to Ray Jr., one of Audible's feet was in such poor condition that he used glue to essentially mold a new foot, a rare instance when man improved on nature.
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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