Traditions are hard to shake in horse racing, but one area that appears open to change is shoeing. One of those changes in years gone by was to switch from training in steel shoes to aluminum plates.
Pete Butler, son of respected farrier and clinician Dr. Doug Butler, wrote in his blog that steel shoes absorb more shock than aluminum, so traditional trainers use steel shoes in early training then switch to aluminum shoes when the horse is ready for fast work and racing. Butler offered a baseball analogy:
“This is similar to baseball players practicing with a weighted bat or swinging many bats before using a normal bat in a game.”
Steve Norman, who has shod some of the top horses in racing over his five-decade career, said the very first racehorse he shod in the 1970s wore steel plates all around. The reason for the trend away from using steel shoes in training is the perception that aluminum shoes are lighter.
“The reason why we have steel and then change to aluminum is because I think it was just mentally everyone said we have to put on a lighter shoe, so let's use aluminum so they can go faster,” he said.
Norman said putting horses in steel shoes for early training is something old-timers in racing did. Their logic was that steel shoes are stronger and don't wear as quickly as aluminum shoes, and steel shoes do a better job of holding the horse's foot together. Steel also dissipates heat better than aluminum.
“I'd love to run every horse in steel,” Norman said. “To this day, if they would ask, 'What would you do to change things?' I'd say every horse has to be in steel. The foot would stay together longer because the steel shoe is not going to move as much as an aluminum shoe.”
Shoe manufacturers noticed the trend to switch to aluminum for a lighter shoe, and they responded by developing lightweight steel training shoes. Unlike the standard steel shoes used in the 1970s, the modern steel training plates are lighter, so they don't require big nails to keep them secure.
“You can't put a heavy steel shoe on a Thoroughbred because the hoof walls can't handle it,” Norman explained. “If you put on a bigger shoe, then you have to use a bigger nail. You still want to be able to use the same nail as we always do [with aluminum plates], a size 3 or a size 3-1/2 small nail. Sometimes those nails can't hold a steel shoe. We now have light steel training plates, so they are not much different from the aluminum, other than it is different metal. To me they're not any heavier. It's not going to slow the horse down.”
Norman noted that the late David Whiteley, son of Racing Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley Jr., devised his own use of steel tips.
“He would cut the shoe off at the widest part of the foot, and just put tips on them so they would not wear their toe down,” Norman said. “He would train in those steel tips for however long, I don't know, then he'd change to aluminum.”
David Whiteley was twice a finalist for the Racing Hall of Fame, in 2015 and 2019, and he won at a clip of 33 percent. He campaigned three Eclipse Award winners: Revidere, 1976 champion three-year-old filly; Waya (FR), 1979 champion older mare; and Just a Game (IRE), 1980 champion grass mare. Whiteley's Coastal won the 1979 Belmont Stakes, foiling Spectacular Bid's Triple Crown quest.
Most of the horses Norman shoes are established runners, so they all go in aluminum racing plates. But young horses prepping for the sale usually wear steel training plates.
“It's all about the young horses,” he said. “They'll be in steel. I shod eight horses for the April sale. In January, February, and March, I had them in steels, front shoes only and barefoot behind. Then about two weeks before the sale, we went ahead and put aluminum shoes all the way around for the sale. So those babies were in steel shoes right up to that sale.”
Norman said the lightweight steel training plates are slightly heavier than aluminum plates, but he doesn't think they would pose a significant disadvantage if used for racing as well as training.
“We'll never know because we'll never race in them,” he said.
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