When Dr. Philip Shrimpton was a racing commission veterinarian assigned to oversee the starting gate, his most important duty was to ask the stewards to scratch a lame horse—a responsibility he did not take lightly. Frustration arose when the same horse he scratched would jog sound back at the test barn.
“I'd see a horse trotting up and down and it definitely would be lame, and I'd scratch it,” he recalled. “Then back at the test barn after the race, the trainer would be trotting it up and down on the asphalt, as sound as anything. The only difference between trotting it up and down at the test barn and what happened on the track was the jockey and his tack.”
Shrimpton came up with the idea of creating a weighted pad that could be secured to the horse's back with a surcingle to simulate the weight of the jockey and tack. The weighted lameness pad is a variation of the Best Pad, a polymer flex pad Shrimpton developed to take the place of lead weights used during races that enable a jockey to meet the weight assignment.
Keeneland Race Course was the first to use the Best Pad in lieu of lead weights. The pad is made of a high-density polymer amalgam and has the same density as lead. The crucial difference is that the polymer material can be contoured to fit the back of a horse and, unlike lead, it's flexible.
For detecting lameness, Shrimpton makes pads that weigh from 10 pounds to 45 pounds, and they can be stacked to equal the total weight of a rider and tack.
“To diagnose lameness with weight, you put the flexible pad on the horse's back and put a surcingle on,” Shrimpton said. “You don't have a rider. You can trot the horse up and down on a hard surface, and that extra weight allows you to see these lamenesses that you wouldn't see without it or you just vaguely see without it.”
Shrimpton explained that the movement of the rider, sometimes unconsciously compensating for the horse's lameness, also can make diagnosis with the rider onboard a challenge.
“It makes you think the lameness is somewhere else,” he said.
When Shrimpton introduced his weighted lameness pad to the horse industry, trainer Laura Wohlers immediately came up with another idea for it. Wohlers is the racing manager for Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, whose horses, including 2015 champion sprinter Runhappy, have earned $8.6 million.
Wohlers begins breaking McIngvale's young horses when they come to her from the July yearling sale, or about 16 to 18 months old. She said the element that most upsets a young horse the first time a rider climbs on is the weight, going from carrying nothing to carrying 100 pounds.
“We use the weighted pads to break our babies,” she said. “We have four 25-pound weighted pads, so we start out walking them with one 25-pound pad on. After about a week or so, we'll add another 25-pound pad. We just keep adding that up to where they're carrying about 75 or 100 pounds so that they get accustomed to weight on their back before we put a rider on there.
“Once we get them up to 100 pounds and they're walking around with it and it doesn't seem to bother them, you put a rider up, and they're not as anxious,” she said. “Some of them get a little bit anxious at first, but once they get used to the gradual added weight [of the pads], we can easily get them prepared to accept a rider.”
Eoin Harty, president of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, uses the weighted pad to get more out of ponying a racehorse for exercise. He likes it because he can control the amount of weight he puts on the horse, rather than the full weight of a rider.
“I don't think anyone would argue that putting a little added weight on a horse when it's ponying or back in light training or on a treadmill can only benefit the horse,” he said.
When Harty sends two horses out to work against each other in the morning, he sometimes uses the pads to compensate for different rider weights, much like during a race. In that way he can observe how evenly matched the horses are. He said the pads are durable and easy to use.
Siena Farm in Paris, Ky., serves as a lay-up facility for racehorses. Co-owner and General Manager Ignacio “Nacho” Patino uses the pads to maintain condition for horses that are there for a break and freshening.
“We use it when horses come here for a little break,” he said. “They can do exercise and be turned out [with a weighted pad] to keep them fit, and they don't lose too much condition.”
For horses sent to Siena for rehabilitation from an injury, the pad allows Patino to control the amount of weight the horse carries when it begins weightbearing exercise.
“We don't want to send them back to the trainer too soon, so we keep them here doing a little exercise, and we start adding weight and then increasing the weight to get them fit enough to send them back to the trainer before they put a rider on. This is our main use,” he said.
Besides his weighted pads, Shrimpton invented the state-of-the-art safety padding first used in Keeneland's starting gate.
“You can whack it and put a hole in it, and you can watch it actually return to its old shape over the course of 24 hours,” Shrimpton said of his unique polymer material.
Ted Bassett, who was at Keeneland's helm for more than 30 years, devotes two pages of his autobiography, Keeneland's Ted Bassett: My Life, praising Shrimpton's revolutionary ideas. Bassett writes: “…his mind is forever at work, always thinking, assessing, analyzing.”
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