Trainer's optimism still healthy

The Baltimore Sun

As Triple Crown threat Big Brown recovers from a slightly cracked hoof, history shows injuries right before a major race are not necessarily a sign of a coming disaster.

In 1989, Pimlico historian Joe Kelly remembered, Sunday Silence unloaded at the Pimlico stakes barn the week before the Preakness and came up limping with an abscess in a hoof. One of the best-known veterinarians of the time, the late Alex Harthill, treated the injury with poultices and had the horse stand in ice water most of the time.

Sunday Silence responded with one of the greatest stretch runs in Preakness history, beating Easy Goer in a photo finish.

Eight years later, trainer David Hofmans called hoof specialist Ian McKinlay to service after Touch Gold partially tore a hoof stumbling out of the starting gate at the 1997 Preakness.

McKinlay patched up Touch Gold, allowing him to continue training, and three weeks later the colt stopped Silver Charm's Triple Crown bid with a victory in the Belmont Stakes.

McKinlay, now the hoof specialist to Big Brown, said yesterday Big Brown's quarter crack and an ensuing abscess near the hairline on the same hoof would have "no impact" on Big Brown's Belmont run June 7.

"This quarter crack should not be any concern at all," McKinlay said. "I'm not concerned."

Any number of things have the potential to undermine the performance of a racehorse - stress, weight loss or injuries to a foot, ankle or leg, for instance. But quarter cracks are not uncommon.

Dan Dreyfuss, an associate vet with the Maryland Veterinarian Group, which services horses at Pimlico, Laurel Park and the Bowie Training Center, said, "It is not a stretch" to say that on the average race day at any track, one or two horses race with quarter cracks.

"It didn't faze me when I heard Big Brown had a quarter crack," said Nick Meittinis, who owns the Maryland practice. "Quarter cracks aren't always dangerous. When it's a mild one, there is nothing to worry about. If it was the day before the race, I'd be more worried."

No matter what opinions are expressed, by professionals or by the Big Brown camp, speculation persists that the horse's injury could be more serious than anyone is saying.

ESPN analyst Jeannine Edwards, for instance, said she believes trainer Rick Dutrow and McKinlay have downplayed the situation from the moment it appeared.

"Having a quarter crack is never a minor issue," Edwards said. "[But] Ian McKinlay is the best in the business. He will get the horse as good as he can possibly be. Time is not on their side. He [McKinlay] has told me Big Brown is a slow healer. He cannot patch this until it's healed [from the] inside out.

"They'll do what's best for the horse and try to make the race if they can. What's critical is that he have a workout before the race. They've got to get it done by Wednesday of next week."

Dutrow said he plans to breeze Big Brown on Monday or Tuesday and thinks the three days of training his horse missed might even be beneficial.

The trainer said this crack is nothing like the trouble Big Brown had early in the year, when he had two wall separations in his front hooves. Dutrow said he doesn't "feel we're under any pressure. We've got time to take care of this. Ian knows what's at stake and there is no need to rush.

"I can't imagine this [the quarter crack and missed training days] having any [negative] impact. He's as good as he's ever been and better than he was going into the Derby. He's as happy as he could be."

There was a new wrinkle yesterday, though. When McKinlay was talking about the progress Big Brown is making, he mentioned an abscess near the hairline had drained "as I had hoped it would."

Inflammation is one of the complications that can come from a quarter crack, McKinlay said, but the draining cooled Big Brown's hoof.

"We've left it open and it is drying out," he said. "It was just a little infection, a little pocket and it drained and is healing. As soon as it drained, the heat went away."

McKinlay learned his profession from his father, who created the use of wire stitches to pull the crack together as a primary way to repair quarter cracks.

McKinlay used the wire technology to bring Big Brown's hoof together and said on Monday morning he expects to take the wires out, put in a drain to accommodate any fluid that may develop - "something I don't see happening" - put in new stitches and then apply an acrylic adhesive that will set in five minutes.

"We're not exactly where we need to be for next Saturday, but when that day actually does come, we'll be ready," Dutrow said. "I expect him to win this race. It's a foregone conclusion to me."

Sun reporter Ken Murray contributed to this article.

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