CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

At Santa Anita, Tommy Halpenny's shoe-manship benefits racehorses

A veteran blacksmith goes stable to stable, fitting shoes as perfectly as possible on thoroughbreds — though the job takes people skills too.

With a bear-trap handshake and Lucky Charms smile, "Irish" Tommy Halpenny works the stables at Santa Anita like a country doctor.

A character among characters, the veteran blacksmith has forearms the size of your thighs, and his patter, which soothes man and beast alike, is peppered with tings (things) and disses (this is), as per his native Ireland.

Irish Tommy is one of about a dozen blacksmiths who work the track — part horsemen, part craftsmen, and in Tommy's case, a dose of blarney.

"You gotta have a sense a humor," he says. "A lot of it is being good with the horses and being good with the people."

Long ago, Halpenny got the knack of swinging a hammer, shaping metal, shoeing horses. It's the people skills that he prides himself on the most these days, the ability to work with owners and trainers — some cool, some not.

"The nailing's the easy part," he says with a smile.

Here's a career for you: 30 years serving Santa Anita; 45 years as a blacksmith, including stints in New York, Florida and Colorado.

Along the way, a busted knee, a shattered ankle. A horse's kick can be lethal as buckshot. But now and then they'll step on you too.

It's a job that attracts gritty blue-collar types with old-school work ethics who, if successful, just keep going.

"There were three or four [of the same] guys out here when I got here," he says of the track's veteran blacksmithing crew. "Of course, they're not as good-looking as me."

So let's make a few morning rounds with Irish Tommy. His main focus is the hard-shelled oyster that is a thoroughbred's foot. Rigid on the outside, vulnerable and alive within. The goal is to fit the shoe as perfectly as possible, adding a smidgen of overhang — about the width of a nickel — to allow for expansion of the foot during a race.

Stable to stable he travels in his truck, loaded with the tools of the trade, some of which haven't changed for centuries.

• Pull-offs, for removing the old shoes.

• A rasp, to level the foot.

• Hoof knives, for paring out the feet.

• Hammers of all types.

Gone mostly are the big anvils many associate with a blacksmith. There's still one back in the shop that Halpenny and other blacksmiths use for sharpening tools, or making custom shoes. But most of the pounding takes place on the stall jack, a portable anvil that he carries with him on his rounds.

Horses are reshod about every month. Halpenny clips off the new growth, only about a quarter of an inch — more in summer, less in winter.

"I was never one for rushing things," he says of his steady pace.

In before dawn, out by midafternoon, six days a week, here and also at Hollywood Park and Del Mar.

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