CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

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

It all seems relatively idyllic, and free of the buzzy intrusions of modern life. But there are pressures too. If a blacksmith is late or unreliable, it can create havoc for the stable. Blacksmiths are also on call for their primary clients — should something unforeseen happen with a shoe, the hoof wall, or the "frog" (the V-shaped heel) that demands immediate attention as race time nears.

The work can be a backbreaker, the routine rigorous. Halpenny says only 1% of students who go to horseshoe school stay with it. Those who stay with it, and excel, can make into the six figures, though as independent contractors they pay their own health insurance and all the other costs of running a business.

Today, one of his clients has an abscess. Another is clicking his back heels. There's no waddle to a thoroughbred; the hind feet land in almost straight lines, like deer's. When the hooves nick, a blacksmith can counter it with adjustments to the shoe.

Keeping pressure off the sole, the tender inner part just inside the hoof, is vital. Prep work before adding the shoe is key. Otherwise, Halpenny says, it's like hanging a door on a crooked doorjamb. "Getting the foot nice and flat is the secret," he says.

Eight inch-long nails per shoe, tapped into place just so, backing off on the last two hammer blows so as not to send reverberations up through the horse's legs and shoulders.

"Horses remember you," he says. "Boy, do they remember."

Blacksmithing is a trade, but also an art, and full of old-world eye candy: a chestnut 2-year-old frisky in the cool weather, the comfort of old friendships, the natural sepia tones of a racetrack on an early autumn morn.

"This is one thing they'll never be able to do with a computer," the 64-year-old says of his job, which dates to the time of Homer.

Retire? Not for a while. He might cut back on his schedule, work fewer horses.

"Where else better could you be, a fellow like me, working with these beautiful animals outside like this?" he says. "Where else?"

A sure ting, this "Irish" Tommy Halpenny. A sure ting every day.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

Connect
Advertisement

VIDEO