ANVIL Magazine interview with Harry Patton

Capistrano, California, March, 1987

Published in a 1987 Issue of Anvil Magazine

ANVIL: Harry, how long have you been a horseshoer?

HARRY: Thirty-five years.

ANVIL: And what percentage of that has been on the racetrack?

HARRY: I shod off the track doing quite a few kinds of horses for 16 years before I came to the racetrack.

ANVIL: And while you've been on the track you've specialized in Thoroughbreds?

HARRY: No, I started with Quarter horses and then switched to Thoroughbreds.

ANVIL: Oh, I see. It's my understanding that usually on the track a guy does one thing or another.

HARRY: Yes, that's true. You must specialize and work with the trainers and travel to the tracks they go to in order to keep their business.

ANVIL: Harry, I first became acquainted with you through Ada Gates, and she told me you were instrumental in teaching her track shoeing. She also mentioned that you've been of great benefit to a lot of the other guys and you're a pretty openminded instructor. Why do you think a lot of the other old-time shoers are not that way?

HARRY: Well, many years ago you couldn't get help from any racehorse shoer. And then there was a period of time when many people went to the track about the same year I did, and they were more openminded and willing to help people. Now it has kind of switched back again because the horseshoer who is coming to the racetrack doesn't have the know-how to teach someone else the specialties. So it's becoming a little harder now to learn the right way to shoe on the racetrack.

ANVIL: Well, while we're along that line, California has undergone quite a switch in licensing at the track. I wonder if you could tell us a little about what happened and how the influence of the Journeyman Horseshoers Union has diminished in California.

HARRY: For many years the Union horseshoeing test was used by the state of California as qualifications to give a horseshoer a state license to shoe on the racetrack. A few years ago the California Racehorse Board decided our test was too strict and we were using it to keep other horseshoers off the racetrack, thereby keeping the work for ourselves. So gradually, year by year, they made the test easier and easier. It's to the point now that you're not required to know how to work in the fire, which is unheard of for a racetrack horseshoer with the amount of bar shoes and specialty work that we have to do. It's a shame to see this deterioration.

ANVIL: Do you think there was actually any validity to the claim that the track shoers were trying to keep it pretty much to themselves?

HARRY: You never know how an individual thinks in worrying about his competition, but I gave the test for many years, was on the Board many years before that, and as far as I'm concerned, I think everyone was pretty much out in the open and honest in giving the Union tests. I see no reason why the State Racehorse Board should take it upon themselves to make it easier and try to flood the tracks with incompetent horseshoers, which I think is going to happen in the future.

ANVIL: Can you give me a comparison of what the JHU test was, versus what the State Racing Board administers now?

HARRY: With the old JHU test, you had six hours to make four shoes and shoe one racehorse. The state test now involves shoeing one horse and no knowledge of forge work is required.

ANVIL: Is there a horseshoer at all on that Board?

HARRY: The new test, the way it's written, says that there will be two horseshoers, two trainers, one state veterinarian, and one state steward on the Board, but how this last one was run, we don't know. We understand there were no horseshoers involved.

ANVIL: Do you mean that on the State Racing Board, when they inspect farriers, there are no farriers on that Board? In other words, the new track shoers are being graded by nonfarriers?

HARRY: To my knowledge, that's correct.

ANVIL: Statistics indicate that they are passing a lot more people now than they ever have before.

HARRY: Yes, because they are not required to do any fire work to prove their ability to make a bar shoe, for example. If it's easier for a person to get into a trade, he's going to be less interested in preparing himself. He's going to do just what he has to do to get in and then he's going to say, "Here I am. I'm here to make the money." But for many years it wasn't that way, everyone had pride in what they were doing. I think the horse isn't going to benefit from this outlook on the racetrack, and the horse owner isn't going to benefit from it, either.

ANVIL: I understand you no longer belong to the Journeyman Horseshoer's Union.

HARRY: We are now members of the Racetrack Farriers Guild, and as a group, are members of the Teamsters. This enables us to buy the Teamster insurance, but we run our own group as a guild, have our own officers, police our own people, and give our own tests for qualifications. Our Guild test is halfway between the old test and the state test. In three hours you're required to shoe one horse and make two shoes. We no longer require swedging as in the previous exam.

ANVIL: Would you say the availability of many different types of factory-made shoes has been a disservice to the track shoer, due to the fact that he no longer is required to be proficient in the fire?

HARRY: The track shoer needs to be proficient in the fire to do the specialty jobs. Racehorses have special problems and they deserve the best care they can get. I feel that on the racetrack trainers and owners should be able to draw on blacksmiths with that kind of knowledge.

ANVIL: A lot of the off-track shoers are unaware that track shoers, though putting on mostly cold aluminum shoes with a stall jack, are really pretty good blacksmiths.

HARRY: Most of them practice the trade and keep on it pretty well. The quality of the work we do and the special shoes we have to make keep a farrier practiced.

ANVIL: I understand that you are a horseshoe inspector on the track -- could you tell us something about that?

HARRY: Yes, that is correct. I'm paid by the racetrack, but it's a job where you represent the state and you are required to check all horses' feet that run just before each race. You're checking quality of the horseshoeing, whether it's safe for a jockey to be on this horse and ride a race, and you're checking whether it's a legal or illegal shoe. You're protecting the betting public and judging whether the horse has enough grab to run, whatever special type shoe he must have, and whether it's a safe shoe to run with on the racetrack.

ANVIL: And which tracks do you work for?

HARRY: I work at Hollywood Park and at Del Mar.

ANVIL: How much of your time does that take up?

HARRY: Each racing afternoon.

ANVIL: So you shoe in the morning and do the inspections in the afternoon. What are the regulations in California in regard to what Thoroughbreds must wear on their feet to race?

HARRY: Horses must race with toe grabs all the way around. Sometimes they're allowed to run without a toe grab in front, under special conditions. On the grass there cannot be anything protruding below the shoe other than the toe grab on the front feet. On the back feet they're allowed any type racing shoe, as long as there's a toe grab.

ANVIL: There have been some recent studies done on toe grabs under laboratory circumstances which would indicate that they may be over-stressing the limb and causing lameness. Do you feel that's valid?

HARRY: With some of the problems horses have, yes, I believe the toe grab hinders the horse's way of going. In other cases, I think that the extra support the toe grab gives, keeping the front foot, for example, from slipping in different cases, may help the horse's way of going. It's hard to say what's right and what's wrong -- whether they're doing it right in the other countries where no toe grabs are allowed or whether we're right. I think you could look at it both ways, but I don't think we'll ever come up with one answer on that.

ANVIL: In Australia I understand that they keep the horses in training plates and just before the race, they put on a racing plate. Do you think that's a detrimental practice?

HARRY: Well, this is also done in Europe. The horses train in a steel plate and the aluminum shoe is put on just for the race. There it's for a different reason because these horses are all kept off the track and shipped into the races to run the day of the race or the day before. When they're off the track, these horses are ridden, sometimes even through city streets, to the gallops or the training centers where they have to work; they need the heavier steel shoe for support. The unfortunate thing about this is that changing these shoes so often leaves so many nail holes that keeping up the quality of the foot is really hard.

ANVIL: Now, in America, we run through their training cycle in training plates and then when they actually start racing on the track, they go to grabs. Do you think that's a problem? Shouldn't they be consistently in the same type of shoe all the way through the cycle?

HARRY: Many years ago horses were trained in flat steel shoes, no toe grabs, right up until just before race time. Now today more of these horses are trained for a longer period with grabs before they run. I don't think today that I shoe as many horses that shin buck because when the horse is ready to run faster and he's ready to take hold of that track, he has this grab to take hold of the track with. I think it's beneficial in that case that the toe grabs be put on sooner.

ANVIL: Now when the tracks get muddy, I understand they put a mud calk on. I'm not familiar with the different types and different things you can put on the bottom of a horse's foot for traction in the mud. Could you describe some of them?

HARRY: Well, the old-time trainers many years ago liked what was called the turned-down heel, where he'd pull the shoe off, take it to the blacksmith shop, heat it, and just turn down about 3/8 to 1/2 inch of the heel and nail it back on. For the trainer who likes a light grab, an insert longways in the shoe works very well and there's not much shock to it on a racetrack -- especially on a hard bottom like we have in California. But most of them seem to be using the jar calk front shoe, and it does present a problem because of the extra shock that it causes.

ANVIL: What is a jar calk?

HARRY: The jar calk is an extension down like an outside sticker behind, only it's 1 1/2 inches from the back end of each heel on the front shoe and it's crosswise in the shoe and protrudes down from the shoe about 1/2 inch in length.

ANVIL: There has been some interest by track shoers in the American Farrier's Association. Do you foresee more of that?

HARRY: I would like to see this happen. I think it would be beneficial to both groups. It would be great if racehorse shoers could become more interested in the things that happen to the shoer on the outside and maybe go to the conventions and see the contests. Perhaps if there were more contests that involved racetrack shoeing, it might interest them. It is something I think should be pursued in the near future and I think it would be beneficial for all to have this happen.

ANVIL: Thoro'bred Racing Plate Company just sponsored a contest in Florida where training plates were used. Do you think it would be beneficial to have different types of plates? For instance, you could have shoeing Thoroughbreds, shoeing Quarter horses, and shoeing Standardbreds.

HARRY: I think they would be great to have, but I'd like to see more happen than just requiring them to shoe a horse. I think the matter of making the shoe should be brought into these contests, where they would turn in a specimen bar shoe that would fit the front of a horse before they plated it. That would let them show you a little more ability than just nailing on four shoes, and I think we would create more spectator interest at the convention. This would generate more interest from the racetrack shoers and give them more of a desire to go to the contests.

ANVIL: What's the main reason that you think not many of the track shoers now attend the convention?

HARRY: Well, they probably don't think enough happens there that involves them. But there are a few of us who have seen our way clear for the last few years to belong to both organizations. I enjoy it and I think it has been beneficial to me. I think it would help all racetrack shoers.

ANVIL: Yes, particularly in the learning process. We can learn from each other. Speaking of learning and benefiting from each other, your insurance with the Teamsters is obviously far superior than what the AFA has right now, which is not real red hot. Is there any chance that the AFA could somehow link up with the Teamsters for insurance purposes?

HARRY: That would be a possibility.

ANVIL: The Teamster's Union is a strong union; it takes real good care of its members, and its dues aren't that enormous. It seems to me that all of us could benefit from a situation like that.

HARRY: Many of us have problems in getting insurance (I do at my age), and it's a wonderful policy. For anyone who could get it, it would be beneficial.

ANVIL: It seems the farriers and the veterinarians have been working a little more closely together now. Do you find that to be the case on the track as well as off the track?

HARRY: Very definitely. We have very good relations with the veterinarians we have worked with on the track. They don't seem very quick to say, "This is our department, you stay away." There's no problem as far as I'm concerned. I think they're a great bunch of people to work with. My experience off the track was sixteen years, as I said before, and since I've come to the track I've learned many shortcuts -- many things that would benefit me if I were to go back on the outside and shoe saddle horses. There are many things that come to mind that would help me do my work and also benefit the saddle horses.

ANVIL: And do you think what works the other way around?

HARRY: Yes, I do.

ANVIL: Usually, however, it seems that a guy either shoes at the track or he doesn't, and if he does shoe at the track, he doesn't shoe on the outside.

HARRY: On the track, once you get your customers, you have to follow them from race meet to race meet, and you have no other time available. For example, when it comes time to move to Del Mar in San Diego County and leave any outside work you might have in the San Fernando Valley or wherever, there's no way you can spread yourself out and handle that work. The work at the racetrack is quite confining; we're obligated to be there each day. On the outside, you plan your work, what city you're going to shoe in from day to day, and if the time comes that you want to take a few days off, you just don't plan any work for those days, and you can be on your way. On the racetrack, each racing day you're required to be there, whether there's work or not. You must check the horses that run and go around to see if there are any loose shoes in any of the barns you work. You're required to be at their beck and call whenever something comes up. It just restricts your ability to plan other things, and unless you're willing to do this, you shouldn't be shoeing on the racetrack.

ANVIL: I understand that at all the tracks there is a special blacksmith shop where you have facilities.

HARRY: Yes, where we can set up our tools. This is furnished by the racetrack, and we put our own tools in there and move them from track to track as we go. We can do all of our fire work and specialty shoes there and go back to the barn and nail them on.

ANVIL: Why did you switch from Quarter horses to Thoroughbreds?

HARRY: It allowed me to work all year 'round in Southern California. With the Quarter horse people you have to travel part of the year in the north and it's just a matter of the extra traveling time. I like to shoe Quarter horses real well -- it's just a matter of convenience.

ANVIL: I understand, Harry, that you're beginning to do more and more work in a shop; is that correct?

HARRY: Yes, I have a shop and am hoping to work part time there.

ANVIL: You were talking about specialty shoes. Jim Halverson has been marketing some interesting shoes: they don't have a weld and are bar shoes of various types. I understand you're going to start punching nail holes for Jim.

HARRY: Yes, we've been making the dies for one press, and we've gotten through all the problems now and are ready to go into production. I think it will help his product, being able to offer it with and without nail holes. It should increase his sales quite a bit, and give me one more job for my shop. It is well equipped with good machinery and welding equipment. I intend to make hole punches, stall jacks, and hoof and anvil stands. But I also feel that there are a lot of specialty things that people have in mind to make and maybe I can get together with them and we can do a little experimental work and make something come of it.

ANVIL: you always been somewhat of a blacksmith at heart?

HARRY: Yes, I always have.

ANVIL: Did you get an opportunity in your shoeing career to do quite a bit of blacksmithing?

HARRY: Not as much as so many of the real old timers did. But in my early life I had a welding shop and did machine shop work, and I've kind of brought all of those lines together. The tools that I will be making will be more on a mass production basis than what the old-style blacksmiths were able to do.

ANVIL: Speaking of specialty items, do you think that in the near future we may have a cadre of farriers who are mid-way between farriers and veterinarians, due to the fact that they do just specialty work?

HARRY: I think that's already happening.

ANVIL: You mentioned earlier that in New York the veterinarian is the one who fixes quarter cracks. In my experience I've always done the actual foot surgery in conjunction with a vet. He hasn't particularly wanted to work on anything other than soft tissue, so was glad to have me do the work on the hoof. Can you foresee any change in that?

HARRY: No, I don't, but I'm acquainted with some veterinarians who patch quarter cracks.

ANVIL: Do you have much of an incidence of founder on the track or are the horses pretty well taken care of by the trainers?

HARRY: The racetrack isn't a hospital. When a horse is foundered, maybe we'll get a chance to shoe it one time and then it's gone, back to the lay-up farm. We may hear what happened to that horse, but we probably have lost contact with it forever. So we don't get a chance to carry these cases through. I'd like to do more of that, but it's just not one of the things you do on a racetrack because that stall has to be used by another horse that's ready to race.

ANVIL: Do you think you have racehorse injuries because of the intense stress of the race itself?

HARRY: Yes, I do. Horses are run harder, on harder racetracks, and they are run more often today than they ever were before. The stress involved is quite severe, and racehorses just plain don't last as long as they used to. It's a faster world we're racing in today.

ANVIL: Do you think these horses really enjoy running? I mean, do they really 'go for it' of their own free will when they're out there?

HARRY: Yes, this is what they do. This is what Thoroughbreds or running Quarter horses, which are mostly Thoroughbreds, are bred for. They feel a part of it; they like it.

ANVIL: Do you think they're cognizant of being in the winner's circle when they're there?

HARRY: They probably are, yes.

ANVIL: Thanks Harry, it's been a real pleasure talking with you today.

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