A cus­tom­ized plate has kept the Triple Crown win­ner run­ning sound since he came up with a bruise as a 2-year-old.

EQUUS - - Special Report - By Fran Jurga

If you don’t be­lieve that a horse­shoe brings good luck, con­sider the case of Amer­i­can Pharoah and what I like to call his “Pharoah plate.” A shoe with an un­usual, cus­tom­ized heel plate not only car­ried him to his Triple Crown vic­tory this spring—with­out it, he might not be run­ning at all.

Last fall, af­ter rack­ing up two con­sec­u­tive wins in Septem­ber 2014, the promis­ing bay colt stayed in the barn while other top 2-year-olds raced in the Breed­ers’ Cup Ju­ve­nile in Novem­ber. A left front foot lame­ness de­scribed vaguely as a “deep bruise” had kept Amer­i­can Pharoah out of the race.

With an eye to­ward prep­ping his colt for the 2015 rac­ing sea­son, on Oc­to­ber 29, 2014, trainer Bob Baf­fert called in far­rier Wes Cham­pagne, who has a rep­u­ta­tion as a prob­lem solver. Cham­pagne cares for about 15 of Baf­fert’s “spe­cial needs” horses.

Cham­pagne cut a sheet of thin alu­minum al­loy to the shape of a shoe with a plate to cover the rear por­tion of the foot while leav­ing the lead­ing por­tion of the sole ex­posed. The plate pro­tects most of the frog and the bar area of the cau­dal foot from im­pact as the horse runs. It dif­fers from a hos­pi­tal plate, in which a pro­tec­tive full plate goes be­tween the shoe and the ground, in that the alu­minum lies be­tween the hoof and the shoe. Cham­pagne had ex­per­i­mented with weld­ing the plate in place but ul­ti­mately de­cided that riv­ets worked bet­ter. Only one shoe is mod­i­fied. “I’m not one of those who wor­ries about bal­anc­ing out the two front feet with the ex­act same shoes,” Cham­pagne says.

Amer­i­can Pharoah has been wear­ing the mod­i­fied shoe since Oc­to­ber 2014, and it’s stay­ing on, ac­cord­ing to Cham­pagne. The colt wore some ver­sion of the plate for the first six of his races this year, in­clud­ing the Triple Crown races, and he earned decisive vic­to­ries in each. “At this point, I’m afraid to take it off,” Baf­fert told the Daily Rac­ing Form in April, be­fore the Ken­tucky Derby.

Cham­pagne may ad­just the shape of the shoe depend­ing on rac­ing con­di­tions. Some­times, Amer­i­can Pharoah might wear a more “egg­bar” de­sign, in which the rear of the plate ex­tends be­yond the edge of the hoof, to pro­vide more sup­port. How­ever, Cham­pagne says, “Rac­ing in the Ken­tucky Derby with 20 other horses can be rough.”

(Con­tin­ued on the next page)

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