(Editor's note: Nolan Clancy's story on blacksmith Randy Reed, published in the April 2022 issue of Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, won first prize in the Service to the Horse Industry: Single Article category at the 2022 American Horse Publishers Equine Media Awards. Clancy's story is reprinted here)
Immediately after Wondrwherecraigis wired the field in Laurel Park’s Fire Plug Stakes Jan. 29, trainer Brittany Russell made a phone call.
On the other line was third-generation blacksmith Randy Reed, someone Russell credits with the success of her star sprinter.
“I don’t know how you got this horse here today,” Russell told him. “It’s amazing.”
Reed gives “Craig,” as he’s known around the barn, personalized care every time the blacksmith visits Russell’s Laurel shedrow – part of an individualized, problem-solving approach to shoeing racehorses.
“We consult probably two to three hours a week on [Russell’s] barn,” Reed said. “What the groom says, what the hotwalker says, everybody’s opinion matters.”
Reed, 40, can talk about farriery like a physicist might expound on a rocket launch, analyzing details all the way down to the pressure on each foot when a Thoroughbred runs at full speed – 900 pounds per square inch, he says.
The Fire Plug, won by 3 3⁄4 lengths while setting every fraction, gave Wondrwherecraigis four wins from his previous five starts – the lone defeat coming via disqualification in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash-G3 at Laurel in September. Bigger things beckon for the 5-year-old, though much will depend on his feet. The son of Munnings and the Giant’s Causeway mare Social Assassin has dealt with nagging minor foot issues throughout his career, making Reed’s approach that much more important to the success.
A quarter crack, a split of the outside wall of a horse’s hoof, prompted Russell to scratch Wondrwherecraigis from the Gravesend Stakes at Aqueduct in December. The gelding follows a fairly light schedule as it is, with races carefully spaced and chosen, and spent nearly nine months away from the races from August 2020 until May 2021. After winning the Bold Ruler-G3 in late October, he missed the Gravesend but returned to take the Fire Plug only to skip Laurel’s winter showcase, the General George-G3 Feb. 19, just because the timing was tight.
“It’s challenging when you have a little bit of pressure around you when you scratch him for a problem,” said Russell, “and everybody kind of knew it was a quarter crack.”
Reed said the injury can be especially common in some of the fastest horses he works with.
“Most of your better horses, because they train harder, are heavier,” Reed said. “They hit the ground harder, faster. They tend to have more feet issues.”
Reed started his apprenticeship when he was 20 under his grandfather John Reed Sr. The Reed family took care of trainer Tim Ritchey’s horses, including future champion 3-year-old Afleet Alex.
John Reed Sr. died in 2004, shortly after Afleet Alex broke his maiden at Delaware Park. The blacksmith was buried with a set of Afleet Alex’s shoes – about a year before he won the Preakness Stakes-G1 and Belmont Stakes-G1.
“We just knew Alex was a special horse,” Randy Reed said.
Following John Reed Sr.’s death, Randy’s father Eugene took over the work for Ritchey’s stable, where Russell also spent time, with Randy finishing up his apprenticeship.
After going off on his own, Randy Reed worked for Joe Sharp, Bret Calhoun, Anthony Farrior and others, picking up new techniques and technology all the while, and singling out Sharp for jump-starting the business. Now, Reed is the senior blacksmith as he’s assisted by Manaul Lopez, who is finishing up a traditional five-year blacksmith’s apprenticeship.
To help Wondrwherecraigis, Reed applies Hanton glue-on shoes made by Broadline Farrier Solutions, allowing him to add a full rubber pad protecting the bottom of the foot. The shoes protect a horse’s feet from concussion bruises, as well as any difficulties with frozen chunks of ground away from the racetrack. For context, the Fire Plug was run in somewhere near 20 degrees.
Glue-on shoes are increasingly popular in the racing world, mainly used on horses who don’t respond well to traditional nail-on shoes. The option has been around for 20 years or more, with early work done by Rob Sigafoos at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, but glue-on shoes continue to improve and change with technology, experience and time.
Hanton and some others use a clip or tab system, where two outer aluminum or steel (depending on the shoe) tabs are attached to the shoe. A blacksmith fits and places the shoe like normal, taps the tabs flush with the outside of the hoof, places plastic “blister” covers over the tab and fills the blisters with a special glue. With the hoof covered in plastic wrap for several minutes, the glue cures and hardens while the horse stands, and the shoe is secured – no nails needed.
“[Wondrwherecraigis] told us early in his career that he did not like nails, and we listened to him,” Reed said. “If you look at his foot, you wouldn’t think he needed glue-ons, but if you nail his feet, he tells you, ‘I don’t like it.’ ”
Reed said Wondrwherecraigis is a fairly cool customer otherwise, and that Russell will hold the bay gelding when shoeing is of particular importance.
“He stands very good and he’s very patient,” Reed said. “But he’s a 16-year-old boy, relatively. If he’s got something else on his mind, as muscular and as strong as he is, if he’s done, he’s done.”
Reed’s adjustments with glue-on shoes go further into knowledge accumulated from a career spanning more than 20 years. He explained that traditionally, glue-on shoes tended to lock a horse’s heel in place. Reed said that, mainly through work with Russell’s horses, he has found a greater range of motion to be beneficial in preventing injury.
“By releasing and allowing their heels to flex as natural as possible and not fighting Mother Nature,” Reed said, “we have had more success with the Hanton shoes with quarter cracks.”
The solution seems a long way from the traditional blacksmith work of his grandfather, something Reed thinks of often.
“Quit playing games, go back to old-school,” Reed answered when asked what his grandfather would think of horseshoes without nails and other developments in the trade. “He was a hard-nosed man. Softest heart in the world, but hard-spoken. He would help anybody.”
Reed explained that the shoeing process changes drastically in the winter months, when horses’ feet grow substantially slower. Regional racetracks also change due to track maintenance and the freezing and thawing associated with winter weather.
Laurel missed several days of racing and training due to delays with the winterization process, with national consultants brought in – all following a complete resurfacing of the track last April.
All of it filters down to horses, and their feet.
“We had to adjust him and a couple others with what the Stronach Group and Maryland Jockey Club were doing to the surface,” Reed said. “It went through many stages, and in my opinion mostly positive stages, but we had to adjust as well.”
Throughout the summer, Reed typically changes shoes every 28-30 days. In the winter, changes are made anywhere from 30-60 days in between, more due to the wear of the aluminum shoes than the growth of the foot.
Seasonal conditions also impact the time between shoeing and race day.
“In July, [Wondrwherecraigis] would be the day of or two days out from a race,” Reed said of the timing behind a new set. “This time of year, we typically try to go seven to 10 days out.”
The longer buffer allows for more adjustments. Part of the reason Reed can give this attention to detail is the small operation he runs, now working with just a few trainers in the Mid-Atlantic. Owners are taking note.
“We’ve had some people send horses to Brittany mainly because of feet, because of the individual care,” said Reed, who lives in Chesapeake City, Md.
Russell credits the ownership group behind Wondrwherecraigis (Michael Dubb, The Elkstone Group, Madaket Stables and Bethlehem Stables) for its patience. Purchased for $67,000 as a yearling, the Kentucky-bred won his debut at Laurel in March 2020. Three months later, he won again, and headed to stakes company. He finished second (by a head) in the Gold Fever at Belmont Park in July, only to be disqualified to third for bumping favorite Long Weekend. Fourth behind the speedy Yaupon in Saratoga’s Amsterdam-G2, Wondrwherecraigis went to the sidelines.
“After the Amsterdam, he just wasn’t quite the same,” Russell said. “He just kind of showed us that he just needed backed off a bit, so luckily [the owners] were great to let me give him a break.”
The patience paid off, as the sprinter has crossed the line first six of his next seven starts – including three stakes wins – while pushing his career earnings figure to $407,640.
“It just goes to show what being patient with a nice horse can do,” Russell said. “I know deep down that if he didn’t get that time off, he wouldn’t have been the same.”
For Reed, getting a call from Russell after a stakes win feels good, but it doesn’t always come and he knows he’s just a single ingredient to the recipe needed for a horse to succeed.
“To be one of the lower people on the totem pole in most barns, a call like that is very big,” he said. “It’s nice to have a horse like this at this time with a client like this.”