Big Brown Foot Injury
by Trevor Whenham - 05/28/2008
Everyone hoping to finally see a Triple Crown winner this year got a real scare this weekend when worked leaked out that Big Brown had a foot injury. Horse's feet are fragile things, and Big Brown has a history of problems, so it was easy to fear the worst. It turns out that Big Brown has a quarter crack in his left front foot. Great, what does that mean?
A quarter crack is simply a crack in the hoof. It starts in the coronary band, which is where the hair stops and the hoof starts. The crack typically travels downward, and if not tended to it can travel all the way to the surface of the hoof. To best understand a quarter crack, think of your own fingernail. Like our nails, the hoof itself has no feeling. That's why you can nail a horseshoe to a foot. The crack in the foot itself isn't the problem. If you were to get a split or a gouge in the end of your nail then it wouldn't hurt. If it were to split further down your finger, though, it would be incredibly painful. The split in the nail wouldn't be the problem, but the irritation to what the nail is supposed to protect would cause you agony.
There are a couple of potential problems that a quarter crack can cause. Because the tissue under the crack isn't used to being exposed it becomes inflamed and irritated when the crack happens. That irritation can become exasperated by infection if it isn't kept clean. That irritation can make it very difficult for horses to perform at their best because each step is sensitive. Further, the longer a crack is untreated the bigger it's likely to get. As it grows each step will cause the hoof surrounding the crack to move, furthering the discomfort and potentially the damage. Both infection and that instability are the causes of pain from a quarter crack. It all comes down to this - if the injury isn't contained then Big Brown will be sore with every step, and he would be unwilling or unable to exert himself enough to win a mile and a half race.
The injury can be caused by a few different things including trauma to the coronary band or pre-existing damage from an earlier injury. In Big Brown's case, though, the problem is more likely caused by the anatomy of his feet. As you may remember, Big Brown has previously had foot issues. The shape of his feet, and the way that they react to impact with the ground, are obviously very effective at making him fast, but they aren't ideal for long-term health. An imbalance in the shape of his foot seems to make injuries like this more likely. He obviously gets the best possible care, but injuries can happen at any time if a horse is predisposed for it. You can compare it to human sprinters - they are ridiculously fit athletes, and they always warm up well before any race, but they are always at risk of injuring a hamstring or quadricep just because of how they are built and what they do.
It might sound bleak, but rest assured that it really isn't. Big Brown's care is so attentive that the injury was discovered before it had even developed into a crack, and a hoof specialist was called in to treat the situation. That treatment involves three different parts. First, infection needs to be avoided and the inflammation needs to be contained. When a horse's foot has an infection or irritation it gets warmer than normal (an infection in your body does the same thing). In relatively short order the Big Brown team was able to remove the heat from the foot and keep it away. That's a great sign. Next, holes are drilled into the foot surrounding the crack, and stainless steel sutures are used to draw the crack together and allow it to heal faster. Finally, an acrylic pad is applied over the injury to further stabilize and protect the injury.
The rhetoric coming from the horse's connections have been overwhelmingly and predictably positive. A better sign of the progress that is being made, though, is the return of the horse to training. He missed several days of training because of the injury, and news reports indicated that we wouldn't see him back on the track before Wednesday or Thursday of this week. Instead, he went out and had a solid gallop Tuesday morning. Trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. is a bit of a renegade, but no trainer is going to take unnecessary risks with a horse of this caliber. The fact that he returned to the track sooner than expected, especially given his earlier injury history, is a clear sign that there is little to worry about. The missed training means little at this point given the horse's fitness and the relatively light training regime that he was going to face between the Preakness and Belmont.
Going into the Belmont with a foot injury is not unprecedented. In 1997 Touch Gold stumbled early in the Preakness and ripped his hoof. The man charged with repairing the issue was Ian McKinlay, the same guy who is working on Big Brown. McKinlay worked miracles in the three weeks between those races, and Touch Gold came back to win the Belmont. That ended Silver Charm's Triple Crown dreams. This time McKinlay is working on the other side of the pursuit of history.