The winner's circle.
It's horse racing's equivalent of the Olympic podium, but it's reserved for champions only. Unlike the podium, there is no place for runners-up. The best second- and third-place finishers can hope for is a fleeting glimpse of the hallowed ground, as they make their way back to the barn with the other also-rans.
Winning horses and their owners, trainers and jockeys gather there to be photographed, and have praise lavished upon them.
Last Monday at Assiniboia Downs was different though. After Portales' victory in the $50,000 Assiniboia Oaks Stakes for three-year-old fillies, trainer Charlie Smith stood alongside his wife Terry Propps, the horse's owner, and directed the glory away from themselves. Instead, he singled out someone who wouldn't normally be included in that elite group, and turned the spotlight on a guy who shows up for work each day wearing dirty leather chaps, hauling a tool box and a small anvil: his farrier, Wayne Elias.
"I want to thank Wayne (who was home in Stonewall at the time)," said Smith, whose base is Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn. "Without him we probably wouldn't have been racing today. Forty-eight hours ago we were in trouble, so we called Wayne. He was here in 30 minutes, and took care it. In my 28 years (in the business), and I think Terry will say the same thing, he is the very best farrier I have ever been around."
Elias appreciated the remarks. "He called me right after he made the announcement, because he wanted me to know what he had said, and it felt good," he said. "You know, people don't always tell you how much they appreciate you."
The 68-year-old Elias, who lives in Stonewall but grew up in Winnipeg, fell in love with horses when he was 15 after his father had bought his first mare (in foal) and a yearling. In 1973 he began attending Olds College in Alberta where he learned the finer points of his trade. "But I was shoeing horses years before that," he said. "That was when I decided that I really liked it and thought to myself, a guy could make a living at this."
Elias says his job is a whole lot more than just shoeing horses, as the general public tends to believe. "You want to maintain a proper shape to the feet. When that shape gets out of hand, there are all sorts of problems that can happen."
The health of the horses foot, is his number one focus. Like fingernails, hooves grow throughout a horse's entire life, and require regular trimming and shaping to avoid problems. Poorly cared for hooves are subject to problems such as lameness, bruising of the soles, abcesses from infection inside the foot, fungus and even genetic deformities.
"If Charlie hadn't spotted that injury, the horse would have been pretty damn sore," said Elias, explaining Portales' situation. "She was quite a bit lower in the front on the inside as opposed to the medial side of the foot. I took the shoe off and I noticed there was a separation in the insensitive and sensitive lamina (or white line that connects the inner wall of the hoof with the sole).
"Bacteria and fungus had gathered under the shoe, and had begun to separate the hoof capsule from the sole. What I did was I cut the outside length (of the hoof) down quite a bit, and then Charlie treated the horse, and did all the right things. As it turned out they caught it in time."
When examining a horse, Elias looks for things such as how dry, or moist their feet are.
"There are a lot of infections and fungus that can eat away at that white line. There are also problems that can happen in the frog area of the hoof (a V-shaped area which acts as a shock absorber, decreasing the force placed on the bones and joints of the leg). Fungus and bacteria can also get in there and rot it away, so if you don't catch these things early they can get out of hand."
Diagnosing problems are as much a part of his job as picking out the right kind of shoe to apply from of a myriad of orthotics from which to choose. "I watch the horse walk. I want to find out if he is turning in, or out or if he is winging (the leg travels on an arch in towards the centre) or paddling (the legs move away from the centre), or if he is wide base, narrow base, because those are all factors I can use when it comes to shoeing a horse.
Early in his career he handled up to 300 horses at a time, but while he's not considering retirement any time soon, he has cut back. "I look after Shelley Brown, who trains some 40 odd horses, and a few small stables, and then I do some outside work as well."
Portales' victory was special for Elias, who keeps track of the horses he works on, and takes pleasure from their success. "This is what I want to see, the results."