Horse racing board votes to ban toe grabs

The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission voted unanimously Monday to limit toe grabs on the front horseshoes of all Thoroughbreds in training or in competition on Kentucky tracks.

A toe grab is a cleat at the front of the horseshoe to improve traction. Under the new rules, anything higher than 2 millimeters or any other traction device would be banned.

The rule was recommended by the commission's health and safety committee. The committee looked at many years of scientific study showing a significant increase in the risk of front-leg injuries when toe grabs are used.

The rule change follows a Jockey Club recommendation to ban toe grabs. Officials said five other states already have adopted such a rule.

”It's a big deal,“ said Mitch Taylor, director of the Kentucky Horseshoeing School, who testified Monday at the commission's meeting at the Kentucky Horse Park.

”I expect to see a significant change, and even if this saves one horse, it's worth it.“

The rule change will need to go through the legislative rules process and a public comment period, but it could go into effect this fall, said Commission Director Lisa Underwood.

”There are going to be horses who benefit from toe grabs, but for the few who might benefit, the vast majority will benefit from flat plates,“ said John Veitch, the state's chief steward.

Taylor said that anecdotally, many people believe that toe grabs help horses get a better hold of the dirt with their front legs, even though most of their propulsion comes from the hind end.

But in looking at special videos comparing horses shod in toe grabs, it's clear that it causes horses to overextend their lower front legs.

Underwood said that Eight Belles, the Kentucky Derby runner-up who broke both front legs after the race, was wearing toe grabs, but it was unclear if they affected her.

Her death elicited a frenzy of hand-wringing over the state of horse racing; the ban on toe grabs will solve some of that, Taylor said.

”It's a multi-faceted problem and it needs a multi-faceted solution,“ he said.

Another piece of the puzzle is the use of whips, which came under fire in the wake of Eight Belles' death and is also under discussion by the commission's health and safety committee.

Commission members looked at a new prototype for whips that are 28 inches long, rather than the regulation 30 inches long. Jockeys have been trying out the whips at Ellis Park and Churchill Downs, said Jeff Johnston of the Jockey's Club.

”I was pleasantly surprised by the results,“ he said. ”Most of the jockeys are receptive.“

In other business, the commission passed rules to raise licensing fees for standardbred and Thoroughbred owners and trainers, the first time they have been raised since 2002, Underwood said.

The annual fee would go from $100 to $150 for Thoroughbred owners, trainers and veterinarians. Fees would go from $100 to $125 for standardbred trainers and drivers. The increases should bring in an additional $400,000.

Veitch also reported that trainer Steve Asmussen was fined $250 by Churchill Downs stewards for using profanity to a starting gate assistant.

Eight Belles was wearing toe grabs when she was fatally injured after the Kentucky Derby.