Farrier Ian McKinlay with Breeders’ Cup Classic winner White Abarrio (photo courtesy of Ian McKinlay)
Ian McKinlay has emerged as one of the world’s pre-eminent farriers, one so skillful that he can take horses with significant foot problems and transform them into stars.
When track veterinarians at Santa Anita became so concerned with the way White Abarrio was travelling ahead of the Breeders’ Cup Classic that they forced Rick Dutrow Jr. to postpone a scheduled workout, the trainer knew exactly who to call. McKinlay quickly boarded a flight from the East Coast to California.
The farrier had played a key role for Dutrow in the past with Saint Liam, the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year, and with Big Brown, the 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. McKinlay outfitted White Abarrio with a new pair of glue-on shoes and watched contentedly as the 4-year-old Race Day colt went on to an impressive one-length victory in the Grade 1, $6-million Classic on Nov. 4.
“Without Ian around him to take care of his feet, I don’t know if we would have seen the race we saw,” Dutrow said. “He appreciates having the glue-ons, I’ll tell you that.”
Owners C2 Racing Stable and La Milagrosa Stable transferred White Abarrio from South Floria-based trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. to Dutrow at Belmont Park shortly ahead of the June 10 Met Mile (G1). He finished third.
McKinlay decided to go with glue-on shoes ahead of the Aug. 5 Whitney (G1) at Saratoga – and the improvement was stunning. White Abarrio dominated by 6 ¼ lengths.
“It’s one of those horses that you take away that little bit of discomfort and they focus on the job,” McKinlay said. “That’s the way I have looked at it because it was an amazing turnaround. He’s really an exceptional horse.”
Everyone knew White Abarrio had ability. He had won the Florida Derby (G1) but then finished 16th in the Kentucky Derby to start a six-race losing streak. A victory in an optional allowance claiming race at Gulfstream Park on March 4 marked his lone success ahead of the Whitney.
Dutrow is eager to compete again at the highest levels after he returned earlier this season from a 10-year ban due to repeated medication violations. He never hesitated when McKinlay recommended glue-on shoes, which have a cycle of approximately four weeks.
“It’s given him a better opportunity because he did have some feet issues when we picked him up,” Dutrow said. “The only time he does now is when he’s toward the end of his glue-on shoe cycle.”
McKinlay, 65, has devoted his career to the problem children of the equine world. He first worked with Standardbreds before adding Thoroughbreds in 1985. He cannot begin to count the number of Hall of Fame trainers who have placed urgent calls to him. He estimates that he has patched at least 20,000 quarter cracks.
The native of Chatham, Ontario, draws immense satisfaction from every horse he helps. “In 40 minutes, you can take a horse that walks up sore and he walks off sound,” he said.
McKinlay has managed to follow a nearly impossible act. He fondly recalled how crowds would gather to watch his father, James, suture quarter cracks in Standardbreds – with one hand. James had lost his right hand in a corn picker when he was a young man. The combination of a hook that replaced his right hand and his skillful left hand got the job done.
“He didn’t have a disability at all,” McKinlay said. “He never looked at it that way.”
His tenacity was needed after an incident involving a filly that abruptly hopped off the ground while he was shoeing one of her hind feet. The force of her action severely injured his back.
The pain was sometimes so severe that he felt as if someone was plunging a knife into his back. He would need to stop halfway through a short walk.
“I thought I was out of the business,” he said.
McKinlay credits Dr. Doug Ziegler with helping to save a career he is so passionate about. “He just doesn’t stop,” Dutrow said of the go-to farrier. “He’s always all in to finding more. He’s just so interested in what he does. He’s one of the best in the world at what he does.”
McKinlay traces many foot issues to genetics and those track surfaces that are unforgiving. He said certain stallions are notorious for passing along bad feet yet continue to command high stud fees and their progeny are in demand.
“A lot of them have big motors and that’s what they’re breeding for. They want the speed. They’ll put up with the quarter cracks,” said McKinlay, wishing the demand for his expertise was not so great.