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Horseshoes not just luck, but a living

Hutch Holsapple farrier ArlingtPark shoes horse Tuesday July 19 2011 ArlingtHeights. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Hutch Holsapple, a farrier at Arlington Park, shoes a horse on Tuesday, July 19, 2011 in Arlington Heights. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 27, 2011 12:32AM

Shoeing a horse is hard on a man’s back. Horses’ hooves are low to the ground, obviously, and even bending a horse’s leg to raise the hoof, you still have to hunch over it. Hutch Holsapple has already had surgery for a ruptured disc, and he’s only 41.

In fact, it was a bad back — his uncle Gary’s — that got him into the profession.

“I’m from southern Illinois,” he says, with the twang to prove it. “I grew up with thoroughbreds all through my family. My uncle was a blacksmith. We worked together about three years when he said he couldn’t do it. His back was giving him problems. So I was going to have to do it.”

Holsapple’s Illinois Racing Board ID card says he’s a blacksmith, but don’t expect glowing forges and ringing anvils.

“Aluminum shoes,” explains Holsapple. “We don’t need a forge.”

Instead of a blacksmith shop, he works out of a Ford F-150 pickup truck containing an array of horseshoes, rasps and hammers.

Holsapple is a farrier: a person who shoes horses. One might image farrier would be a lonely profession nowadays, but there are 10 farriers working at Arlington Park Racetrack in Arlington Heights. The American Farrier’s Association in Lexington, Ky., has 2,500 members.

Arlington Park has an enormous back lot operation that most horse race fans never think about, including 2,500 stalls, currently occupied by about 2,000 horses, which translates into 8,000 hooves whose walls, a thick substance similar to toenails, grow like nails do. The walls aren’t ground down, as they would be in nature, so they must be regularly trimmed and re-shod — about once a month.

“I get paid by the horse, it’s piecework,” Holsapple says. “It ranges from $125 to $150.”

Good money, since it takes maybe a half hour to shoe a horse, but there’s a lot of down time — when I meet him, it’s 11 a.m., he’s been at the track since 6:30 a.m., drinking coffee, talking to stable workers. He has shod one horse and is getting ready to shoe his second.

We hop into his pickup truck and head to one of the many stable buildings, where we find Miguel Flores waiting, holding the bridle of “I’d Marry Me,” a 3-year-old gray thoroughbred who lost a shoe the day before.

“Be careful with Hutch, OK?” Flores warns, in the continuous jesting he conducts with Hutch in English and Spanish. “You hear me? He’s not an easy man. He’s a mother . . .”

Losing shoes is a problem on Polytrack, the synthetic surface that Arlington put down in 2007 — it looks like dirt, but it’s really shredded brown polymer. Polytrack has the advantage of preventing the catastrophic injuries — broken legs — so disturbing to fans.

“They don’t have near the breakdowns they used to have,” says Holsapple. “I got my things I don’t like about it — it’s aggravating when it grabs shoes.” Polytrack also gets hot; horses can blister their feet on it. He also says the track increases long-term stress injuries.

Holsapple tips up “I’d Marry Me’s” left front foot, the one missing a shoe. He strips the edge of the wall using a curved knife.

“You trim it like a fingernail,” he says.

He measures the new shoe against the hoof. A horseshoe is U-shaped so it can give slightly, the way a horse’s hoof does. He sets the shoe against a tripod device called a stall jack and pounds it with a ball-peen hammer.

“You gotta shape it to the foot,” he says.

He taps in eight steel nails with a tack hammer — the part of shoeing that requires the most skill, since if you drive a nail at the wrong angle it can pierce the foot and injure a million-dollar racehorse.

The nail tips come out the wall, and he twists them over, clips them off with a nipper and then files down the part that remains.

“That’s that,” he says.

Holsapple will shoe another two or three horses before calling it a day in mid-afternoon and going home to Rolling Meadows.

“I try to spend a lot of time with my family,” he says. “I got three boys. I used to train horses, work construction, work on the farm raising pigs. But I don’t want to work that hard anymore.”

Like most in this economy, he worries about his future — the new casinos, for instance. People gambling at casinos are not gambling at racetracks, and while the Illinois Legislature passed a massive gambling bill that would allow 1,200 slot machines at racetracks, Gov. Pat Quinn probably won’t sign it.

Holsapple hopes he will. “It’s my livelihood, I live here, my family’s here,” he says. “I don’t think the tracks can survive without it.”

Otherwise, he dabbles in breeding racehorses.

“There’s no retirement plan if you don’t do it yourself,” he says. “I can’t do this forever. I’d like to get lucky someday.”

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