05/26/2008 11:00PM

A career of putting best feet forward

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ELMONT, N.Y. - After working on the feet of a rogue horse named Lord Durham in Canada in the early 1970s, farrier Jim McKinlay had the following advice for his son Ian.

"My father said stay away from the Thoroughbreds," Ian McKinlay said. "He said they'd throw you around like a rag doll."

Fortunately for many in the Thoroughbred industry, McKinlay did not heed his father's advice. Since he began treating Thoroughbreds for hoof ailments - primarily quarter cracks - in the early 1980s, McKinlay has helped numerous horses succeed at the sport's highest level.

It gets no higher than an undefeated 3-year-old attempting to sweep the Triple Crown, something Big Brown will try to do in the June 7 Belmont Stakes. So it was no surprise that trainer Richard Dutrow Jr. contacted McKinlay last Friday when he noticed there might be a problem with Big Brown's left front foot.

By late Friday afternoon, McKinlay - who is neither a veterinarian nor blacksmith but rather a hoof-lameness specialist - had diagnosed a slight quarter crack on the inside of the colt's left front foot. When McKinlay told Dutrow that he didn't think this was a big deal, that's all the trainer needed to hear.

"Ian is an expert. He's not just the best quarter crack guy, he's the best foot guy you could have around your horse," Dutrow said. "My dad [used] Ian. He doesn't sugarcoat stuff. I don't want somebody to sugarcoat me. I need to know what's happening. He said don't worry about it, I got it under control."

McKinlay, 50, has been working on horse's feet virtually all his adult life. He grew up in Canada, where is father was a farmer who lost his right arm in a farming accident in 1972. Years earlier, Jim McKinlay had pioneered the use of lacing quarter cracks with stainless steel wires rather than screws that sometimes fell out. Ian would hold the foot while his father laced it up using his left arm and a hook where his right arm was supposed to be.

"Because his patching was so new it'd draw a crowd," said McKinlay, who added that his father didn't consider himself handicapped. "He's working with one hand and people were mesmerized by this."

In the 1970s, the McKinlays worked primarily on Standardbreds because quarter cracks were more prevalent in that industry, because they raced over harder surfaces.

Ian McKinlay worked on horses in Detroit in 1977 before moving to the Meadowlands - the premier Standardbred facility in the United States - in 1978.

One of the first Thoroughbreds McKinlay worked on was Moon Spirit, a turf horse trained by Angel Penna Jr. who had chronic quarter cracks because he had thin-walled feet.

"He had four white feet, and you could touch it and put a dent in the freaking hoof," Penna recalled. "They were so weak there was a crack every two weeks. For Ian it was a good learning experience."

"I have never seen horses with thinner walls since," McKinlay said.

Moon Spirit won the 1983 Lawrence Realization, a Grade 3 turf race at Belmont Park. New York-based veterinarians Jim Hunt and Stephen Selway took note of McKinlay's work and convinced him to do more work on Thoroughbreds in New York.

"Within a year I was probably working for every guy in here," McKinlay said, referring to trainers on the Belmont backstretch. "It was such a radical change from what they were doing before. There's no bar shoe, it wasn't as bulky. The way the patches are set up, it doesn't inhibit the way a horse could travel."

McKinlay gained notoriety in 1997 when he worked on Touch Gold before the horse stopped Silver Charm's Triple Crown bid in the Belmont. Touch Gold had part of his foot sliced off when he stumbled while finishing fourth in the Preakness. McKinlay was able to use patches that enabled Touch Gold to train.

"The tissue had healed up enough we kept putting [patches] on, and he'd go out and do what he had to do and then we'd treat, treat, treat," said McKinlay, who said he used a spongy rubber substance to help build an artificial hoof wall.

"If it weren't for Ian, we wouldn't have made it," said David Hofmans, trainer of Touch Gold. "He figures out a way to keep you going."

McKinlay believes the rash of quarter cracks in Thoroughbred racing are a direct result of harder surfaces.

"I'll see injuries now in this industry that I only saw in the Standardbred industry," he said. "Like a wall separation - I'd see one a year, and [Big Brown] pops two of them."

McKinlay first worked on Big Brown last fall when the colt developed a wall separation in his left front foot. McKinlay said at first he thought it was a quarter crack, but it turned worse after a few days. Big Brown was given 45 days off. In Florida, in January, Big Brown developed another wall separation on his right front foot, which caused him to miss a month of training.

Big Brown recovered from those wall separations to win an allowance race at Gulfstream on March 5 and the Florida Derby 24 days later. He then dominated the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and will be heavily favored to win the Belmont.

Other McKinlay success stories include River Keen, who in 1999 won the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup after developing foot problems. That same year, McKinlay also worked on the feet of Artax and Cash Run before they won the Breeders' Cup Sprint and Juvenile Fillies, respectively.

On Monday, Precious Kitten won the Grade 1 Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park. Last week, McKinlay patched a quarter crack on her foot at Bobby Frankel's Belmont Park barn. On Monday, McKinlay patched four other Frankel horses with quarter cracks, including one on Ginger Punch, the reigning champion older female who is slated to run in the Ogden Phipps on June 14.

McKinlay said Big Brown's quarter crack is very minor. With the infection and heat totally out of the foot, McKinlay said Big Brown should be in good shape come the Belmont.

"Other than the magnitude of the race it's very simple," he said.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman