It's got to be the shoes.
Only these shoes aren't emblazoned with a swoosh or three stripes, they're made of metal instead of leather and rubber, and they're nailed directly onto the athlete's foot.
Uni Watch is referring to horseshoes, which are every bit as important to a thoroughbred's performance as sneakers are to a basketball player. And with Triple Crown hopeful Big Brown experiencing hoof problems as he prepares for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, Uni Watch figured this would be a good time for a visit to Belmont Park, where farrier Tim Shortell provided a fascinating crash course in equine footwear (see accompanying video).
And it turns out there's a lot to learn, especially if you mainly think of horseshoes as those things you chuck at a metal stake during family reunions. Did you know, for example, that most horseshoes today are made of aluminum? Or that the horse's hoof keeps growing while the shoe is nailed to it? Or that the hooves therefore have to be trimmed and filed every month or so when the horse gets a new set of shoes? So the farrier isn't just a blacksmith and a footwear engineer -- he's also a manicurist.
Of course, thoroughbreds wear more than just shoes. Here's a quick rundown on some of the other gear you may see the horses wearing during Saturday's race (with thanks to trainer Debra Baeza, who graciously provided a tour of her stable at Belmont):
• Blinkers: Who was that masked horse? Actually, the cloth coverings some horses wear over their heads -- most famously by Secretariat during his Triple Crown run in 1973 -- are called blinkers. They consist of a hood whose eyeholes have been fitted with plastic cups, which are available in a wide range of shapes. The net effect is to restrict the horse's range of vision and keep him looking straight ahead. Such petty functional issues notwithstanding, blinkers also look totally cool, especially when they're coordinated to match the jockey's silks, creating a pleasing sense of uniformity between rider and steed (although sometimes maybe both the jockey and the horse might have been better off with another design).
• Shadow Roll: If a horse sees a shadow near his feet, he can mistake it for an object and try to jump over it. Horses that are particularly susceptible to this problem are equipped with a shadow roll -- a padded loop that that goes over the nose -- which is designed to keep the horse focused on the ground ahead of him and prevent him from looking down at his feet. Sometimes the shadow roll is worn in conjunction with blinkers, and sometimes on its own.
• Wraps: Some horses have bandage wraps on their lower legs -- sometimes on all four legs, sometimes only on the back -- to protect the heel joint from scraping against the track. If the trainer is aesthetically inclined, the tape may have colored stripes to match the owner's silks pattern. Uni Watch loves how this makes the horse look like it's wearing striped tube socks.
• Numbers: Race horses wear numbers, to denote their post positions. Until recently, different tracks used different color systems for the number sheets (for big races, all the numbers often had the same color scheme), but now this has been standardized throughout the sport, with specific colors assigned to each post number. The No. 3 horse, for example, will always wear a blue sheet with a white number (as seen here, here, and here). Similarly, No. 1 wears white on red; No. 2 is black on white; No. 4 is black on gold; No. 5 is white on green; No. 6 is gold on black; No. 7 is black on orange; No. 8 is black on pink; and so on.
• As for the jockeys, Uni Watch covered their attire last month, but here's a new uni-related detail worth noting: When Kent Desormeaux climbs up aboard Big Brown on Saturday, he'll be wearing a Nassau County Police patch, in honor of Kenneth Baribault, a police officer recently injured by a drunken driver (details here). Also, the jocks in the Preakness wore a memorial tag for Eight Belles -- who was put down after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby -- on their boots (plus Gabriel Saez, who rode Eight Belles in the Derby and was in one of the pre-Preakness races at Pimlico three weeks ago, wore it on his helmet). Look for something similar this Saturday.
Speaking of the guys who ride the horses, Uni Watch's recent column on jockey silks prompted several readers to point out the phenomenon of silks designs based on other sports. The most prominent example was Del Rayo Racing Stables, which was founded in 1982 by Eugene Klein. Klein also happened to own the San Diego Chargers at the time, so Del Rayo's silks featured Chargers colors and lightning bolts.
But in an ever-shifting sports world, tying your stable to a particular team can be risky, sort of like getting a tattoo of your girlfriend's name and then breaking up with her. Case in point: Back when Rick Pitino was coaching the Celtics, he and some partners established Celtic Pride Stable, whose silks were green and white, with a big shamrock. But after he left the Celtics, the operation was renamed Ol Memorial Stable (after a golf course Pitino partly owns), with the colors changing to blue, gold and white and the shamrock replaced by a turtle.
Meanwhile, in non-equine developments, reader Tom Jacobsen provided an interesting follow-up to last week's treatise on buttons, zippers and other baseball jersey fastening methods. Jacobsen frequents the Game Used Universe discussion forum, where he learned that Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt liked to combine his jersey-closure formats. The Phillies wore zippered jerseys for most of Schmidt's career, but he had a local seamstress add a button and satin loop to the bottom of his front shirttail. According to GUU forum participant Howard Wolf, "This button and loop attached to a similar button/loop inside the pants. As a result, the shirt did not become untucked during play."
And as long as we're talking about shirttails, Albert Pujols doesn't like them. Jacobsen reports that the St. Looie slugger has most of his jerseys hemmed straight across. And when they don't come that way, he simply takes a pair of scissors to them.
In further scissors-related developments, Jacobsen provided yet another case of jersey modification: Back in 2001, the Twins played a throwback game in which they dressed up as the 1901 Washington Senators (remember, the original Sens were the forebears of the Twins franchise). The jerseys included authentic period elements, including collars and long-ish sleeves, but Matt Lawton didn't like either of those details, so he shortened the sleeves and removed the collar. No word on what he thought of the three-button henley-style pullover.
And finally, photos of smoking athletes continue to trickle in. When they said Chuck Bednarik was a "two-way player," is this what they were referring to?
Paul Lukas knows a lucky horseshoe should always be hung with the ends facing up, not down, so the luck doesn't drain out of it. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and his Page 2 archive is here. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.