As a boy, Judd Fisher never dreamed of tasting a mint julep after his horse won the Kentucky Derby.
A career in horse racing wasn’t on the radar.
But his modification of a horse shoe spurred a six-race winning streak for California Chrome, leaving the winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes poised to make horse-racing history.
Today, Fisher, a Ririe native, is among the world’s best-known farriers. The horse he shod is a heavy favorite to win the June 7 Belmont Stakes, the final leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Fisher said. “Just all the excitement and the nerves and being anxious all at once. I never really imagined being with a horse like that. I’ve worked on others that won stakes races, but for that horse to win those two races …”
Capturing the Triple Crown is horse racing’s most difficult challenge for 3-year-old thoroughbreds. Only 11 have accomplished the feat, the most recent being Affirmed in 1978. The 35-year drought is the longest in the history of the races.
Since 1978, 13 horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown before losing at Belmont. I’ll Have Another in 2012 was the most recent horse to come up short.
California Chrome’s bloodline can be traced back to one of the Triple Crown’s 11 winners, Seattle Slew, which won the crown in 1977.
Fisher, 35, has been living between Idaho and California ever since he graduated from Ririe High School. About 10 years ago he was fighting fires for the Bureau of Land Management, but was looking for something different. His uncle, Robert Treasure, was working as a blacksmith in California and talked him into shoeing horses on the side while he figured out what he wanted to do.
“It wasn’t really something I wanted to do, but I got good at it,” Fisher said. “I looked into an underwater welding class and my uncle talked me into working with him before (the class started). I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Treasure said Fisher didn’t just get good at it, he mastered the art. He received his shoeing license in two years. Most farriers need to complete a four- to five-year apprenticeship before taking the test to get certified, Treasure said.
“He came out here and stayed with me for a year-and-a-half and worked with me for a bit and he picked it up pretty easy,” Treasure said. “He learned a little something from everyone, so he excelled at it pretty good.”
To shoe a horse, a farrier first cleans all the dirt and debris from the hoof and clips down extra growth of the nail. Then he files the hoof so it’s level. Finally, the farrier nails or glues on the shoe.
Fisher works with thoroughbred horses in stake races. Part of his job is becoming so familiar with a horse’s hooves he can look through a vast number of shoe variations and find the one that will give his horse the greatest racing advantage.
California Chrome certainly had the pedigree, but prior to December had won only two of six races.
Leading up to the Glorious King Stakes race Dec. 22, Fisher decided to get creative. He took a glue-on shoe, called The Sticky Shoe, from Thoro’Bred Inc. in Anaheim, Calif. But rather than glue it, he drilled holes and nailed it on.
Fisher said he actually wanted a rim-pad shoe, which has a hard-rubber pad on it, because, as he put it, they hold up exceptionally well. The glue was irrelevant.
“Usually when you glue you don’t have a lot to work with on the foot,” Fisher said.
Fisher asked the company to send the shoes pre-drilled and without the glue, but said they kept putting him off.
“They kept saying nothing, nothing, nothing,” Fisher said. “Then he won the Kentucky Derby and they decided to do it.”
Ed Kinney, president of Thoro’Bred, said a successful horse wearing his shoes is nothing new. The company manufactures about 5,000 shoes and outfitted Triple Crown winners Secretariat and Affirmed. He said Thoro’Bred would be happy to drill holes for Fisher or anyone else who wants the modification.
Kinney said the name of the shoe California Chrome wears will be changed to Leg Saver Ultra.
Regardless of who drills the holes or what the name, the results are quantifiable.
After the change, California Chrome won his next six races by a combined 26 1/4 lengths, including the Derby and Preakness. Fisher wasn’t surprised. But he gave most of the credit to the horse and said he saw the potential before the big races.
“It would have been about a month before the Kentucky Derby,” Fisher said. “Everyone knew he was a good horse, but it’s a long stretch for horses to even make it (to the Kentucky Derby).”
But the wins weren’t without controversy.
In all six victories, California Chrome wore a nasal strip to help with his breathing. Heading into the Belmont, it was unknown whether the strips would be allowed. Had the strips been banned, California Chrome may not have competed at Belmont. But the New York Racing Association decided May 19 to allow the strips.
Fisher is optimistic as the Belmont approaches.
“I like the chances,” he said. “I know it will be a big difference and there will be horses that are fresh that didn’t run in the Preakness or maybe even the Kentucky Derby, but he has done well so far, so hopefully we can get one more.”
At 10/13 odds, California Chrome is a heavy favorite over runner-up Candy Boy, at 12/1 odds, to win the Belmont.
But the pressure still will be on when Fisher goes to shoe the horse Friday.
“Man, when you do shoe that horse, you better make sure you have your hat on straight,” Treasure said. “You don’t want that to be the day you make a mistake. But that’s why (Fisher) works for the guys he does, he can dang sure handle it. When the money’s on the line, you want a guy like Judd.”