Most everyone involved in harness racing is still talking about last Saturday’s USA debut of European trotting star Sebastian K and his world record tying performance at the Meadowlands Racetrack.
This Saturday the career winner of $2,310,649 and 27 races will be put to the test once again against many of the best older trotters in North America as Sebastian K heads the $175,000 final of the Arthur J. Cutler Memorial Trot.
What’s the secret behind this world class eight-year-old stallion by Korean? What magic does trainer/driver Ake Svanstedt has that has made this exceptional racehorse so great?
One of the secrets that is actually not a secret but not known to many is that Sebastian K races without wearing horse shoes. He goes barefoot and judging from all the talk in the harness racing world after his amazing mile last week, quite a few trainers in North America will start paying close to attention to what Ake Svanstedt does.
Ake does not speak English very well and through his second trainer, Bijorn “Bernie” Noren, Harnesslink was able to get some special insight into the unique training methods and racing tactics that Ake uses.
“For many years we have been racing him (Sebastian K) barefoot,” Noren explained. “He is much better without shoes. We have a man from Holland, Pascal Harbors, who is here in the USA and now that we are up north he takes care of his feet and shoes if we need them. Pascal is an excellent blacksmith.”
Horses have been living in the wild for tens of thousands of years. First evidence of domestication was discovered in Central Asia dating back to 4,500 BC. The first horse feet coverings, the predecessor to horse shoes, was discovered in use by early Roman’s who would affix strap-on, solid-bottomed boots to their horses feet to travel over rough terrain and they were called “hippo sandals.” The first iron shoes with nail holes were found in an Etruscan tomb dated around 400 B.C.
For years and years “natural blacksmiths” and many horse people have advocated that horses, with proper diet and hoof care, will perform better without wearing shoes.
“Ake trained this winter after coming to the USA in Vero Beach, Florida,” Noren explained, “And Ake likes the racetrack there. It is sandy and deep. Ake likes to train his horses for muscle, not speed. It builds up their strength and then the speed comes. American guys go after the speed. We want our horses strong.
“We are now training him at Ake’s farm that he bought in New Jersey called Legend Farm,” Noren said, “The track there is very similar to the one in Florida. We keep building up his strength and it is easy on his feet too. A hard track will sting his feet and that is no good.
“In Sweden you have to tell the officials before the races that your horse will not wear shoes,” Noren said. “I told this to the officials at the Meadowlands Saturday but I don’t think they do announcements like that.”
In Sweden, as in many European countries, you must report to the officials if you intend on racing your horse without shoes. In France they have the stiffest rules as you must declare six days before you race whether or not your horse will wear shoes or go barefoot and after that you cannot change back. The rules are different throughout the harness racing world. This week at Caen, France, a feature race showed that 14 of the 19 horses entered were racing without shoes.
“We were going to put shoes on him if it has rained more at the Meadowlands on Saturday. If it is going to be a hard track then we put shoes on him. You must have a good track surface to race barefoot on or else it stings the horse’s feet badly.
That is why we like training in Florida,” Noren explained. “Deeper track is better on their feet. They don’t have to pound their feet so much but they get a lot of muscle by going in the deeper sandy track. We will try and race him every time without shoes. He does not like to wear shoes.”
A perfect example of racing barefooted and improving was when Alf Palema won the 1992 Hambletonian from the Per Eriksson Stable. After his first elimination division they ended up pulling his shoes off and he came on to win the final in the second heat by a head over stable mate and betting favorite, King Conch.
This Saturday, Sebastian K drew the rail in the $175,000 Cutler Final. In all likely hood he will be the wagering favorite and according to Noren, is feeling pretty good after his big mile last week.
“He (Sebastian K) was feeling real good after his race,” Noren said. “He was pretty calm and quiet after his race on Saturday but come Sunday he was in his paddock running around, rolling, eating hay and grass. We will work him Tuesday and Wednesday and then he will be ready to race in the final on Saturday.”
When asked about the announcement Monday about the other European world champion trotter from France, Ready Cash, coming to race in the United States this summer, Bernie Noren replied. “It will be very good for racing when he comes over, Bernie said, “then the people will see how good Sebastian K really is when he beats him in world record time.
“People have asked why we only went so fast, just 1:56, in the qualifier race,” Noren said, “and then on Saturday he sets a world record and goes almost six seconds faster. We have him in perfect shape already. Why do we have to go so fast in a qualifying race where there is no money. He went fine in the qualifier. We did not want to go so fast for no reason.
“Qualifying horses is so over rated,” Noren said. “There is no money and you risk so much in going so fast and it costs money to the owners to ship to the track and in fact you are wasting a race on the horse. I can’t believe how some people here in America will qualify a horse two and three times before it races.
Overseas there are no 30 or 45 day rule for re-qualifying. In France once a horse is qualified it is good for a year. Throughout Europe each country has different rules but for the most part horses do not have to always show qualifying lines as they are grouped in their conditions by money won over has fast they went in the last 30 days.
“I must credit the trackmen at the Meadowlands for they did an excellent job on Saturday,” Noren said. ” We were ready to put the shoes on Sebastian K Saturday but Ake went on the track and came back and said it was in excellent shape and do not put shoes on him. I wish more tracks would take better care of their racing surface like they do at the Meadowlands. It seems that many tracks never put enough water on the track. Tracks dry out and constantly need water to maintain a good racing surface. If not, horses can get hurt racing on too hard a track.”
If Ake Svanstedt and Bijorn “Bernie” Noren continue to set world marks with Sebastian K then their “strange” ways of training and racing their horses will soon enough become the norm here in North America.
By Steve Wolf, for Harnesslink.com