Tommy Halpenny shapes a shoe for a horse before a race at Santa Anita Park. (Chris Erskine / Los Angeles…)
With a bear-trap handshake and Lucky Charms smile, "Irish" Tommy Halpenny works the stables at Santa Anita like a country doctor.
A character among characters, the veteran blacksmith has forearms the size of your thighs, and his patter, which soothes man and beast alike, is peppered with tings (things) and disses (this is), as per his native Ireland.
Irish Tommy is one of about a dozen blacksmiths who work the track — part horsemen, part craftsmen, and in Tommy's case, a dose of blarney.
"You gotta have a sense a humor," he says. "A lot of it is being good with the horses and being good with the people."
Long ago, Halpenny got the knack of swinging a hammer, shaping metal, shoeing horses. It's the people skills that he prides himself on the most these days, the ability to work with owners and trainers — some cool, some not.
"The nailing's the easy part," he says with a smile.
Here's a career for you: 30 years serving Santa Anita; 45 years as a blacksmith, including stints in New York, Florida and Colorado.
Along the way, a busted knee, a shattered ankle. A horse's kick can be lethal as buckshot. But now and then they'll step on you too.
It's a job that attracts gritty blue-collar types with old-school work ethics who, if successful, just keep going.
"There were three or four [of the same] guys out here when I got here," he says of the track's veteran blacksmithing crew. "Of course, they're not as good-looking as me."
So let's make a few morning rounds with Irish Tommy. His main focus is the hard-shelled oyster that is a thoroughbred's foot. Rigid on the outside, vulnerable and alive within. The goal is to fit the shoe as perfectly as possible, adding a smidgen of overhang — about the width of a nickel — to allow for expansion of the foot during a race.
Stable to stable he travels in his truck, loaded with the tools of the trade, some of which haven't changed for centuries.
• Pull-offs, for removing the old shoes.
• A rasp, to level the foot.
• Hoof knives, for paring out the feet.
• Hammers of all types.
Gone mostly are the big anvils many associate with a blacksmith. There's still one back in the shop that Halpenny and other blacksmiths use for sharpening tools, or making custom shoes. But most of the pounding takes place on the stall jack, a portable anvil that he carries with him on his rounds.
Horses are reshod about every month. Halpenny clips off the new growth, only about a quarter of an inch — more in summer, less in winter.
"I was never one for rushing things," he says of his steady pace.
In before dawn, out by midafternoon, six days a week, here and also at Hollywood Park and Del Mar.
It all seems relatively idyllic, and free of the buzzy intrusions of modern life. But there are pressures too. If a blacksmith is late or unreliable, it can create havoc for the stable. Blacksmiths are also on call for their primary clients — should something unforeseen happen with a shoe, the hoof wall, or the "frog" (the V-shaped heel) that demands immediate attention as race time nears.
The work can be a backbreaker, the routine rigorous. Halpenny says only 1% of students who go to horseshoe school stay with it. Those who stay with it, and excel, can make into the six figures, though as independent contractors they pay their own health insurance and all the other costs of running a business.
Today, one of his clients has an abscess. Another is clicking his back heels. There's no waddle to a thoroughbred; the hind feet land in almost straight lines, like deer's. When the hooves nick, a blacksmith can counter it with adjustments to the shoe.
Keeping pressure off the sole, the tender inner part just inside the hoof, is vital. Prep work before adding the shoe is key. Otherwise, Halpenny says, it's like hanging a door on a crooked doorjamb. "Getting the foot nice and flat is the secret," he says.
Eight inch-long nails per shoe, tapped into place just so, backing off on the last two hammer blows so as not to send reverberations up through the horse's legs and shoulders.
"Horses remember you," he says. "Boy, do they remember."
Blacksmithing is a trade, but also an art, and full of old-world eye candy: a chestnut 2-year-old frisky in the cool weather, the comfort of old friendships, the natural sepia tones of a racetrack on an early autumn morn.
"This is one thing they'll never be able to do with a computer," the 64-year-old says of his job, which dates to the time of Homer.
Retire? Not for a while. He might cut back on his schedule, work fewer horses.
"Where else better could you be, a fellow like me, working with these beautiful animals outside like this?" he says. "Where else?"
A sure ting, this "Irish" Tommy Halpenny. A sure ting every day.