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NEW YORK - There is nothing ailing Big Brown that a good pedicure won't fix. Think of that crack in his left front hoof as the equivalent of a hangnail for a human.

"It's a little confusing for people who don't understand it, but it is a very common situation," said Dr. Rick Arthur, a veterinarian and equine medical director to the California Horse Racing Board. "We deal with it on a daily basis."

Several veterinarians said racing in Saturday's grueling 1fi-mile Belmont Stakes - with the Triple Crown on the line - shouldn't pose an additional risk to the strapping bay colt.

They characterized the quarter crack as an innocuous injury, and the minor irritation it causes as an occupational hazard of heavy training.

"It's all healed," trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. said Thursday. "We could run him the way he is."

Not exactly. On Friday, hoof specialist Ian McKinlay will apply an acrylic and fiberglass patch to the cracked area. It sets in five minutes and is "stronger than the hoof itself," he said.

That's certainly encouraging news for a sport still on edge after the death of Eight Belles on the track moments after her second-place finish at the Kentucky Derby.

Even Dutrow's normally unshakable confidence was dented when he first saw the crack.

"Naturally, we had to worry about it," he said.

A quarter crack is a vertical crack in the hoof wall between the toe and heel, usually extending into the coronary band, where the hoof meets the skin of the leg. Healing time can range from a few days to a few months, depending on the severity of the crack.

Dr. Larry Bramlage, a veterinarian with Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Ky., said the cracks are common in race horses because they quickly wear out their shoes and their hoofs need trimming more often than an average horse.

A show horse might need a new pair of shoes every six to eight weeks, while a competitive horse could run through a pair in about a month.

"The hooves tend to be a little shorter than what the average horse would have," Bramlage said. "That increases the load on the heels. They don't get the opportunity to keep ahead of the hoof growth like a show horse."

Bramlage said a colt typically doesn't even know anything is wrong with the hoof when there's a quarter crack.

"Hopefully this will be something we all talk about now and by Sunday we're taking about the Triple Crown," he said.

Big Brown has had far more serious front-foot issues. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner suffered an abscess in the sole of his left front foot that caused a wall separation late last year. He was out for 45 days. The same injury struck his right foot in January and the colt was out another 45 days.

"This is nothing new to us," Dutrow said.

The latest crack forced Big Brown out of three days of training, but the colt has otherwise pulled through like a champ.

"The one that he has is very small," said Dr. Anthony Verderosa, Belmont's track veterinarian. "He's had two previous quarter cracks that were much bigger. It's been addressed. They sewed it up and the inflammation was out of the foot in 24 hours."

In the end, whether Big Brown races isn't up to Dutrow and the colt's owners. Verderosa said the entire field is examined daily in a secure barn by New York Racing Association vets.

Big Brown isn't the first colt to suffer a health scare just before competing in a Triple Crown race.

Spectacular Bid's Triple Crown bid was derailed in 1979 when he stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont. The pin was still lodged in his hoof when jockey Ron Franklin rode him to a third-place finish.

Sunday Silence was afflicted with a hoof abscess and came up limping the week before the 1989 Preakness, then won the race in a photo finish.

A.P. Indy was a last-minute scratch the morning of the 1992 Kentucky Derby with a hoof injury. However, he went on to win the Belmont Stakes, the Breeders' Cup Classic and Horse of the Year honors.

McKinlay was needed to repair a serious hoof injury suffered by Touch Gold during the 1997 Preakness, and the horse went on to win the Belmont and spoil Silver Charm's Triple try.

And 45 years ago, Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby on a quarter crack. That could be a good luck charm: Northern Dancer is Big Brown's inbred great-grandfather on both sides.

Big Brown jockey Kent Desormeaux said he won the Super Derby aboard Soul of the Matter and that horse had a quarter crack.

"No worries," Desormeaux said.

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