Sunday, October 17, 2010

Don't All Us Bloggers Have This in Us?

I do quite a bit of traveling with my current job and a lot of that is windshield time throughout the upper Midwest. During those long hours I imagine what life is going to be like when we get our first great horse. That tends to extrapolate out to long involved stories about the development of the horse, big stakes races and the twists and turns of life. Naturally, as one whose racing itch is partially scratched by writing about it, I feel that there is a book in there somewhere. I have bits and pieces of it all over the place, written and in my mind, and I'm not even sure yet where it is going or what my ending will be. I don't think that this is an uncommon occurance, but then I have nothing to compare it to either. One thing that I do know is that it's easier to write about my own experiences so I will be playing off those somewhat, but I know from my own mind's meanderings that there will be more fiction than fact in the story. How much is yet to be determined.

Below is the introduction piece. I can't say how much I'll post here or how frequently, but for better or worse, below is the framework that may lead to a book someday. The book that I think most bloggers feel is inside of them somewhere. This one is inside of me.


I have heard people say that the backside of a racetrack smells like the livestock barn at the State Fair. I say that it does not - at least on the backsides that I've been around - because the stalls are kept pristine, the common areas raked and manicured and, in summer, the smell of blossoming flowers are everywhere. Of course I could just be immune to it because on the backside in the early morning is my favorite place to be. I don’t have to have a horse working that day. The hub of activity of an active racetrack in the dawn’s first light is like magic.

If you look one way, you see horses cooling down on circular walkers after coming back from the track from a sharpening three furlong breeze or a stamina building two mile long jog. A bit further beyond is the hub of activity inside a barn where riders mount and dismount, changing their tack from horse to horse to get them exercised according to the trainer’s specifications. Grooms muck the stalls while their chargers are absent making sure that when the star's work is done that there is fresh bedding to welcome the tired horse home. As the training morning draws to a close, tack is polished and hung up, ready for the same routine tomorrow.

A short walk away is the main track and perhaps also a training track at some of the larger venues. Here is where the horses really put in the time and the work to get ready for the afternoon (or evening). On the outside, horses jog to get muscles loose in the chill of the early morning air. Toward the rail, exercise riders chirp and horses break off for their scheduled and timed morning work, showing their owners and trainers what they have in terms of speed, temperament and stability.

A lot is gleaned from these early morning works. A rough rule of thumb is that a horse in shape and within himself can work up to 5 furlongs (a furlong being 1/8 of a mile) in twelve seconds a furlong. Once you move over 5 furlongs you can add a few fifths of a second, but you get the idea. Two horses can go four furlongs in an identical :48.3 seconds. One comes back a bit winded, the other all full of himself – like he barely scratched the surface of his talent. The time says nothing. HOW the horse did it tells everything.

Master interpreters of this information are the trainers. Men and women who have dedicated their lives to the horse, racing and the very difficult lifestyle that goes with it. If you’re a southern California based trainer you can rotate from Hollywood to Santa Anita and summer at Del Mar. If you’re based in New York you can toil at Aqueduct through the winter, bracket the summer at Belmont and escape the city at Saratoga in the heat of August. Even smaller circuits like Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Chicago offer the opportunity for trainers to go home at night. But across America there are scores of other trainers who live out of RVs two thirds of the year and travel routes like Shakopee, Minnesota to Oklahoma City to Oldsmar, Florida and back again or East Boston to Philadelphia to Miami and then back up the Coast. Along the way birthdays are missed, anniversaries are celebrated on the road and there is rarely such a thing as a day off.

Sometimes it’s hard for the casual fan to remember, but the horses are alive. They’re not machines. They have good days and bad days and routine aches and pains the same way that human athletes do. However, a horse can’t talk and tell us what’s wrong. They require care and feeding every day of the year. There are meals to be had, stalls to be mucked, vet care to be given and exercise to be done whether it’s Christmas, Thanksgiving or last Thursday. The trainer and his staff of assistants and grooms are there each and every day to make it happen. You don’t do something like this for the money. You do it because it’s your calling and your passion. You don’t last otherwise.

Later in the day, these finely tuned athletes are turned over to, in my mind, the strongest, bravest and toughest professional athletes in the world: the jockey. Jocks can lead a similar nomadic existence as the trainers do. They are self employed just like the trainers and are just as dedicated to their craft. Notable exception: no one tells a trainer how much he can weigh. The average weight of a jockey is roughly 110 pounds. The amount a horse may be assigned to carry can vary up to 130 pounds for the greatest of handicap horses. The norm, though, is usually less than 120 pounds and some jocks have a hard time staying at a weight that keeps them competitive. Legendary are the stories of jockeys spending hours in steam rooms, hot boxes, manure piles and other contraptions just to sweat off enough pounds to meet their race weight. Bulimia has also been known to make the rounds at jockey colonies around the country. The hell that these men and women put their bodies through to make weight has, hopefully, been aided in recent years by better nutrition and training methods, but it is still a tough way to make a living. Piloting high strung, half ton athletes moving at 40 mph in close quarters requires instinctive reflexes and a feel for the process. There is no time for thinking, only reacting. No other professional athlete can put together all the elements necessary to be a successful jockey and they deserve all the praise and respect in the world – certainly more than these independent contractors get. In what other sport does an ambulance follow you around as you work?

Who’s left? Owners. They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be gracious and accommodating. They can be tyrannical and abusive. Some own huge stables full of horses over several tracks around the country. Some own one horse and live out their racing dreams in a bull ring somewhere. We’re a strange breed of our own, the horse owner. People have said we have more money than brains and in many cases that’s true. We love the game, the sport and the industry – yes, that is racing all rolled into one depending upon how you are looking at it – the equine and the competition. Many love the money and glory and others are content to watch their horse race a few times over the summer and then let them play on the farm until next season rolls around.

What will follow is a fictionalized autobiography. It is not how I wish my life went, because I love where I grew up, how I grew up and the family I was lucky enough to grow up around and the one that I founded myself. The events that shaped my actual life brought me to the place that I am now and I like the place that I am at now. What it could best be described as is a fictionalized account of a life in racing. A bit of what will follow is true. Most is simply made up. It comes from my imagination. In my long car trips across the Midwest I have had dreams in my head of where my horses should go, what races we would win and the speeches I would give if given half a chance. I finally decided that I can have that half a chance – I only had to make it up.

Thanks for reading.

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