I never had any idea what was entailed in actually racing a horse. It looked like a dramatic version of a horse show – maybe even easier than a horse show. You needed less stuff to drag along with you, for one thing. No forgetting the little things like stock ties and boot pulls. The saddle appeared to magically materialize with some mysterious fellow called a valet, alternately pronounced val-ay or val-et, and best of all, there was no sitting around waiting for your different classes. You came, you raced, you went.
Then I went to Belmont and sat for an interminable weekend in the detention barn, running one horse each day, and realized that sitting and waiting at a racetrack was as boring and sleep-inducing as sitting and waiting by the side of a hunter ring.
And while the detention barn is now gone, the sitting and waiting remains – and you still have to drag just as much stuff to the racetrack with you – minus only the saddle.
And the hot sweaty clean-up after the show is over? Yeah, that’s the same. But in between, it’s quite different from anything else I’ve experienced.
Running a Horse Part One: First, you have to get there.
The horse van comes to pick up your “traps” before it’s time to load up the horses. Barn by barn, it lumbers down the backside, picking up the mountains of equipment required to take one horse for one trip to the races. A small sampling of what we took: a bale of hay, a bag of grain, six thousand buckets, a huge bag of grooming supplies that we would not use, but needed to have on hand, coolers, anti-sweat sheets, stall webbings, bridle, blinkers, tongue tie (yummy!), spare halter, and a barn fan. (Notable items that you would have always had to take to a horse show, but which we did not: bedding, pitchfork, hose, possibly our own water.)
And for us, because we were staying in the classy NYRA dorms, a few trash bags full of bedding. Aware that it was going to be in the fifties at night, the coldest temperature that I have had to contemplate since April, I brought a nice thick comforter. Since the possibility of a bed was still uncertain, I figured I could roll up in it in the event of sleeping on the floor. Add to that a few bags of “who knows if we’ll need this much” clothing and some food and soda, along with deck chairs and reading material, and you have a sizeable mountain of luggage sitting at the end of the shedrow.
Once the complaining van driver has thrown your traps, rattling and haphazard, into the front of the rig, the semi goes backing up to the loading dock, (which is naturally at the far other end of the stabling area from anywhere you are stabled) and you get to schlep your bandaged and fleeced racehorse after it.
Loading onto a semi trailer is a new experience for me and after years of dealing with “non-loaders,” who will have nothing to do with comfy padded ramp trailers with every luxury added, it is amusing to load a racehorse. The racehorse says “Ah, a trailer,” goes up the ramp, across the very scary little bridge into the truck, and then is backed into a stall (if they aren’t, of course, enough of a rock star to warrant a box stall.) The snaps are clipped to the top rings of the halter. (Previously, I thought the top rings of halters were purely decorative and without purpose.) A metal bar is wedged in front of the horses’ chests as a deterrent against leaping forward and rampaging around the semi whilst on the New York State Thruway, a haynet is hung between neighboring heads, and the door is shut behind us.
Then what? We then set up our chairs for a relaxing, teeth-rattling jolt through Queens, the Bronx, and most of New York State. Hint: looking out the window while in NYC: fun. Looking out the window while upstate: remarkably boring. Mountains were interesting for ten minutes or so. Then I got over it. This is when Twitter comes in handy. Also novels, copies of “North American Trainer” magazine, granola bars, leftover donuts swiped from barn office on the way out, half-naps. Hint 2: Make sure your chair is at such an angle that it can’t roll into a stall, thus getting you killed, and/or not within reach of either teeth or hooves. Looping an elbow through a lead shank snapped to the wall is an acceptable way to stay upright while asleep.
Arrival, however, is a treat. You know all the trouble of setting up stabling at an event or horse show? Here is what we did: walk horse off of trailer, put in stall. Stall was bedded two feet deep in straw and already had a door – what a concept! Event organizers, take note! Horses do better when there are doors in those big gaping holes in their stalls! Then we hauled our mountain of traps off the trailer (that part was a bummer), filled water buckets, hung up the haynet, and… done.
And you’ve never seen anything like this stall. The receiving barn at Saratoga appears to have been built for some sort of giant super-race of horses that died out – presumably back in the Dawn of Time when they started racing horses at Saratoga. I took this picture (like all of my pictures) with my BlackBerry, and it reminds me of the painting of Sham and his dam in Margeurite Henry’s King of the Wind. And really, I think most racehorse facilities should – and sadly never do – emulate the perfection of King of the Wind, don’t you?