Deep Footing

Look how the weather has interfered with my plans!

I had fully intended to follow up yesterday’s blog post with a full accounting of my first breeze. But the rain came and sat on New York City last night, and my expectations were low. As we drove in, the sign at the security gate said the track was fast. No way, I thought, and sure enough, it was a mess. Maybe not sloppy, altogether, but not fast and nothing I’d gallop a horse at speed over. Deep and cuppy, completely chopped up with the hoofmarks of all the jogging horses on the outside rail, puddled in the center, and soupy on the inside rail. Banked like a Nascar track, the turns looked especially treacherous.

Racetrack footing in no way resembles what we’re accustomed to riding sport horses in. I’ve ridden on red clay, stone dust, common white sand, grass – but never anything as deep as the racetrack. And while I have no personal experience with polytrack, the common name for the varieties of synthetic footing in use in Canada, California, and a few other racetracks around the world, I have heard that it is very springy but not deep at all. The famous story in our shedrow is the colt, fresh from California, who took two steps onto the Aqueduct track and sank blissfully into the sand for a good roll, leaving the rider to jump clear.

I first experienced the dirt track in my Ocala days, when I worked at the spring two-year-old sales. The two-year-olds get to the sales complex well ahead of the auction, and prep for the “under tack” days, when they are expected to turn in the fastest furlong possible. Every morning the trainees are tacked and sent to the track.

Somehow, I ended up walking one of these half-witted two-year-olds up to the racetrack. No pony for me, like some of the consignors had; I had to half-run, half-stumble through the deep furrows of the horsepath that led to the track. The depth of the track had me nearly falling over trying to keep up with the colt and keep my feet. Used to riding on relatively hard ground at an eventing barn, where a rake was kept next to the jumps so that every hoofmark could be raked clean, I was astonished by what hard work the track must be to gallop over. It was damn near impossible to walk through.

Similarly, the tracks in New York are famously sandy, and the rich deep footing seems to sink beneath the horse until their ankles are obscured. The horses come in from galloping with sand buried deep in their tails and their hooves coated in caked powder. Walking back from your race to the barn at Saratoga, you have to stumble through the track as well. Here’s a hint – try finding the hard-packed tire tracks where the ambulance or the water truck has driven. And then good luck keeping your horse from pushing you away so that she can enjoy the easy walk.

As I was riding this morning, searching for a path on the track that hadn’t been completely torn apart by the horses that had gone before me, I reflected that it resembled more the “powerline road” that some Western friends of mine used to use once a week to condition their reining horses. We never would have dreamed of taking our Thoroughbreds, with their “delicate” legs, in that deep sand. I’d turned down riding in arenas that needed a good harrowing before. And definitely would never take a horse out to a wet, puddly dressage ring. But this seemed to prove that Thoroughbreds are far more tough than we ever gave them credit for at my old eventing barns. All the way around the track, my horses never slipped, stumbled, or even balked at jogging through a puddle.

All the same, I look forward to a fast, sun-baked track tomorrow morning.



Filed under racetrack life

2 responses to “Deep Footing

  1. Huh, that doesn’t seem right. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard more than once that deep footing contributes to tendon injury. Plus it seems that deep footing would slow them down. Have I been misinformed?

    • I imagine a lot has to do with the stability of the footing. If you have plain sand that is deep, you’ll have shifting ground with every step. Enough clay in the sand would provide a cushion, rather than unsteady ground.

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