Tag Archives: aqueduct

Photoblog! A Day at Aqueduct

baked goods

If every racetrack offered a bake case like this, there would be more happy, sugared-up people at racetracks.

There’s nothing quite like spending a blustery February day at Aqueduct, and by nothing, I mean nothing except for perhaps heading to a walk-in cooler at your nearest restaurant and shutting yourself inside. But inside with some awesome horses! Today we hopped on the Crazy Train (that’s a colloquial term for the A train) and went out to the track. Aqueduct’s lonely train platform is a lot more crowded these days; the blinking, beeping, soul-sucking (I mean this in the nicest possible way) casino that replaced Aqueduct’s crumbling old grandstand attracts crowds that the horses haven’t been bringing out to Queens for decades, and do not get in Grandma’s way when she is trying to be first through the turnstiles on the way out of the station! She will run your butt over! Sing  it with me now: “The slots, the slots are calling…”

The plus side to the casino is that there is actually decent food to eat at the racetrack now, and the cream-cheese frosted brownie and the Starbucks coffee, liberally laced with actual half-and-half, may not have been the healthiest lunch option, but it’s a cut above the old “death before Sbarro’s” racetrack diet I used to be on. I was really tired of leaving the racetrack at five thirty with a headache from not eating all day!

So Scott, Thoroughbred gelding

I want him next!

It was an interesting day of races. There was one feature, the Busher, for three-year-old fillies, and then everything from $7500 claimers to starter allowances. The weather went from sunny to snow flurries, back to sunny, back to snow, all with a gale of a wind that would whip up from the south and blow sand in your face. It’s been a while since I had the grit of Aqueduct track between my teeth; today I tasted that dirt once again. Happily, it wasn’t because my entire face had just been ground into it while a horse tried to convince me to let go of the reins. Change is good.

There were a lot of favorites from big trainers, and the idea of the day was to try and find the sleeper horse that might come out of nowhere and surprise everyone. But they were few and far between. Every race seemed to have five favorites and two long-shots that were such long-shots not even I was going to mess with them. We did manage to get a first and a second with some slightly-better-than-even-money horses, but all in all it wasn’t a betting day. It was an enjoy the nice horses day.

Often one will just walk into the paddock that really catches my eye. The second So Scott, the dark bay pictured above, came down the ramp, I said “Oh I want him!” Yeah, he won his race. Look at the cheerful expression and that pretty body!

Stud Muffin, gray Thoroughbred racehorse

Stud Muffin, silencing the spindly-legged Thoroughbred complaint

Stud Muffin was in that race also. This horse came out looking like a show jumper, in full leg wraps and a dress sheet. (Public service announcement for all grooms: dress sheets and coolers have tail cords for a reason. If you use the tail cord, the rug will not end up over the horse’s ears from the wind, and you will not have a spooky horse with a rug over its ears. PSA out.) Anyway, Stud Muffin gets claimed every two races or so. He’s had like six owners in the past year. I feel kind of bad for him, but he keeps winning or placing, and he seems like he’s happy with his job, so I suppose he keeps going to barns that keep him in carrots, and that’s probably all he’s looking for.

I included the picture of Stud Muffin, not just because he’s beautiful of course, but because he is a nice reminder that large-boned Thoroughbreds are still bred, and it’s silly to argue that “all Thoroughbreds are being bred spindly-legged” and so forth! Thoroughbreds come in ALL shapes and sizes. In fact I saw one today, Lucky’s Dream, that was the spitting image of my first horse, a rugged Foundation-style Quarter Horse. It looked like someone had accidentally sent a cowhorse into the paddock. He was first out of the gate and finished second in a six-furlong race.

A few random shots:

racehorse saddled in paddock

This horse wouldn't go into the paddock stall. Instead of arguing, they just tacked him up in the paddock.

The track vet is always watching the horses, from the paddock to the starting gate to after the race, looking for signs of trouble. Here she is watching them come back from a race.

Track vet watching horses

The track vet

There were beautiful clouds passing through and occasional little bursts of snow flurries. Here is one of my favorite clouds, almost on par with the gorgeous thunderclouds that pass over Florida all summer long:

snow clouds, queens ny

Snow flurries and amazing clouds

Only the very rugged can survive running their horses all winter long on the frost-free inner track at Aqueduct; I was reminded of this several times when old friends and trainers came up to say hello and ask after us! I only made it through the end of December, after all, before I was just too frozen to put my feet in the stirrup irons any longer. I’d much rather spend my winters at Gulfstream or Tampa, but it’s nice to have Aqueduct here as a little get-away from the city, all winter long.

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Older Men

When it comes to Thoroughbreds, I have a tendency to fall for the old soldiers. Don’t we all?

It’s really funny, racing. The owners insist upon retiring their horses young, because of the money that can be made from breeding. Meanwhile, all of the fans, we’re just looking for the older horses, the ones that make it past their three, four, even five year old year at the races. The horses that show their heart again and again.

Yesterday was, of course, a brilliant day for that. On Breeders’ Cup day, we were treated to some great old stars: my personal favorite being that steely tough mare Goldikova, who romped through her third Breeders’ Cup victory in her personal specialty, the mile. And of course Zenyatta is six, and put on a show that we’ll never forget, marring her perfect record by a nose (which, I think, is reason enough to keep racing – why retire someone who is clearly so wonderfully happy?).

And at Aqueduct, as the sun was swept behind the clouds, as it seems to be every afternoon in New York City, I peered down into the paddock and fell in love with a little apple rump and a ridiculously short tail. I leaned over and told Cory, “I love that little 9 horse.”

Cory, resident researcher, pulled out his BlackBerry and looked at his Equibase page. “If he wins, that would be something – this is his second race after three years off. Wait – he was in the Hollywood Derby?”

Bold Hawk warms up for the Red Smith Handicap at Aqueduct

Yeah, he was. I watched my cute little bay run around the track, and screamed and rooted for him in the stretch. He came in third – well, I am fairly good at picking horses to show, so my track record was safe yesterday, too. What a game little horse, to have three years off and then come back to run like that, ears pinned, stretched out!

I did a Google search on Bold Hawk this morning and found that he’s been making the news since he was a colt. The Daily Racing Form ran this story on October 11th, when Bold Hawk was entered for a comeback in a mile on the turf at Keeneland. When asked, trainer Jimmy Toner seemed to wonder where the time had gone: “Oh gosh, has it really been three years?”

He was getting a little blog love, too.. I found a story on him at Power Cap’s blog as well, this one with an awesome win photo of Bold Hawk winning the G2 Hawthorne Derby back in 2007.

Bold Hawk ran beautifully yesterday, and he’s officially my new favorite horse – I hope to see much more of the bay gelding this winter. Everyone involved with horses could do well to heed his trainer’s words: “He’s a classy horse with ability, and we’ve basically just taken our time with him.” Truest training words ever spoken.

 

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A Morning Pattern

At four thirty in the morning, I hate horses.

It’s safe to say I hate everything, at four thirty in the morning. I hate sunlight, artificial light, basically any illumination at all. I hate coffee, and water, and toothpaste. I hate jeans and argyle socks. I hate everything that I would, in a more civilized time of day, love.

At six o’clock in the morning, I hate horses. I have had some coffee, I have grown resigned to my jeans and argyle socks, I am pleased to have brushed my teeth. But as I go wearily up to the dimly lit barn, I still hate horses.

jogging out

One of those moments when I love horses

By six ten, I’m coming around. Horses are going out to the racetrack. I can hear their hooves clattering on the pavement outside the barn. I can hear the hot fast breath of horses being walked in the shedrow. I’m alternating between “I hate horses,” and “I really want to be on a horse right now.” It’s a complicated relationship.

At six twenty, I love horses. I love the horse I am sitting on. I love the early-morning twilight. I love seeing the A-train come rattling into the Aqueduct station, a reminder of my geographic serendipity. I love being out on the racetrack, I love being in New York City, I love everything.

At nine o’clock, I am tired of horses. It’s hot, I’m sweaty. My horse is hot, my horse is sweaty. The track is deep and trodden with hoofmarks. The last few rotten two-year-olds are careening around the track like out-of-control test missiles from a 1960 Cape Canaveral launch pad. The mechanics in the Evil Corner of Death (yes, the racetrack has one too!) are engaging in some sort of Large Metal Tool Throwing Contest. There are police cars wailing on Rockaway Boulevard. The charm is gone with the rising sun. The day is started. Time to go.

At eleven o’clock, I’ve kissed horses good-bye. They’ve had their mints, their breakfast, their hooves picked and their backs massaged. The shedrow is raked clean and even, like a zen garden rolled over with chicken tracks. I love them, but if I have to see them for another five seconds, I’m going to scream.

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Unexpected Hazard

Of all the hazards I would have expected, the Aqueduct Flea Market was not one of them.

You look for potential problems, riding a horse in the city. The kids on their ponies who used to wend their way through traffic on the Upper West Side, traversing the most treacherous block and a half of trail ride you’ve ever encountered on their way to the dubious delights of the jogger-infested Bridle Path, these horses were Bomb-Proof with a capital “B.” Old and wise, these horses had no issues with the whooping sirens and blaring horns on the expletive-laced streets of New York.

Two and three-year-old racehorses, on the other hand, they’re just looking for trouble. And there’s plenty of that on the urban backside.

I know that Tampa Bay Downs borders a driving range. And Calder is alongside an interstate. I’ve ridden at stables beneath the glow of theme park fireworks, and been on a Thoroughbred when the sonic boom of a returning space shuttle sent every horse in central Florida into their own special orbit. Horses fit uneasily into our civilized world, the world that would never have been built without their muscle and will.

All that, and the clatter and banging of metal pipes, the flapping of canvas tenting, at six thirty in the morning, from the back of a racehorse, is really more than I could ever have bargained for.

I’m sure it’s a very nice flea market, and it makes good use of the vast asphalt carpet that sits cracking and steaming during the summer months when Aqueduct’s grandstand is closed. It’s just – and I’m sure the horses echo my thought, as they go lurching and bolting around the far turn – so damned unexpected.

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Run Away, Join the Circus

The days now are an odd configuration: get up at the crack of dawn (which is nice – out here on the eastern edges of the time zone, the sun is up so early that I’d be angry if I were actually trying to get sleep) head in to Queens with Cory, work for a few hours, and then head back to Long Island for a nice nap. The nap is necessary because there is no question of going to bed at eight o’clock, the only way it would be possible to get enough sleep. But it does split up the day into two pieces in a way that has made it difficult to blog.

For one thing, I can’t remember, after I’ve woken up groggy and confused, in the midday, what on earth I composed while I was out on the racetrack. It’s like writing down a dream – if you don’t keep a notebook by your bedside, and force yourself to scrawl it down the moment that you wake, it’s lost forever.

Riding in from the track, second morning. I should have a knot in my reins.

It’s just a question of finding routine. In the meantime, I’m learning, learning, learning.

At the different training centers I worked at, every farm had a slightly different routine – one, somewhat hilariously, had us tack and mount the yearlings alone in the stall, without a groom’s assistance – and I don’t know if things are more or less regimented at the racetrack, or how identical routines are. But I can tell you that in general, a rider shows up ready to ride, a groom presents a tacked horse, and a trainer gives a leg-up. When the rider comes back in, they ride into the stall, a groom takes the horse’s head, and the rider hops off, strips the saddle and bridle, and walks out. Done. All the rest: the bath, the long cooling walk, rinsing the shedrow dirt off the legs – in theory that belongs to the groom and the hotwalker. 

Of course, from what I’ve seen, everyone seems to pitch in to get the job done. Much more so than at the training centers, where we literally tacked up, rode, untacked, and walked away. There was no question of our bathing or hotwalking. That was someone else’s problem. So you see, there are subtle differences.

There is a week left of the Belmont meet, and before the races disappear to Saratoga for the rest of the summer, we’ve been spending our afternoons at the other “city” track, just outside the borough of Queens, in Long Island. We watch the processes in the paddock, everything from walking the horses before they are saddled, to the way the jockeys get a leg-up onto the horses while they’re still in motion.

Things we noticed before, but never really paid attention to – because we never expected to be doing them ourselves. We’ve run away and joined the circus. I had a friend who did that – she left upper-class, Big House, country squire life in the Cotswolds and ended up with a career as an elephant trainer. She claimed it was because she wasn’t allowed to play with the servants’ children. I can make no such claim. We did it because it seemed like the right thing to do. So far – still does.

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Good Morning, New York City

I’m really not a morning person.

Those of you who have been with me a while, catch my posts on Facebook, or notice the absurd times that some of these blogs have been published, are well aware. I prefer to go to bed at four a.m., not get up at four a.m.

But sometimes, when you get up late, you miss really awesome stuff. Like orange sunlight flashing on a subway train as it clatters past the first turn, framed between the two pricked ears of a racehorse.

There are horses in this city, and I am here to experience this life as much as any other dream of New York.

On the rail - Not quite ready to breeze, thank you

The track opens at six, and so we slept until the luxurious hour of 4:30 before struggling outside, Starbucks in hand, to make the schlep to Queens from a Long Island suburb of a suburb, where we’ve set up base camp while we determine what city neighborhood will suit us best. We experienced what was possibly an excessive level of thrill when we drove into the horsemen’s entrance on the backside. But when you think you’ll never be able to make that leap from farm to racetrack, from training center to raceday – is there an excessive level of thrill?

I was hoping for an easy morning to shake off the nerves (and an excessive level of nerves, there were!) and fortunately, got just that. Two to jog, a filly and a colt. The filly a pragmatic, unconcerned mare already, who gave me an athletic turn of foot near the grandstand, but was otherwise a model of good behavior. The colt an interesting combination of good manners and male showboating, alternating between a lovely forward trot and ridiculous, unheralded bolts that had me bending his nose back to my boot and, I’m sure, getting a few head-shakes from the other riders.

The nice thing, though, is that everyone has to learn sometime, and everyone has their own style anyway, so no one looks quite the same or really appears out of place. Think of a hunter barn. Now think of the opposite of that. No clones here. And no fashion police, which is a massive relief to me. There are half-a-dozen riding styles, everything from stirrup length to body position to hand height. There are just as many clothing styles. From full chaps with fringes to plain jeans, with a catalog of hats, gloves and safety vests to complete the habit.

(Since you’re dying to know: I wear Tredstep half-chaps over my jeans, Tredstep gloves, and a black eventing vest.)

Cory was too busy hotwalking to take any pictures of me, until we both went up to watch a breeze. I told him that tomorrow, he has to excuse himself from the barn for thirty seconds to act as Retired Racehorse Blog Staff Photographer.

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Aqueduct: Horses in the City

Candy, carrots, and kisses.

For alliterative purposes, it works. And sums up my first visit to “The Big A” admirably.

A Subway Line Aqueduct-N. Conduit Station

After the A train goes by, the grandstand looms.

Joe Parker was generous enough to invite me out to visit his barn at Aqueduct, and so I was up at five a.m. on a cold (for me!) New York City morning to navigate the subway to the racetrack.

Talk about a dream!  For a seriously displaced city girl like myself, I couldn’t imagine anything much better than a stable full of racehorses at the end of a subway ride. I went underground from a dark, cracked sidewalk in Brooklyn. I emerged into a pinkish-gray dawn, onto a nondescript concrete platform, and as the train rattled on towards Far Rockaway, I was greeted with a view of the grandstand, beyond a plain wall that blocked my view of the track proper. I raced from the platform, under a deserted tunnel beneath the tracks, and ahead of me, in the pink dawn, was the white railings of the racetrack, and horses jogging by, riders perched above their withers. I felt a thrill of recognition. City girl, city horses. It was all coming together. 

Betsy, Joe’s wife, arrived and whisked me around the racetrack and back to the stables. Aqueduct’s stabling is small and neat, sandwiched between the backstretch of the track and a residential street of tidy little brick houses, and the horses’ comings and goings from barn to track are punctuated by the crowing of chickens and the greetings and conversations of the people who work there. Everyone had a smile for me, everyone had a kind word, everyone had a joke to share.

A racehorse waiting for carrots at Aqueduct

Carrots please? Waiting for goodies.

And in the Parker shedrow, best of all, every stall door had a lovely face poked over the rubber guard, waiting to say hello, waiting for a candy, for a carrot, for a kiss.

Amidst all these friendly faces, surrounded by such energy, it was easy to feel at home. It was like the bustling training barns I had ridden at in Ocala, but a hundred times more so.

Everywhere there were horses – horses being walked around the shedrow, horses headed out to the track, horses being bathed, horses with their heads out, begging for treats. A striped tabby darted about, secure in her position as barn cat, and a green-tailed rooster haunted a corner near the open door to the backstretch, clucking and strutting importantly whenever a dancing Thoroughbred came plunging around the shedrow, on its toes and looking for trouble as only a robust young racehorse, bursting with health, can do.

It was heavenly – all those fine horses, all the talking and whistling and laughing, and in the thick of it all walked Joe with his candies and his carrots, spoiling every horse rotten. A chestnut with long mulish ears pawed incessantly at the boards in front of his stall whenever he saw us walk nearby. “What does that horse want?” Joe demanded, and Betsy was quick to answer, “He wants you to give him carrots.”

“Give that horse a carrot, will you?” Joe called to a passerby, and the man grinned and ducked into the tack room to break into the treat stash.

A tour is nice, petting horses is nice, and I was on top of the world – but kids, I’m a rider as well as a writer. And there is only one way to adequately experience a racetrack.

But that’s a story for another post.

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