Friday, September 4, 2015

Meeting American Pharoah

Déjà vu...

Five years to the day, I found myself wandering the backstretch of Saratoga once again, searching for my true love.  Both were in the Travers, both had a hard fought place, both were watched over and as difficult to access as Studio 54.

Both had amazing owners that allowed this fan past the theater rope.

Honest to Pete, I'm really a nobody. I'm just a fan who loves the game, but for some reason, these owners responded to my love of their horse.

Tonight, I am celebrating owners of these magnificent thoroughbreds.

I'll start with Mr. Zayat, owner of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Mr. Zayat almost left the game last year because he was so heartbroken over Nehro. I said to him, after AP won the Triple Crown, that I was glad he stayed in the game. This generous man said the reason he stayed was because of fans like me who loved and supported his horses.

Mr. Zayat sent me American Pharoah Triple Crown shirts and hats. Just like that. A man who really has no reason to be bothered with me asked me for my address and sent me American Pharoah swag. Everytime I wear a shirt or hat, I'm always eager to share with people from whom it came.

Wouldn't you? Geez! The owner of the first Triple Crown horse in 37 years gifted me with American Pharoah swag. Wow.

But it does not end there....

Mr. Zayat gave me permission to meet American Pharoah at Saratoga. Honestly, I knew better than to try to see AP before the race. I know how things work, being that I am occasionally a working student backside.

So, the day after Travers, I asked a Twitter friend if she wanted to go with me to meet American Pharoah. She was thrilled. I was a little nervous, even though I have an OHRC license. I told my friend Terry that we would keep going until someone said no.

We made it to Barn 25 and I DM'd Mr. Zayat. He got on the phone with security and before you know it we were in front of the most amazing horse in recent memory.

Didn't he make it look so easy? AP skipped over that slop at Pimlico and he shrugged and asked us what was the big deal about winning the Belmont after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

I was so emotional approaching American Pharoah's stall. Wouldn't you be?

It was so quiet when I had my little visit with the most famous horse in the world. It was perfect.

Thank you so much, Mr. Zayat. You are one in a million. 

Five years ago it was Mr. Pell who gave me access to Fly Down. Wow. I had fallen in love with this deep closer in the Dwyer Stakes. It was my first visit to Saratoga and I knew next to nothing about anything having to do with thoroughbreds, but I knew I loved Fly Down. My companion and I worked our way back to Mr. Zito's barn and stood behind the fence in front of Fly Down's stall. Mr. Zito was on the phone at the end of the shedrow and watching us.  I knew better than to approach Fly Down without permission. Heck, I don't approach someone's two-bit claimer without permission. 

Suddenly, a man with an elderly lady came up to Fly Down's stall and my companion said he though it was his owner. 

"Mr. Pell!" I enthusiastically voiced, and he turned toward me. "May I please meet Fly Down?" I asked. He said of course, and I was under that fence like a shot, my shoulder cracking against the wood in my excitement. No time for embarrassment, I was meeting the horse that made me shake and hoarse the day previous. 

I spent some amazing time with Fly Down and ended my meeting with Mr. Pell by telling him he had a magnificent horse.

Thank you, Mr. Pell. That meant so much to me.

This year, I spent enough time in Saratoga to watch Mr. Crawford of Donegal racing pass out $2. win tickets to kids hanging on the paddock fence. I heard he likes to see young faces at races. Mr. Crawford actually spends time talking to these children. Wow. What a wonderful way of reaching NextGen fans and hooking them with the thrill of rooting for a horse on your ticket. Imagine how those kids felt after Keen Ice won the Travers. Do you think they might want to come back?

I was so sad American Pharoah lost the Travers, but if he had to lose, I am glad he lost to a horse owned by such a classy man. 

I watched Mr. Crawford pass out those $2. win tickets in a race a week before the Travers, for the Travers, and the day after the Travers. 

Was glad he passed my way the day after Travers so I could congratulate him. 

This is Saratoga, but I guarantee you there are owners at every track at every level who are just as generous and thoughtful. I've seen it elsewhere myself.

So, thank you owners, for making our game interactive.

It means a lot to fans. 

See you at the races!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Confessions of a Hotwalker

Recent events has caused a lot of soul-searching in the industry. People are looking for answers. As someone who works backside and sees good and bad, I have my two cents to throw into the pot, for what it is worth.

Let's start with the good, because, truly, the industry is filled with good people who love their horses and try their very best to do right by them. I believe that is what prompted the #FullStoryPETA meme.  We are not bad people.  We are not outnumbered. However, our sin is silence.  Silence when we see bad and do nothing about it.

In some ways, that silence can be understood.

The first summer I worked backside as a hotwalker at Thistledown, in 2010, I found a syringe in the barn (not my trainer's). I knew it was wrong, but who do I tell? I had no one to tell. I was completely clueless as what to do about it. I recently said as much to some horse racing folks and I was told I should have gone to the stewards. I thought about that, but here is where things get murky. For one, if you are a new hotwalker at the track, knowing no one, you have no idea if your whistleblowing is going to cause you to lose your position. Second, the stewards do not live in a vacuum. One steward was having a relationship with an assistant trainer backside and had a brother who was a trainer there, too.

I heard the syringe trainer bragging to my trainer about milkshaking his horse before running her at Mountaineer. Again, I knew this was wrong, but had nowhere to go with the information.

Now, if I don't know where to go with information, do you think a Latino groom or exercise rider does? And if I was apprehensive about whistleblowing, how do you think a Latino feels?

Let's head down south at this juncture, where I worked at Tampa Bay Downs for a few winters.  Last year, Jane Cibelli's barn was caught cheating red-handed. Ray Paulick started investigating and people were coming out of the woodwork to talk to him.  I was one of those people.  Many of us knew what was going on with Jane Cibelli, but we had no one to tell.  The situation ended up being resolved to the satisfaction of all the good people in the sport.

So, let's examine this in detail, because I think it is important.

Jane Cibelli's barn was caught cheating due to a security guard walking past the stall and seeing the vet performing an illegal procedure on a horse who was entered to run that day.  Ray Paulick is a well-liked and respected media figure in the industry and people felt comfortable talking to him.

I think we need more security backside, but Tampa Bay Down's security is not a model the sport should follow, and here is why.

I came into contact with Tampa Bay Down's security myself and although I was doing nothing wrong, they made me feel intimidated.  If TBD's security can intimidate me, how do you think Latinos feel?

Latinos are afraid of authority.  It is their culture.  We need to understand this if we want them to feel comfortable in talking to someone if they see something wrong, and I think we can agree the people who are in a unique position to see wrong-doing are exercise riders and grooms and hotwalkers, the bulk of whom are Latinos.

So, my idea is security backside should take on the mantle of community cop.  Security should be friendly, non-threatening, knowledge of horse husbandry, bilingual preferred, Latino a plus.  They should circulate backside in the morning, chatting with the exercise riders at the rail before a gallop and the grooms and hotwalkers at the wash rack.  Erase the fear of Latinos by becoming an advocate instead of an adversary.

Now let's talk about the good trainers and assistant trainers in the industry and how they can help.  When I worked at Tampa Bay Downs, the assistant trainer with whom I worked was a licensed trainer who stabled at Canterbury Park in the summer.  She's been around forever and we used to sit on the backstretch, in the trainer's bird house, and watch the horses walk onto the track towards the paddock for their race.  She has a keen eye, knowledge, and knew the horses and the trainers to whom they belonged.  I'll never forget her saying on occasion, "That's so-and-so's horse. He's a needle guy."  She's an honest woman.  Why does she not tell someone what she knows is wrong? 

This past week I have learned there are phone numbers available to people to tip off this or that authority anonymously about wrongdoing.  These phone numbers should be prominent and advertised.  "If you see something, say something," is advertisement that works because it is catchy and placed in prominent places like subways and airports.  These numbers should be everywhere backside, placards in every barn and in the track cafeteria. Encourage people to call. Stand up and speak out to those you trust, for if we act in concert we will feel emboldened and those who are doing wrong will be on the run, because there are so many more of us than them.

In the '80's, during the height of the AIDS crisis, many of my friends got sick and died.  No one in authority was paying attention and that indifference resulted in a rallying cry from those in the trenches with this disease:

Silence = Death

The same could be said now in regards to the horse racing industry.  Our continued silence will result in the long, slow, agonizingly painful death of the sport we love.

How do we investigate wrong-doers? Someone asked me this and I had a simple reply.  Technology is so advanced that it is completely possible and within the rights of any track in America to set up electronic surveillance in any barn.  At midnight, it is lights out at the track and even in a place like Tampa, where stable hands sleep close to their charges, people can move about undetected, as I was the night I slept in the feed room.  Electronic surveillance would also ensure that if someone was indeed innocent the proof would be there in digital form.

Now let's talk about that which is legal, but questionable.

I've been in well-respected barns where I've seen the vet more and I have been in well-respected barns where I've seen the vet less.  The barn with more vet attention had horses exhibiting stereotypic behaviors to a much greater degree and intensity: licking their environment, circling their stall, weaving, pawing, head-tossing, head-circling, head-shaking, head-nodding, head-extending with ears back and nodding.  Since many medications alter brain chemistry I had to wonder if this had anything to do with all the vet attention they were receiving.  In this barn, I saw horses tranquilized as a way of management.  Was it illegal? No.  Was it necessary? In my opinion, no.

Are medications over-used backside? By some trainers, I would say yes, but not all trainers. 

The more I work with thoroughbreds, the more I move to a holistic approach to the horse.  I've recently been working with aroma-therapy and energy fields to help calm the reactive thoroughbred.  I think there are holistic methods that hold much promise for our future and proven methods, such as equine massage therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic bodywork that are effective today.  We need to reach for the syringe as a last resort, not a first one.

It's spring and I will find myself in the barns again soon. I still feel wonderful every dark morning when I get that first whiff of barn.  I can't wait to walk along the shedrow and give good morning kisses, grab the manure fork or shank, saddle a horse. To warmly greet everyone with a, "Good Morning," or, "Buenos Dias," and a smile.

They always smile back and say hello.

Because these are good people.

Let us never lose sight of that fact.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sonofa Mineshaft

Today was my first day in a new barn.

My first challenge has already presented himself. He's a five-year-old son of Mineshaft, full of himself and equipment intact.

He's only the second horse I have handled. When a horse pushes you with his head, you feel a strength greater than a gelding, filly or mare.

Make no mistake, Sonofa Mineshaft (not his real name) was pushing me around, albeit in a playful manner. My new trainer told the groom to give him into my hands after he had walked out a bit after his two galloping miles out on the track.

I broke out in peals of laughter as this playful horse tested me every step of the way. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being me in complete control and 10 being Sonofa Mineshaft in complete control, I'd say our stroll in the barn rated an 8.5.

I have a lot to learn.

But Sonofa Mineshaft had me laughing all the way. Everyone in the barn was chuckling, too, watching me wrestle with a horse who insisted on chewing something, anything, within reach. The chain, the shank, my coat. At one point, it appeared that Sonofa Mineshaft was leading me by my coat sleeve, rather than the other way around.

I'll be reviewing his films in short order. I am going to figure him out.

I have an especial love for the sons of Mineshaft.

It started with Fly Down. I have yet to have a horse make me feel the way Fly Down made me feel on Travers Day at Saratoga. Shaking with excitement, I brought my binoculars to my eyes as he loaded into the gate. I had fallen in love with Fly Down when he won the Dwyer Stakes, and watching him live in the Travers Stakes in box seats was too good to be true. I kept those binoculars on him the whole way, trailing the field, anticipating his kick. Oh, and did he kick... He came wide around the top of the stretch, bearing down on Afleet Express. I screamed myself hoarse that day and, as luck would have it, I held his shoe in my hand as he accelerated down the stretch. A Cinderella shoe that was removed the day before Travers and was gifted into my hands by a fairy godfather.

That shoe still hangs on the rear view mirror of my Eclipse.

I met Fly Down the day after Travers Stakes.

Imagine a woman who doesn't know much of anything winding her way into the far reaches of the Saratoga backside to meet her true love.

Someday, I want to work on the backside of Saratoga.

I don't think I'm young enough to dream of being a trainer on the edge of Oklahoma's training track, but I'm young enough to dream of being an ace assistant on the field of dreams.

I'll leave you with today's laughter.

Sonofa Mineshaft. ;)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Via con Dios

I said goodbye to a good man and a good groom recently. Ephraim returned to Mexico, where his wife and daughter were awaiting. He had not seen his wife for two years, four months. His daughter, who turned two in June, he had never met. In the words of mi maestro (my teacher/groom), "It's time."

Ephraim taught me how to detect a digital pulse when our stable was snowbirding. He told me detection of a digital pulse is not a good sign, it means there is something wrong south of that border. This meet, he taught me how to go alpha on a horse without hitting them.

I still have yet to hit a horse.

That might be why I occasionally see zebras instead of horses.

Awhile back, a two-year-old filly under the care of mi maestro and me went from being completely sweet and pliant to aggressive and mean. Her head would snake, her eyes would bulge, her teeth would bare. She was rearing in the stall and rushing anyone who approached her. I went from cuddling and kissing this baby one week to having great difficulty even entering her stall upon my return the following week. Completely aggrieved, I sought counsel through mi maestro, our vet, my online contacts. For every person I asked, I was offered a different angle: genes, hormones, pain, stall confinment, feed.

Ephraim put it to me very simply one morning as I was trying to enter her stall without success. He walked over to me, entered her stall and started waving his arms over his head and growling at her. She switched off aggressive and became meek and mild.


I never had another problem with her.

Thank you, Ephraim. I will never forget you, mi amigo.

Ephraim would like to return to our barn next year, but the price of visas has risen to the point it is no longer cost effective for our trainer. Such a shame, because good, experienced help in the barn is mostly found via hardworking immigrants.

I have some good news to share about my Latino colleagues. Mi maestro's maestro (my teacher/groom's father) is headed to California at the end of the month to finish jumping through the bureaucratic hoops and get papers for his wife, who lives in Mexico with their daughter. This would be a family reunion of the most satisfying kind as her husband and three sons have not seen her for over four years.

Things are winding down in our barn as horses and people shift south in the annual ritual. I had to laugh yesterday as I walked into the barn and saw bales of straw stacked against the wall, remembering a time when I didn't know the difference between hay and straw. I wondered why the straw was there for only a moment, then realised it was for shipping.

I've become quite studious as of late, as I am once again commuting for work. I spend hours in the airport now and it's a perfect time to further my education. I met a Virginia breeder on one of my flights and she offered to send me some books. I was completely surprised, however, when a big box filled with books arrived on my doorstep. They will certainly keep me busy and no doubt I will learn a thing or two. I am also excited about a winter semester online course for which I just registered. The course is in Equine Behaviour and will be taught by a man who used to be a regulatory vet at a New York thoroughbred racetrack. Even more interesting, he is against race-day medication. I'm looking forward to learning from him. I plan on being his best student in the class.

Rising to the challenge...

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Power of Love

I can get rather close to the thoroughbreds in the care of mi maestro (my teacher/groom) and me.

Sometimes, love makes you sad, like today, when one of our horses was claimed. Val was one of my easygoing geldings who allowed me to learn a bit of the basics of equine massage therapy by practicing on him. He responded to my touch in a way I'll never forget. Now he will be in my virtual stable so I can follow his career.

I never had a chance to say goodbye. I heard the caller announce he was claimed and got misty-eyed. That's the way it goes in our game. Here is a recent picture of Val and me. It's been the lock screen photo on my iPhone for awhile.

I have to be honest. I like a good challenge. Mares provide that in spades.

One mare in particular has been getting more of my attention than most.

It became obvious to me her issues had a lot to do with tension. Ears pinned back in perpetuity, I learned she was much less menacing than she looked, except for that left leg that always threatened to cow kick me and teeth that would and once did bite this girl's first measurement.

I've been working with her, trying to help her release all that tension she can't seem to let go.  I believe we've made progress. 

"But if I just see it in your eyes..." 

I had a talk with the assistant trainer about my girl.

I've noticed as I've been working with her that she will protect her left hind quarter.  The closer I get to that left leg, the more she braces against the stall wall with me inbetween.  I would insert here that this is all in the most gentle ways.

However, she opens herself up when I am working on her right hind quarter.  She literally positions herself up against the back of the stall and opens herself up to me willingly.

I've reviewed her recent films.  I see how she is running on the outside and I suspect she is protecting that left hind quarter.

I think she might run a better race if she was on the rail.

I told the assistant as much...  Pleased he didn't dismiss my suggestion.

Monday, September 10, 2012

What It Feels Like for a Girl

I have a special place in my heart for the daughters of Malibu Moon, so imagine my pleasure when I discovered I was grooming one of his very own in my corner of the barn.

This mare debuted at Saratoga as a two-year-old and three races later broke her maiden at Belmont as a three-year-old. Now she's five and can still kick up her heels on a sandy oval.

She's one of five girls in the care of mi maestro (my teacher/groom) and me. All of them are difficult, albeit to different degrees. Attempting the Masterson Method of equine massage on one filly and three mares who couldn't bear to be touched at all was a daunting task. But an experience I had with the one and only mare who was willing to be touched one day but too sensitive to be touched the next had light dawning in a myriad of ways. A check of the message boards on Jim Masterson's website confirmed what I had discovered.

These mares were feeling the heat of my flat fingers when I held them as far away as twelve inches from their bladder meridian.  It was there that I was able to go under their radar and keep them from bracing. It was there where I found them responding and was able to work with them to release their tension.

Invisible Touch, indeed. How prescient that turned out to be.

My first success with an untouchable mare was the daughter of Malibu Moon. It's quite moving when you find a way of getting through to them and helping them in the most gentle of ways. It also hurts your heart a bit, realising that they have probably been misunderstood by so many.

These mares aren't difficult because they are mean. They are difficult because they are so sensitive. And yes, that sensitivity will make them cranky at times, like it does with most women who walk the face of the earth. Our equine sisters are not so different from ourselves.

It was ladies' day in the barn today. I worked on three untouchable mares, using the bladder meridian technique as taught by Mr. Masterson.

I returned to the daughter of Malibu Moon for her second massage. She needed the attention, as she became quite jealous last week when I was spending so much massage time with the race-day gelding in the stall next to hers. She surprised me when she started acting up in her stall and then sticking her head out and giving me the stink eye while I was attending to Val. She was wound up, so she was my priority today, first and foremost.

She enjoyed the time we spent together as I helped her release her tension and thrilled at her yawning, fidgeting, licking, chewing and shaking her head.

Next up was the mare who bit me in an unmentionable place the last time I attempted the bladder meridian technique on her. She was a step up in difficulty from the daughter of Malibu Moon and I was eager to see if I could help the child who spent her days with her ears perpetually pinned back.

With my two geldings, I put them on a lead shank and leave the shank on the stall floor, giving them full range as their cages don't rattle easily and it's the optimum way to allow them unfettered movement.

The mares are too edgy at this time for a shank, so I will start by using their tie chain and carry and extra tie chain if I feel they can handle more movement without compromising our safety.

Malibu Moon's daughter graduated to two tie chains today. The very tense mare who bit me was better off staying on one for now.

I am very pleased to report, however, that I was able to help her release tension to the point she actually relaxed her ears. She was completely engaged as I was working with her and I was able to stay under her radar and stop her from bracing. At one point, she turned her body towards me as my back was up against the stall wall. Amazing but true, I stopped her just by putting my hand up. She felt the heat of my hand about a foot away and stopped. I never even touched her.

My last mare of the day I had never attempted to work with before, so she was on one tie chain for her session. She was quite interesting, as while I was able to use a whisper touch on her left bladder meridian, when I got to her right side above her withers her ears pinned back and her head spun in my direction. I immediately withdrew my fingers, she calmed down straight away, and for the rest of her session I used the invisible touch on her, which worked for her.

This is pretty heady stuff.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Invisible Touch

This morning in the barn, a whole new world opened up for me.

I'm learning the art of the healing touch, otherwise known as equine massage therapy. I had the workbook, "Beyond Horse Massage," by Jim Masterson for a number of weeks before the backordered companion DVD arrived. Once both were in my hands, I began my study.

I decided I would concentrate on learning and applying one technique at a time, to attempt a bit of proficiency before building on that knowledge.

So it began at the beginning, or in Mastersonese, "The Bladder Meridian Technique." This technique involves moving the flat part of your fingertips over the horse along a major accupuncture meridian with the barest whisper of contact. It involves what he calls, "search, response, stay, release." As I watched him demonstrate the technique on DVD, I was thrilled at the response he was getting from his horse. Jim Masterson's gentle touch really resonated with me, and it was obviously producing results.

I couldn't wait to get to the barn this morning and apply my new-found knowledge.

I chose a mellow gelding for my first attempt. My eyes grew wide watching him release his tension under the guide of my fingertips. His responses were mirroring what I had seen demonstrated, so I knew I was on the right track. Something that makes so much sense with Mr. Masterson's approach is the concept of working with the horse, as opposed to working on the horse. I was so pleased to find success on the first try.

The second horse I approached with my gentle touch was one of my favourite mares who has never been happy getting her right front foot cleaned. In truth, I have never been able to get her to give me that foot long enough to clean it, as she always kicks her leg forward as soon as I try to bring it towards me. I have always had to call in mi maestro (my teacher/groom) to clean that foot, and she gives him all sorts of problems, too. If I tried to clean her front feet before cleaning her back feet, I couldn't get her back feet cleaned, either, as she would start dancing in the stall, nervously unfurling from her tie chain.

Imagine my satisfaction when she gave me that right foot to clean without any hesitation and in the most relaxed state after I had completed the bladder meridian technique on her. She was my highest of highs today. I can't begin to tell you what that meant to me. It made me feel like I had learned a great secret of the ages to share with my equine friends.

I had horses blinking, twitching, licking, chewing, yawning, shaking their heads, putting their head on my shoulder, looking into my eyes and searching my soul.

Not all was peaches and cream, however. In my last attempt of the day, I tried to help one of our difficult mares unspool under the guide of my
ever-so-soft touch. This mare spends most of her day with her ears pinned back, and while she gives a meanacing appearance, she really isn't as aggressive as she looks. However, the second I tried to approach her poll (top of head), she made it very clear she wanted none of that at all. At that point, I put my hand over her withers and used that as my starting point.

Then it came time to try her right side, as the bladder meridian runs parallel on the left and right side of the horse. It was a big mistake trying to approach her head on the right side. Her head spun around and she bit me in a place I would never show in public. The pain I felt was more in my mind than my body, because I felt so bad I couldn't help her. Reviewing the technique later via DVD, I saw my errors with her. I have hope I'll be able to find the right approach for her, to help her unlock that massive tension. I need to listen to her and approach her from where she is least resistant, not where she is the most resistant.

All in all, it was a very satisfying morning. I later found my eyes welling up, feeling such a sense of satisfaction and purpose. My goal is to make a real difference in the lives of the horses in our care.

Today, I crossed the wire a winner.