Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Night at the Races

Well, Flaming Kisses came in second. It would have been fun to go down to the winner's circle with Phil and Brenda but second is nothing to be ashamed of. I got to see the race track from the owner's side of it this time. We watched some races just like ordinary folks but then I went to the saddling paddock with Phil to see Flaming Kisses get saddled. The trainers and owners were upset because there weren't enough saddle boys. Apparently, they are the only ones who can saddle the horses, so we waited and waited while grooms walked the horses round and round. Thoroughbreds are Type A personalities. They know what's coming and they don't like to wait so some of them were getting hyper and cranky. Their walkers tried to keep them as far apart as possible although this isn't easy to do when there are so many animals crammed into the small space of the saddling area. I thought I would not like to be a groom in that melee of high-spirited horses who sometimes aimed an impatient kick or tried to take a testy bite out of a walker's arm. Meanwhile, Flaming Kisses stood quietly, looking around with interest at all the hubbub, waiting for his turn to be saddled.

After the race, we went back to the barns. I had never been in the Test Barn, which is where the top three winners of each race have to go to be drug-tested. I discovered that horses have to be relaxed in order to urinate. They come back from a race with the adrenaline pumping, just as humans do. In order to calm them, they are put in a closed stall where they can't be distracted by what is going on outside. A recording of whistling is played to them which I suppose has the same effect as "white noise" on people. Eventually, the lack of sensory stimulation settles them down. Someone sits in their stall with them until they are relaxed enough to pee. This person's job is to collect the output so it can be tested.

I have always been interested in all the different jobs that people do. When I was unemployed, I toyed with the idea that I might try to be something besides a secretary but I can honestly say that I never realized one of the opportunities available to me might be "Equine Urine Collector". Maybe if this is what I did, I'd tell people I was a professional E.U.C.

We went into the restaurant back in the barn area. The same bottle of water that costs $2.40 at the track is only a buck in this restaurant. Everything else is cheaper too. This is the kitchen that feeds the trainers and jockeys and grooms and owners. It has an easy-going feel to it. The people all know each other; they know the horses. They speak in a foreign language not easily understood by an outsider to the world of racing. There are monitors in the kitchen on which you can watch the races. You can place a bet in the kitchen and collect your winnings too, if, in fact, you have winnings, which I never did.

We went into one of the barns looking for a man who was supposed to be getting Phil and Brenda's filly a gate card. The young racers have to pass a test proving they will smoothly enter and exit the starting gate before they get their gate card. This is a requirement before they can be entered in a race.

There are several long barns at Hoosier Park. Each stall has a window opening outside. There were horse heads poking out of almost all the windows. Horses are curious creatures. They like to know what is going on around them. I guess I would need something to occupy my time too if I had to stand in a stall most of the day.

Most of these horses are not the creme de la creme of thoroughbred racing. Indiana's breeding program is still in its infancy and the state's tracks haven't yet earned the prestige of places like Kentucky and New York and Florida and California although the Hoosier horsepeople hope for the best.

Still, unless you are a breeding and racing afficionado, you won't know the difference between a Kentucky Derby entrant and a $5,000 claiming racer. The horses all look beautiful to me as they prance onto the track with tossing heads. They gleam in shades of chestnut and bay and black and dappled gray. I don't suppose they know either that their names probably won't go down in the racing history books or that they'll most likely not be setting any speed records here tonight. They'll do the best they can to win and give you back $8 for the $2 you bet. A bunch of thoroughbreds battling it out to reach the finish line first is just as entertaining in a cheap race as an expensive one. You can't tell by looking that they will arrive a few seconds more slowly at the finish than their more aristocratic brethren.

And you never know, do you? One of those horses with his or her head poked out of the stall window, just could be the next Cinderella story of racing. It happens. The money people spend millions to breed the ideal horse and it often pays off but on the other hand, champions sometimes come from the most unexpected places. Suddenly, there he is - the perfect combination of speed and heart. Its the possibility the horse people work toward, long for, dream of.......