Sunday, February 26, 2012
Heather Craig, Assistant Trainer
Even as Saratoga Springs, N.Y. native Heather Craig pursued a biology degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., there was little doubt her future was on the racetrack. Her mother Bernadette worked for W.C. “Mike” Freeman, renowned as the trainer of champion filly and mare Shuvee. Bernadette had Heather on a horse before she could walk, and she started galloping horses for Freeman as a teenager, before school and on the weekends. When she turned 16, Heather went to work for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott for three years, also freelancing for Neil Howard and Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley. Now 25, Heather has been an assistant the past four years for H. Graham Motion and is responsible for the day-to-day training of as many as 10 horses at Tampa Bay Downs. She was on the track last May at Churchill Downs when Animal Kingdom roared through the stretch to capture the 137th Kentucky Derby.
I’ve had Lasik surgery since the Kentucky Derby, but when we were in Louisville last spring I had really bad eyesight. There were four of us standing against the outside fence near the entrance to the winner’s circle, and we had access to a TV screen, but I could barely see it. During the race I kept asking Dave Rock, another assistant for Graham, ‘Where is he? Where is he?’ and he was giving me play-by-play.
When they turned for home, I could see Animal accelerate under John Velazquez like he was shot out of a cannon. It was unreal. As they sped past us, we were screaming and I started running down the track with Dave; our stable manager, John Panagot; and the groom, Porfirio Fernandez. It was just crazy. I imagine that’s as close as you can get to having an out-of-body experience.
The whole Kentucky Derby experience was incredible. Graham had scratched our other Derby horse, Toby’s Corner, on Monday because of an injury, and that was a huge letdown. He had won the Wood Memorial over Uncle Mo and been tested on dirt, so everyone was a little disappointed. But we realized we had another horse to run and kept our focus on pointing Animal to Saturday.
I had been to Churchill Downs before, and I remember then thinking how much grander it looked on television. Well, I can tell you it far exceeded my expectations Derby Day. Walking over before the race and seeing the Twin Spires and the crowds gave me a feeling that is hard to describe.
When I was standing on the track during the post parade, it was incredibly loud, but Animal didn’t have a care in the world. A lot of the horses were washing out or skittish when they came out of the tunnel, but he was cool as a cucumber. Nobody in our group was saying anything. I just closed my eyes and tried to picture the race unfold, but when it was actually happening I couldn’t believe it.
I don’t think even winning another Derby could top that feeling. I had brought Animal to Kentucky for the Spiral Stakes at Turfway – which he won – and galloped him up to that race. Then, after Graham and Mr. (Barry) Irwin, the owner, decided to point him for the Derby, I galloped him at Keeneland. All told, I was probably on Animal for a month and a half, so I guess you could say I was a part of racing history and it was very special.
Before I got my biology degree from RPI in 2008, I was originally a pre-med major, and I was kind of torn between going to medical school or veterinary school. Throughout my whole time in college, and during summers and vacations, I kept galloping. When graduation time came I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I would always have horses. Then, while I was freelancing for Darley, Graham called me and asked if I wanted to take a string of horses for him to Belmont.
I didn’t have to think too hard before I said ‘Yes.’ My parents think it is wonderful and have been very supportive. My dad Kevin is a mechanical engineering professor at Marquette, but he told me as long as I was happy doing this, he and my mom were all for it. My sister Shannon, who is 21 and attends Loyola Marymount in California, is not into horses at all; the complete opposite of me.
My mom has been a major inspiration throughout my life. She was diagnosed with cancer when I was 12, but she was able to beat it with the support of all of us, as well as her close friends and our retired Thoroughbred gelding, a horse named Did.
Did wasn’t a great race horse, but it’s pretty amazing when you think about the effect horses can have on people. After my dad got hired at Marquette a few years ago, my mom brought Did to Wisconsin and she continued to ride.
For some reason, my mom started saving the recyclable plastic feed bags from Nutrena, Purina and Prince, and a couple of years ago she got the idea to cut them down and sew them into shopping tote bags, with approval from the companies.
That idea was not totally original, but my mom has carried it a step further. She sells her totes (which she calls ‘T-Oats,’ to emphasize the connection with horses) to benefit a large number of equine charities, horse safe havens, adoption programs, therapeutic riding programs for children and the like. She has a couple of trainers who send her the empty feed bags, and she makes the items herself.
I have a wine carrier and a Christmas stocking made from the bags, and I gave a couple to the folks in the racing office here at Tampa Bay Downs. I guess I am biased, but I think they are very attractive and practical. Anyone who desires more information about my mom’s work and ‘T-Oats for Equine Charity, Inc. … helping heal humans & horses,’ can go to http://www.t-oats.org/ on the Internet.
My best friend (Tampa Bay Downs trainer) Leigh Delacour, who is a former jockey and also used to work for Graham, has also provided a huge influence – not just in my career, but in my life choices. She and her husband Arnaud Delacour are friends I turn to when I have questions about horses and about life.
Bill Mott was one of the best horsemen you could hope to be around and come up under. Working for him was a big part of getting me to where I’m at today. Will Phipps, who trains here at Tampa Bay Downs, was an assistant to Bill then, and he also helped me. I was able to ride some really nice horses such as My Typhoon, Majestic Warrior and Silver Whistle.
Now that I’ve experienced the way Bill and Graham train, I don’t think I would ever work for anyone else. They are very patient, and it is always about the horse and how you can benefit the animal. Hopefully you will have a successful outcome – whether it is just getting to the races, or eventually winning – but the welfare of the horse always comes first.
Graham lives with his family in Fair Hill, Md., and although we communicate on the phone every day, I am on my own about 90 percent of the time. We ship horses in and out all the time from Palm Meadows on the east coast of Florida to Tampa Bay Downs, depending on who is entered. Because of the size of his operation, Graham’s assistants make daily decisions that affect the way his horses train and race.
We have a 3-year-old filly who broke her maiden for Pin Oak Stud in her first start here named Let’s Get Married. She has been here since the meeting started, and I ride her every single day. She’s a lovely filly to be around, but she’s a little crazy! Graham trained her mother, Vow That Binds, and he says she was a little loopy, too. Horses definitely have minds of their own and they are all different.
Well, it has been an experience to deal with Let’s Get Married every day, but it has been rewarding and a lot of fun. When she came here from Fair Hill, she was well-behaved but still fairly green. Even when she won, she kind of wavered and bumped into the rail through the stretch, but it was exciting and Graham was very pleased.
Now he calls her ‘my filly,’ because I’d been talking about how much I like her and how well she was doing.
Make no mistake: It’s a team effort when you win a race. I have two grooms and two hot walkers, and a lot goes into getting each horse ready. There are so many things that can go wrong leading up to a race, right before the race, and during the race. Everything has to come together at the right time, including the jockey.
Most of us in this business, I think, do it for the love of the horse. Working with horses is something you have a real passion for, or you don’t. I don’t feel you can be on the fence about it, because of what we do and the hours you put in. Every day it is myself and the grooms and the hot walkers and the vets, and it all comes back to the love of the animal.
I love taking them to the races and seeing them win, but at the end of the day for me it is about being around them and making sure they are doing well – and if they’re not doing well, figuring out ways to improve their quality of life or the way they are training.
Starting my own stable would be the next logical step. Everybody always asks me that, because I’ve been an assistant for a while. I’ve been all over the place – Canada, California, Kentucky, New York, Oklahoma – with the best horses we’ve had, which I’ve been so lucky to do.But I don’t know if training on my own is what I’m really drawn to, because there are so many other things you have to deal with. Running your own stable is not always just about the horses, which is the real reason I am in this business
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
Sharyn Wasiluk, President of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, Tampa Division
Growing up in Jamestown, N.Y., Sharyn Wasiluk was unaware a Thoroughbred racetrack existed about three hours to the north in Canandaigua. A private secretary who competed in rodeos on the weekends – barrel racing, goat tying and steer undecorating – Sharyn was hooked on her first visit, and delighted to learn she could make a living by working on the track. She took a six-month leave of absence from her job to come to Tampa Bay Downs, where she earned $40 a week walking horses and cleaning tack. She never returned to her old job. Sharyn wears a variety of hats: She is an assistant to her husband, trainer Peter Wasiluk, Jr., rides a lead pony during the racing program and is a director on the board of the Tampa Bay Downs Chapter of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association. The cause closest to her heart, though, is her role as president of the Tampa Bay Downs Division of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America. The Wasiluks have two children: Philip, 28, who works on the gate crew at Delaware Park, and Jaclyn, 26, a fifth-grade teacher. Jaclyn, who helps Tampa Bay Downs Group Sales Director Nicole McGill on weekends, will be married next month to Tim Reyes.
Our annual ‘Hearts Reaching Out’ Golf Tournament, Auction and Dinner, which is March 5, is always a good time to reflect on the progress of our chaplaincy at Tampa Bay Downs. But the work we do begins when grooms and stable hands and exercise riders begin arriving in November.
One of my goals with the chaplaincy is to make a better environment for everybody on the backside. I want them to enjoy coming to Tampa Bay Downs – to make them feel we are their home away from home. They can come into this building any time, whether it’s to get on a computer or play the guitar or just have a cup of coffee.
A lot of the workers don’t have cars or the ability to get out like I can. So the idea is, let’s make it more of a fun place and do things that encourage people to meet other people. On the racetrack, you usually don’t just walk over to somebody else’s barn, because those areas are kind of private. So my idea was to develop activities that make the backside more community-oriented.
The backstretch is like its own town, and the owners and trainers are the people who take care of the people who take care of the horses. When you think about it, the backside workers are the unsung heroes of our sport. They groom and walk the horses, feed and bathe them and muck their stalls, yet they rarely get any credit.
I believe we have made big strides in providing workers with an outlet when they are finished with their daily responsibilities. There are four brand-new computers in the office, and two have webcams, so people can keep in touch with their families wherever they live.
We have a well-organized soccer league and have hired outside officials to make sure the games run smoothly. Our co-ed softball games are very popular, and we’ve gotten some trainers and jockeys to participate. We also organized a fishing trip so people could get a day off, and most of the trainers have been receptive to letting that happen.
I feel that it’s important to organize fun activities, but we also want to help people with their spiritual well-being. Our chaplain, Rafael Santana, is deeply involved in the lives of many of the backside workers here. He spends a lot of time at the barns ministering to them.
Many are Hispanic, and he is somebody they can communicate with and confide in. His main goal, as is stated in our literature, is ‘to bring the word of God and his teachings to the people at the race track to bring them to God and to make the chaplaincy the brightest light in the barn area.’
I’ve really tried to go beyond just giving them people to talk to and activities for the dark days. A few years ago, the chaplaincy actually operated out of a small office behind the track kitchen. Now we’re in this comfortable double-wide building, where we offer English classes and computer classes that allow workers to keep in touch with their families. Just about everything you see in here, the computers and the desks and the couches and the drum set and the keyboard, have been donated.
We have a church service every Monday night, attended by anywhere from 40-70 people, and weekly Bible studies. If someone has a problem with drinking, we offer counseling. I believe if anyone on the backside has a problem, whether it be emotional, spiritual or physical, we are equipped to deal with it. Catholic Charities USA has provided us with a medical van, and we offer free examinations and referrals once a week by a licensed physician. We also provide health screenings once a year to anyone with a track license to check blood pressure, sugar, cholesterol and receive flu shots.
We’ve always been a racetrack family. Peter and I met at Penn National and have been together since. I’m from Jamestown, N.Y. and he’s from south Jersey, and we raced at a bunch of Northern tracks – Monmouth, Delaware, Finger Lakes, Penn National, Rockingham when it was open. We came here for a vacation in the fall of 2000, and shortly after we sold our house in Canandaigua and moved here.
I don’t have a trainer’s license any more; I have an owner’s license and a pony license. We have 23 horses, of which we own about seven or eight and have part ownership of a few others. One of our best horses when we raced up north was Tunbridge Wells. He broke his maiden at Aqueduct in 1993 and won the Old Ironsides Handicap at Suffolk in 1996. He raced until he was 9, won 18 times and earned more than $300,000.
That’s why I chuckle when people think Dinner in Odem, who is our mainstay, isn’t going to run any more now that he’s 8. Really, I think he has just hit a slump. He performed respectably in stakes company at Calder last fall and he still seems to enjoy training. He has won almost $400,000 and two stakes, including the Chris Thomas Turf Classic here a few years ago.
That is one thing Peter and I kind of pride ourselves on: having horses that last a long time. We don’t train on Bute (Butazolidin), which is an anti-inflammatory used to control pain and inflammation. Dinner in Odem has never had a shot of Bute since we’ve had him.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t give Bute to a horse to help it if it was hurt, and I have run horses on Bute on occasion, but I want to know where we are at with our horses. If a horse is sore today, I want to know if it is better tomorrow, and that’s difficult to tell if you are giving it something to mask the pain.
If I’m going to run him, I want to know how he is doing. I don’t want a horse or a jockey to get hurt if I can possibly help it because a horse I’m running on Bute breaks down. I realize there’s a fine line and it is a constant subject of discussion in the industry, because some people think you’re not trying to win hard enough if you aren’t running on Bute.
Don’t get me wrong; we’re not against using Lasix (a diuretic used to control bleeding). I think that is foolishness. Horses bleed from the exertion of a race, and which is worse: giving a horse Lasix or having it bleed to death?
Peter and I do a lot of the work at the barn ourselves. It is just the old way, the way we are used to doing it. We both rub horses, and he tacks everything in the morning. He puts the saddle on every horse and takes the bandages off and touches their legs so he knows what he’s got. I go to the track with as many as possible, so I can see how they go and how they are traveling and who gets along with which horses.
To me, it makes a huge difference if you have a happy horse. If you’ve got a rider jerking and snatching and not getting along, or that horse is getting too tough for that person and they’re not able to get it to do what they want, you’ve got to be able to get somebody else.
My pony is named Stillwell, after the character in the Movie ‘A League of Their Own.’ He is a 10-year-old Appaloosa gelding, but when we got him he was so fat I told people he was a Thelwell pony, like the drawings by Norman Thelwell, the English artist. But instead of Thelwell, my husband suggested Stillwell, and the name stuck.
I enjoy ponying horses to the gate before races. Certainly the weather here is a lot better than it was in New York, where it was snowing and blowing and 30 degrees. Some horses are worse than others, and you say ‘Hooboy, I’m glad that’s over,’ but I still love doing it.
I’ll be 65 next month, and if it gets to where I can’t do the job any more, I will make the decision to get off the pony. But I enjoy working with the horses and seeing them progress too much to stop now. It’s almost like bringing up your children – it really is. I’m more comfortable on a horse than I am doing anything else.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Whitney Valls, Jockey
I’m a positive, upbeat person. I don’t let a whole lot get me down. It took me a while to break in as an exercise rider – there were slow weeks and good weeks – and that is an aspect of the game. There are a bunch of good riders here, and a lot of trainers have their set riders. So I knew coming in it was going to be very, very tough to get mounts.
When apprentice jockey Whitney Valls scored her first Tampa Bay Downs victory Feb. 5 aboard 13-1 shot Dream Every Dream for trainer Anthony Pecoraro, she was doused with a bucket full of water by Rosemary Homeister, Jr. – the traditional greeting from veteran riders signaling a newcomer has arrived. Valls’ more formal initiation, which featured soap, baby powder and shaving cream, came at Thistledown outside Cleveland last September, when she earned her first lifetime win in her 10th race on Optimistic Bullet for trainer Burton Sipp. The Alabama native has picked a tough meeting to continue her fledgling career. Her agent Mike Bish – who has handled the book the past three seasons for top Tampa Bay Downs apprentices Michael Straight, Kristina McManigell and Angel Moreno – says this is as tough a jockey colony as he has seen in Oldsmar. But the 22-year-old Valls, who keeps busy exercising horses for such top trainers as Pecoraro, Jonathan Sheppard and Dennis Ward on the days she has no mounts, is too immersed in the horses and the lifestyle to get discouraged.
I’m a positive, upbeat person. I don’t let a whole lot get me down. It took me a while to break in as an exercise rider – there were slow weeks and good weeks – and that is an aspect of the game. There are a bunch of good riders here, and a lot of trainers have their set riders. So I knew coming in it was going to be very, very tough to get mounts.
Obviously, I would ride the card if I had the opportunity. I know that is not realistic, and I also know that as an apprentice, it is going to take time for people to see me before they start using me, even with my 10-pound weight allowance. It is kind of a Catch-22 thing, but I’m sure by the end of the meeting I’m going to be riding plenty. I know when my break comes it will be big, and I’m all kinds of prepared to handle it.
When I’m in the room between races, I make a point of studying the other riders during a race. I watch how they’re sitting on their horse, their hands, where they’re positioning their horse, and when they start making a move. Then I’ll watch the replay and see where the winner ran on the track and which horses got the best trip.
After my races, some of the journeymen have pulled me aside to watch a replay and offer me advice. They’ll say ‘Try to do this better,’ or ‘You looked real good here.’ Rosemary has been very helpful, and so has Oriana Rossi. I’ve actually gotten quality feedback from a lot of veteran riders. If they see something they think will help me the next time, they’re quick to point it out.
During a race, it can get very heated. If another jockey thinks you messed them up or got in their way, they’ll come to you during the replay and ask, ‘What was that?’ But it is never in a mean way. They know that I’m a 10-pound bug, and that I’m learning, so everything is done in a helpful manner.
I’m eager and excited to learn, but sometimes the only way you are going to learn is by making mistakes. And the only way I am going to realize what I did wrong is for the older, more experienced jockeys to come and tell me.
I credit my parents, Karen and William Valls, for helping me to become a jockey. My dad’s parents had horses, and he went to Valley Forge Military Academy and played polo. My parents put me on little ponies at fair rides, and my dad would take me on trail rides around the city. They told me I was smiling from ear to ear the first time they put me on a pony when I was 2.
When I got older, my mom found out where one of my friends boarded her horse, and she sent me to summer camps there. I started taking lessons and loved everything about it. When I was 12, my parents surprised me at Christmas with a little gelding named General. That was around the same time I watched Funny Cide win the Kentucky Derby, and he looked a lot like my gelding.
General was a very good teacher. We made mistakes, but he was very forgiving and never tried to drop me. I did everything under the sun with that horse – messing around the barrels, pole bending, going to little shows around town. He colicked and died three years ago, but he will always have a place in my heart.
My mom, who lives in Mobile, Ala., helped me go to Bluegrass Community and Technical College, where I studied equine science and was able to gallop in my spare time at the Thoroughbred Center in Lexington.
I try calling Mom every day after I leave the track. She and my entire family are my biggest fans. They love every minute of it. My grandmother came to visit over the holidays, and she came to the track for the first time one day with my uncle and aunt.
I think I might have ridden one horse that day, and the poor filly tried but only beat one horse in the race. It didn’t matter to Nana. I told her I was sorry we didn’t hit the board, and she said ‘Oh, honey, I don’t care. You looked great.’ They were all ecstatic!
After I left Kentucky, I went to Ernest Oare’s EMO Stables in Ocala, which is where I polished my foundation for riding races. There were a lot of steeplechase horses and riders there, and they taught me to take a long hold and keep my hands down, because that’s how you get a horse to stay relaxed. You don’t just reach and grab if a horse starts getting tough with you – that will just make him want to go faster, too soon.
In the spring of 2010, a friend who was galloping for trainer Steve Asmussen told me they were giving out exercise riding licenses at Keeneland, and I might stumble onto something. Maybe that’s when I should have gotten nervous, but I guess it’s not in my makeup.
I started working horses for Michael Matz, and that led to an opportunity to work some for Barclay Tagg. I was just like ‘Hey, I’m Whitney Valls, an exercise rider, is there anything I can help you out with?’ You’ve got to be outgoing in this business. If a trainer tells you ‘No, we’re OK,’ I just say ‘OK, I’ll see you tomorrow,’ and come back!
I guess I didn’t really think much about the fact I was exercising horses for men who have trained Kentucky Derby winners – Barbaro for Mr. Matz and Funny Cide for Mr. Tagg.
It was the same way when I rode for Richard Small at Laurel in Maryland, right before I went to Cleveland and took out my jockey’s license. When I am at someone’s barn, I am there to do a job and I can’t worry about how famous anyone is. When I was working for Larry Murray, there was an ex-jockey who helped me on improving my technique, switching sticks, driving and developing a clock in my head. Like I said, everyone has been very helpful and I’m eager to learn.
It is a little hard sometimes, though, not to get excited. I was working for Mr. Matz when he had Nicanor. I didn’t get to ride him, but one day I was in the same set, which was cool because he is Barbaro’s brother. I texted some friends that night ‘I went out in a set with Nicanor.’ And they were like, no way!
Being a jockey doesn’t leave much time for hobbies, but I’ve doodled and drawn my whole life, and I consider myself a self-taught artist. I completed a pencil drawing of the graded stakes winner Any Given Saturday, which is one of my favorites. You can see it on the Internet at http://www.fineartamerica.com/.
I’ll draw some on a dark day, but it takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. People ask me why I bother with the horses when I’m so good at art. It’s flattering, but I enjoy the horses too much. Whatever it takes to succeed in this business, that’s what I’m going to do. I can’t see myself not working around horses.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Scott Rhone, Blacksmith
To most people in their 20s, the world of horseshoeing might seem as old-fashioned as a trip to Grandma’s house in a horse-drawn sleigh. But it’s a fact Thoroughbreds need shoes, and horses’ feet are in good hands with 29-year-old blacksmith Scott Rhone, who fell into the business like a baby bird from its nest. The son of trainer Bernell Rhone and Cindy Rhone, Scott got his start holding the front end of horses for his dad’s farriers when he was 7. Scott, a Minnesota native, is married to Brittany, a jockey who is the daughter of owner-trainer Lonnie Arterburn and Doris Arterburn. In their spare time (which is limited and precious), Scott and Brittany enjoy fishing, boating and hunting. They are prime examples of horse racing’s ability to attract enthusiastic, hard-working, horse-loving young people to its ranks.
My dad always said what you need to be a blacksmith are a strong back and a weak mind. This is the only life I know, so it feels right. When I was at college – at Rainy River Community in International Falls, Minn. – being away from horses didn’t feel right. Being a trainer’s son, I guess I was kind of hooked from the beginning.
We are definitely a horse racing family. My older sister, LeAnn, is married to Dean Butler, the jockey. My dad’s brother Russ is a trainer. I grew up in Dad’s stable helping him at Canterbury, Hawthorne, Indiana, Hoosier, Remington – all over the Midwest. I held horses for the blacksmith when I was real little, then I was a hot walker. When I got older, I started grooming and galloping, then I was my dad’s assistant for a few years.
Once I decided I wanted to be a blacksmith, I dropped out of community college to go to the Cowtown Horseshoeing School in Miles City, Montana, run by Marlin Anderson. It’s an intense three-month school. Shoeing horses is like water skiing – you can only be told so many times how to do it, then you have to experience it.
I apprenticed with other blacksmiths for about a year, mostly at Canterbury and Hoosier, before I went out on my own. Mr. Anderson’s son Bruce, who shoes horses here at Tampa Bay Downs, helped me a lot. He showed me a lot of tricks, taught me how to glue shoes on a horse. He is a very good blacksmith and a good teacher.
My dad drove into me the importance of discipline and a strong work ethic, yet at the same time he made being around horses fun. His commitment is what taught me my commitment. My dad never misses a day of work and he doesn’t use an alarm clock to wake up. If you like what you do and have a strong enough commitment to it, it’s no big deal to go to work.
Are there occupational hazards to being a blacksmith? You bet. But it’s an accepted risk. If a horse is really acting up, we call a vet and tranquilize him, get him calmed down.
I’ve been kicked a few times, but not too bad. I got stepped on once and had a broken foot, but mainly it’s just black-and-blue marks and black toes. My back is usually stiff at the end of a day, but I don’t have a bad back. It’s like if you run longer than you’re used to running – your legs might get a little tired. That’s how I feel.
Some days are better than others. I have days where all the horses stand real still and it doesn’t feel like I did much. Other days, a few give me a real hard time, and it feels as if I did twice as much work as I actually did. I leave the track feeling like I should have done one or two more horses, but I didn’t have the energy or the time.
I’ve been with Tommy Danks, my assistant, for about three years. He holds the horses while I shoe them and keeps me safe. When a horse blows up, he makes sure they go away from me, not toward me.
You kind of control horses with their head; you can steer them in a certain direction. When one is bad, Tommy knows where I’m going to run and he sends the horse the opposite way and keeps me out of trouble.
I wouldn’t say you need to be fearless to do this job, but you have to be willing to accept you can’t control a 1,200-pound animal. They are going to do what they want, when they want to, and at times no one is going to do anything about it.
My dad told me before I left for college if he had it to do all over again, he’d be a blacksmith. Trainers have to worry about help showing up, about getting stalls, horses getting sick, owners getting tough to deal with.
Horseshoeing is kind of at our own pace. We don’t punch a clock. If I have family in town, we can make it an easy day, but if there is nothing going on I can shoe as many as a dozen. It works good for fishing when the weather is nice. And the money doesn’t hurt! Most of the time, it affords me a lot of freedom.
I met Brittany here at Tampa Bay Downs three years ago. She and I are into fishing and boating, and we like to swim and play tennis and soccer. We’re always doing something. She actually shoes horses at her family’s farm in Ocala and is kind of self-taught. I just helped her out a little.
Being married to a jockey might sound glamorous to people, but it’s just normal because we are both in the horse industry. She understands the hours and that you have to work on weekends and holidays. It would be tough being married to someone with no connection to the racetrack, but she understands following the work and moving at the end of a meeting.
As a general rule, a horse is re-shod every 4-to-6 weeks. Why do horses need shoes? Well, they act as a shock absorber to protect the foot, which is where it all starts for a Thoroughbred.
For me, changing a horse’s shoes is second nature, but that doesn’t mean you stop paying attention. You have to care about your job to be successful at it. Anybody can slap shoes on a horse, but you do a better job when you take pride in it.
If a horse loses a shoe in a race, someone might put a little heat on me. But that’s like being a jockey – if you don’t fall off, you aren’t riding very many.
If you haven’t been blamed by a horseman for making a mistake, you haven’t been shoeing horses very long. People make mistakes, and it is part of the job. You can cut too much foot off a horse when you’re trimming its hoof, or you can put a nail in the wrong spot. A bad nail is equivalent to you getting a splinter – it is not going to be a problem unless you leave it in there, because then it is probably going to get infected.
Sometimes I’ll be cutting with the hoof knife, and the horse will jerk just right and basically pull the knife right into its foot. Or you can take too much foot off, thinking it’s longer than it actually is. When that happens, it’s how you address it that makes the difference. You clean it and put a little antibiotic on it or something, and usually it is no big deal. But if you neglect it, then it can turn bad.
Usually it takes between 35-40 minutes to completely shoe a horse. I use a rasp to knock off the clinches, which are like a washer or a nut that holds the nails in place. That loosens the shoe so I’m able to pull it off with my shoe puller, which looks like a big wrench.
Then I take my hoof knife and clean out the sole of the foot. All that dead tissue pretty much falls right out. It doesn’t have any feeling; it’s like the part of the fingernail you cut off. Obviously, though, if you go too far the horse will feel it and will let you know its discomfort.
Horses’ feet generally stink, because they stand in mud and dirt and other good stuff, but you can smell it right away if the foot is infected. That’s called thrush. You know what it is when you’ve been shoeing long enough.
After I clean the sole, I nip the hoof wall with the nipper, which is basically like trimming your toenails. Once that is accomplished, I use my rasp to level off the foot. That is one of the main parts of the job, because you want the horse to land equally on each foot when it is racing. That way, they are not putting unequal stress on the inside or outside of the foot. Quarter cracks are not common, but a good blacksmith can see them when they occur.
Race horses wear aluminum shoes, and I use a rounding hammer to shape them to the shape of the horse’s foot. I usually use six nails for each shoe. You don’t want to put nails in all the holes, because if they lose a shoe, the clinch can tear right through the hoof wall.
People who are not around horses a lot might not understand that everything you are nailing through is dead structure, so the horse doesn’t feel it at all. The last step is finishing – cleaning the foot up, making it look nice and not shaggy.
I’m very fortunate to work for many top trainers here: Jamie Ness, Jane Cibelli, Greg Griffith, Joan Scott, Jorge Navarro and Forrest Kaelin. And of course my dad – that’s good job security there! Seeing the horses I shoe run well and win races is pretty rewarding, because I know I played a part. To me, it’s like being a part-owner because I got to work with them.
A good blacksmith can straighten out a horse’s feet and get them moving along a little better. I can prevent a quarter crack from happening, or if the foot is too long I can change the angle they stand at and help improve the horse’s stride.
If a horse’s feet hit each other when it runs, I can tweak the shoe and make the foot higher in a certain spot and affect the way the feet move, or spread the feet out so they don’t interfere with each other.
There are a lot of little tricks we use, but we aren’t making big differences with the majority of horses. Mainly we are here for maintenance and occasionally you’ve got to help one. This is not a glorious job, but it’s a very important job. You can hurt a horse way easier than you can help a horse.
Sunday, February 5, 2012
Stu and Betty Owlett, Mutuel Tellers
When Stu and Betty Owlett vacationed on the west coast of Florida in the 1960s and early ‘70s, they would enjoy a day at Tampa Bay Downs – then Florida Downs – with Stu’s father, who lived in Tarpon Springs. In 1975, they decided to take the plunge themselves, selling their successful grocery business in Wellsboro, Pa. and moving to the Tampa Bay area. On his next visit to the track, Stu approached the mutuels manager, Al Carrero, about getting a job as a teller. The rest, as they say, is history: Stu and Betty Owlett have spent the past 35 years selling and cashing tickets at the Oldsmar oval and numerous other tracks across the country, including Churchill Downs and Pimlico during the Triple Crown. The Owletts, who will be married 65 years in June, have two children, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Stu: We sold Owlett’s Supermarket in 1975 when I was 46. I had started working in the store when I was 6 and had been partners with my dad since 1950, then I bought it from him in 1965. We were sort of a precursor to Walmart, but on a much smaller scale. We sold groceries, but we also sold sheets, towels, blue jeans, underwear, shoes and gasoline.
We sold the store because it was too successful. We employed about 20 clerks, but I thought I had to have my finger in all the work, so I got there early and stayed late. It was doing very well, but it got to be too much for me. I didn’t want to die of a heart attack at 50.
Betty: Stu had put his hard years in. We lived at the store – after we ate dinner, he would go back in and work some more. It was time for us to make a change.
Stu: After the length of time we’ve been married, Betty and I think alike. When you’ve been together 65 years, your habits get to be the same. I know up north, I could tell sometimes when a husband and wife walked into the store together, because they sort of looked alike. But nobody has any trouble telling us apart.
Betty: The No. 1 thing that has kept us together is love. I started going with Stuart in the ninth grade, and he was the only boyfriend I ever had. We just like each other. He is a real gentleman and a real Christian guy, and that is a big part of any marriage. You hate to hear anyone say, ‘We don’t ever fight’ – but we don’t!
Stu: We’ve always enjoyed working here. When Sam F. Davis was the President of the track, he would gather all the tellers in the middle of the grandstand on Opening Day and give us a pep talk and remind us this was the friendliest track in the country. He used to say ‘If people don’t say anything else about this track, I want them to leave here saying they were treated well.’
When we started working here it wasn’t computerized like it is now. Tellers on one side sold the tickets and those on the other side cashed. I worked the ‘$50 Only’ window, and it was a dangerous job from the standpoint that if you were short at the end of the day, it came out of your pocket.
There were 4,000 or 5,000 people here my first day and I was paying out on winning tickets. Al Carrero told me I could watch the guy next to me and get the feel for it. I got $5,000 out of the back room, Al said ‘You’ll be alright,’ and he threw me to the wolves and I just commenced to perspire.
When you get $5,000 you think, that’s a lot of money, and in an hour or so it was gone. And back then, you didn’t know until the next day if you were right. If you made a mistake in the $50 window, it could kill you.
Betty: They used to have what they called pigeons, where the No. 2 horse might win the second race and pay $4. Then, a bettor might hold that ticket until the No. 2 came in again, say in the eighth race, and pay $22. So someone would get in the line with their ticket from the second race with No. 2 on it that was really worth only $4, and try to cash it for $22. The tellers would say, ‘The pigeon just flew in.’ You’d try to watch your ticket codes, but sometimes you’d get stuck with a pigeon.
I was nervous when I first started, but I’d always been a cashier at the store and had experience handling money. So far, I’ve had alright luck.
Stu: Many years ago, I got stuck for $270 by a guy from the backside. Instead of selling him $10 win-place-show tickets, which is what he’d asked for, I hit the button for $100 across the board. I knew it immediately and came out into the grandstand, but I couldn’t find him. The tickets ended up being worth $500, and I told his friends he could have his profit, just please return the balance. He had cashed them as soon as the race ended and wouldn’t come back in, but management found out and he ended up being fired for it.
But I’ve had so many times when I went out and told a bettor I made a mistake, and he returned the money because he knew I wouldn’t cheat him. If you’re honest, it comes back to bless you.
Betty: The biggest ticket I ever paid out was $123,000 at Albuquerque Downs in New Mexico. Believe me, it was an experience. There were nine people sharing the ticket, so I had to fill out nine separate tax forms. It was all paid out in $100 bills – 1,230 of them. I paid it out and let them divide it up.
Stu: From 1980-94, we worked the New Mexico circuit. We started at Santa Fe after Tampa Bay Downs closed and worked there until Labor Day, then we worked a 25-day meeting at the New Mexico State Fair. It was a huge meeting. That was when the Texas oilmen would fly into Santa Fe in their Piper Cubs and come to the track with stacks of $100 bills. I was a $50 cashier, and some days I would cash and sell more than $100,000 in tickets.
I was handling a lot of money under pressure, but it was fun if you liked people. Then all of a sudden the price of oil dropped, and they were gone.
Betty: We like to work and we like people, so we don’t talk about retiring. We’re happier working than when we’re sitting at home. We enjoy our customers. We usually take a vacation every year, and this year we’re planning to go back to Pennsylvania and stay in a home we’re renting.
Stu: We have been fortunate to travel all over the world. We’ve been to Japan twice, Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, Thailand and Singapore. We got permission to go to Russia during the Cold War. We were on safari in Africa during the 1970s.
We traveled in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. We were not scared at the time, but since then I’ve thought we should have been. We toured the Serengeti with our own driver in a four-wheel drive Volkswagen with a rollaway roof, and we crossed 15 miles of solid wildlife migration – zebras, wildebeests and antelopes, as far as the eye can see.
We were going 30 miles per hour across grassy terrain – there were no roads – and the zebras would go as fast as our vehicle, then run across our path and stop, just playing with us. It was absolutely spectacular.
Betty: I really liked Japan. We had a guide who bowed and kissed all the ladies’ hands. He was very polite and made the American men look, well. …
Stu: This job never gets old because every day, something different happens. I had a guy come to my window recently who wanted to bet a four-horse dime superfecta box with the automatic teller machine, but he had never used it before. So I talked him through it and gave him a voucher for $12.
He came back the next day with five winning tickets that were each worth $750. I asked him what had happened, and he said ‘Well, you said the machine was easy to work, and I thought I had change coming from my bet. But instead of hitting the return voucher button, I kept hitting repeat ticket.’ Talk about beginner’s luck!
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Carlos Garcia, Trainer
From 1989-95, trainer Carlos Garcia saddled 438 winners and accumulated almost $8 million in purse earnings, his face almost as familiar to Maryland sports fans as Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. A few years earlier Garcia trained Squan Song, who won 18 of 36 starts, including 14 stakes, and was voted top Maryland-bred filly or mare four consecutive years. He also was responsible for the development of Breeders’ Cup champions Safely Kept and Countess Diana. After spending last season as a jockey’s agent for Jesse Garcia – his first break from training in 40 years – the Argentinean conditioner returned with a flourish at Tampa Bay Downs, winning the Jan. 7 Pelican Stakes with Robert Gerczak’s 5-year-old gelding Action Andy. The triumph was doubly rewarding for Action Andy’s connections, since the horse had almost succumbed as a 2-year-old to wobbler’s syndrome, a spinal cord malformation. Garcia has three sons and a daughter and two granddaughters.
Before I was a jockey’s agent for Jesse Garcia (no relation) and Brian Pedroza, who is also here at Tampa, I’d had every job on the racetrack other than working in the racing office. In the late 1960s I was a groom for Laz Barrera, who trained the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed. He was a teacher and he didn’t mind me asking questions.
He had a tremendous eye for the horses and if one was sore or a little off, he usually knew where the problem was. Sometimes he was more accurate than the vet. One of the biggest things I learned from him was to use my eyesight – to make a figure in my mind the way the horse is supposed to travel across the ground, and judge from that.
Every horse is an individual and they all have a different way of going. Once you put that picture in your mind and know how that horse is supposed to go, and you see something is not going that way, you know something is wrong. And if the rider tells me something, I listen because sometimes the rider is the best judge.
My father, Sabas Garcia, was a successful trainer at Palermo and San Isidro in Buenos Aires. I spent a lot of time with him at the track growing up. A lot of things are different about racing there. Races would have 20-horse fields and it was very competitive. They prefer longer distances. I remember my father winning a race that was 4,000 meters, about 2 ¼ miles. In Argentina, we like to train horses to go the classic distances, which we don’t have much of any more in this country.
People think a mile-and-an-eighth is a long race, and it’s really not. Here, there are a lot of people who can only train a horse to go five or six furlongs. They don’t know how to stretch a horse out. That just makes it easier for me to win the longer races.
Seriously, though, we breed so much for speed that not many horses can go longer than a mile. And when you have a horse that can go a mile-and-a-quarter, unless he wins a classic or a Grade I race, he’s not that good a sire prospect because breeders need speed, speed, speed.
I just think there is too much emphasis on speed in the breeding industry and we need to swing back toward breeding more horses for endurance. Ideally, you want to combine speed and stamina.
But the other side of the coin is, people want to bet on large fields, and your longer stakes races often don’t draw many entries. How many horses run in the Belmont Stakes, which is a mile-and-a-half? And you look at the quality of the fields, there are not many truly good ones. Even in Argentina, they are not running as many longer races as they used to.
Horatio Luro, the ‘Grand Senor’ who trained Kentucky Derby winners Decidedly and Northern Dancer, was an inspiration to me as a fellow Argentine trainer. He was my neighbor at Belmont Park for a few years, and he would talk to me in Spanish while he was riding the pony. He was a very nice gentleman. He always called me ‘El Pibe’ – ‘The Kid.’
One of his quotes that has always stuck with me is ‘Don’t squeeze the lemon dry.’ These horses are only going to be as good to you as you are to them. You have to know when it’s time to back off and give them a chance to recuperate. Mr. Luro also told me more than once, ‘Keep the horse in the company that is suitable for him – and keep yourself in good company, as well.’
I have 10 horses here now; they are all owned by Mr. Gerczak. I don’t want a large stable because I like to pay attention to details. When you have too many, you can’t train all of them yourself, and I don’t like to leave too much to my employees. Right now, I have two grooms, two hot walkers and one exercise rider, Jesse.
But I do enjoy passing along what I’ve learned. Two of the trainers I trained in Maryland, Dove Houghton and Robin Graham, have won a lot of races. I am very proud of what they have accomplished, and they deserve a chance to get better horses. Patrick Manuel, who since moved to Louisiana, is another good trainer I mentored.
I thought I could be a jockey when I was a young man in Argentina. Then, I broke my back in a riding accident and was disabled for six months. After I came to this country in the mid-1960s, I was able to gallop some horses for Oscar Barrera, Laz’s brother, but I hurt my back again and was not able to ride. That is why I cannot say enough about the jockeys. They might be the best athletes of any sport.
Last year, I was getting a little bored – I have been training on my own 40 years – so I took a year off from training and became Jesse’s agent. Anyone who knows him knows he’s a very good guy, which is the main reason we get along pretty good. So it was very rewarding to me to have him win on Action Andy in the Pelican Stakes.
Jesse is 52, but he is a worker. He gallops two or three horses for me every morning to stay fit and he works horses for other people. He takes care of himself and he’s very light, so he doesn’t have to reduce. He’s a strong rider, he has a good mind and he can win on the front or from behind, depending on what you want him to do.
I’ve never been a guy who liked to make a big deal about one race, because the next race you can be down again. I feel as though I’ve been very lucky. Gustave Ring, who was a New York owner, invited me to train for him at Belmont Park after I went out on my own, and he taught me a lot about the business part of racing.
I don’t make any money for what I charge training unless I win, and for an owner to break even, they need to make about $30,000 a year with a horse. So you’re trying to protect your owners so they stay in the business longer.
I enjoy what I’m doing. I use my knowledge, I’m very patient with the horses and I’m good with 2-year-olds. For me, the pride in developing a young horse is very important. I have proven myself over and over again that I can develop a horse to be the best that it can be. Just look at my stakes record – 136 stakes victories, from Kentucky to all over the East Coast.
That keeps it fun – the chance to prove myself again with another horse I can develop.