Thursday, March 29, 2012

Dr. Kristen Pastir, Association Veterinarian
Dr. Kristen Pastir says she knew she would be a large-animal veterinarian when she was born. It's hard to tell if she is joking. The first-year Tampa Bay Downs Association Veterinarian, who considers herself an advocate for the track's Thoroughbred population, rode hunter-jumpers from an early age and found herself more comfortable around them than most people. Determined to answer her calling, Pastir attended the pre-veterinary medicine animal program at the University of New Hampshire and graduated from Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine in 2007. After completing an internship at New England Equine in Dover, N.H., she opened her private practice, Granite Glen Equine in Groton, N.Y., focusing on sport horses. Pastir joined the New York Racing Association as an Associate Examining Veterinarian in 2009, working meetings at each of the NYRA's tracks -- Saratoga, Belmont and Aqueduct. At Tampa Bay Downs, she works in concert with Dr. Robert M. Calley, inspecting each day's entries, conducting random pre-race testing for illegal substances and handling emergencies as they arise. The 29-year-old Pastir is the founder of an adoption chapter called Two Turns Thoroughbreds, which has found new homes for 20 horses, many of which she retrained before adoption. She owns two retired Thoroughbreds, Proud Escapade and Desert Scents, a Dutch Warmblood named Denny and a dog, Tyler.

I really think some people are born bonding more to animals than people. That certainly was the case with me. Growing up, I felt more comfortable telling things to my German shepherds, Ginger and Heidi. A lot of people think my job is hard because horses can't tell you what is wrong, but if you're in tune with them you can tell. It's not as much of a mystery as you might think.
Someone can be very book-smart, but that doesn't mean you're a good vet. A lot of what we do is cut-and-dry – they are either lame or they're not – but at the same time it is a feeling, knowing when a horse is sore or when it is just stiff. I believe some people have the knack of reading them. For me, it is truly a calling.
My feeling about being with horses is really the same now as it was when I was riding as a young girl. We didn't own horses – I rode at a public stable – so I only got so much time with them, and I wanted to make that time the best I possibly could. Not all of them had the best lives, but I believed I could be good for them for that hour or three hours I was with them, whether it was on a trail ride or some other activity.
On race days, Dr. Calley and I usually begin between 7-8 a.m. by examining the horses that are entered that day. He and I split the barn area, and we switch every other week, which has enabled both of us to get to know the entire horse population and to have a fresh set of eyes looking at every horse.
Each horse gets the same exam, whether it is a stakes horses that just shipped in or a $5,000 claiming horse we've seen a half-dozen times. The stakes horses do make it fun, because they are true professional athletes. Regardless, I don't look at who the trainer is or if the horse is the favorite. What it comes down to is this: Is the horse sore or not? That's all that matters when it comes to deciding if it is fit to compete that day.
All in all, the exam is fairly superficial, but we still can tell a lot. We palpate (feel) the front legs, then we pick up each leg in flexion and palpate the joints, see if there is any change in fluids. Generally, we don't palpate the back legs unless we feel we have a reason. We keep a record on every horse that runs, so if a horse has joint fluid and is a little stiff, that is concerning. We also check for heat or swelling and see if the horse feels any pain on palpation. Horses are symmetrical, so if you feel down one leg and the horse has a big tendon and the other leg is not like that, you know 'OK, this is a true problem.’
The biggest part of the exam is watching them jog. Many horses in this population are older and run frequently, and a lot of them need warming up to feel good and feel like running. I'm sensitive to that, because I'm a runner and I need warming up. There is a huge difference between a horse being stiff and being sore, and that is part of the art of what I do – knowing the difference.
Most trainers strive to do the right thing by their horses. But I've heard it said 'This horse has a funny way of going.' I watch it jog and I can see it's not a funny way of going, it's lameness. There are ways a layman can tell. Sometimes, when the painful limb hits the ground, the horse's head goes up – we call that 'On the nod' – signifying the limb is really sore.
In other cases, a horse may be stiff – we call that 'crabby' – but I can tell watching it that it is not hurting and just needs to warm up and stretch a bit. For me, that part of the exam is an art. Often, it is the way they look at me that tells me how they are feeling. I can sense that they are not hurting, and they'll go out and look absolutely pristine. They just needed to warm up and stretch a little bit.
One disadvantage of the pre-race exam at any track is that these horses are, literally, athletes, but all we do is pull them out of their stalls and make them jog a short distance within a narrow shed row with a usually uneven surface. When you are dealing with 90 or more exams a day, that is the reality of the situation. So if I am about to scratch a horse but I'm not sure if it is the shed row or not, we'll take the horse on the pavement or the grass to jog more extensively.
During the races, either Dr. Calley or I am on the track, while the other one does the blood-gas testing for 'milkshaking,' where unscrupulous trainers buffer the blood to give their horse more endurance. A random drawing is held beforehand to determine which horses will be tested, and it is done 45 minutes or an hour out from post time. All graded stakes horses are tested.
Not only is milkshaking illegal, it's harmful because you're pushing the horse beyond its physical limitations. Most breakdowns occur when the muscles and ligaments have become fatigued and can no longer support the skeletal structures. When a horse that has been 'milkshaked' reaches the stretch and should be tired, but it's not, that can cause undue stress on the rest of their body. And by messing with a horse's blood pH, you can kill them. That is why milkshaking is not safe and it's not right and why testing is necessary.
Our job on the frontside is to watch them in the paddock. If a horse flips and hits its head, and we can't discern how serious the damage is, it has to be scratched. Horses do silly things, and our job on the track is to make sure everybody stays safe. We're also there for emergency coverage if a horse comes back sore or breaks down. Heat stroke can also be an issue, especially this time of year. If a horse bleeds from the nostrils excessively and it looks a little wobbly, we'll ask that it be given a ride back to their barn.
A guy at Tampa Bay Downs jokingly calls me 'Cornell' after Robert Pattinson's character in the movie 'Water for Elephants.' In the flick, the character leaves the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine to join the circus, only to discover his ideals and principles regarding the treatment of animals clash with the circus owner's view that 'the show must go on' no matter what.
I don't think I was as naïve as that character when I got to NYRA! But I have to admit, working at the track has been an eye-opening experience. When I started in New York, I was told "Your job is not to be the (horsemen's) friend. It is to take care of the horses."
I have found that many people on the backside really do love their horses. But this is a business. There are tons of little tricks to get a horse past the exam, but for us, that is the benefit of having a lot of experience under your belt. When I was in New York, trainers figured out quickly I was strict. A horse can always run another day. They have to be at a certain threshold for me to pass them.
I think for me the biggest disillusionment at the racetrack was meeting some very nice people who I found didn't care that much about the horse or didn't know enough to make good decisions. They are very few and far between, but they are there. I learned I had to put a wall up. I can be friendly, but whether I am friends with someone or not, it's not going to make a difference in my decisions.
I'm not here to be friends with the horsemen. I'm here to look out for the horses and be their voice.
When a horse breaks down, we are the last ones with them. We're the ones who have to look them in the eye and kind of take what every human has done to that horse in its life and take responsibility for it. Every horse I have put down plays over and over and over again in my head, and I remember every single one.
So even if things were done to cover up and get them past us, we are the ones who let them go out there. I take it very seriously and I take it to heart, because the only reason I am here is that I love horses.
This can be a scary job because horses are unpredictable. They will beat you up. My right index finger will never be the same; it was bitten doing a dentistry procedure. The most serious I've ever been hurt was last spring at my private practice in New York, when I was doing a reproductive ultrasound on a mare and I got double-barreled – I went to lift her tail to wrap it, and she fired out with both hind legs and sent me flying. She was sedated, too!
I was unconscious for a while. She left a big horseshoe imprint on my side. That was a very scary day. You have to give them a little leeway because they have so little control over their lives, but she was just a mean animal.
I couldn't walk for a while, but I went back in a few days and ultrasounded her, and she was in foal. I told the owners "Good luck, but I'm not coming back to take care of the foal!"
My motivation to start Two Turns Thoroughbreds was to find an outlet for those horses that didn't want to run any more and had no place to go. It is similar to TROT (Thoroughbred Retirement of Tampa, Inc.) – the goal is to retrain race horses for a second career. We've already adopted out 20, many of which I retrained and found homes for myself. It's been fun, and it's good for me because I knew them in New York. I mostly retrain horses for hunter-jumper careers, because that was my discipline as a girl.
Some people think Thoroughbreds are wild and crazy when they get off the track, but most are not hard to retrain. They get ridden every day as race horses. You just have to translate what they know from here into what riding people use as cues.
Thoroughbreds are incredibly honest, they want to please and they can do anything. And most of them are kids' horses, because they no longer want to run so kids can tool around on them, take them over little jumps and on trail rides, and they're happy.
One of my personal horses, Proud Escapade, used to run at Tampa Bay Downs. He won five races but only earned $42,000, and by the time he was 4 years old he was 'old' and 'done' as a race horse because he was no longer sound for racing. But to the rest of the horse world, he was a baby. He's 7 now, lives on a farm in New York and is doing fine. Like so many ex-race horses, he has great potential for a productive career.
I'll be going from here to Colonial Downs in Virginia as an Association Veterinarian, then I'm probably going to Saratoga to do private practice. It's a really tough circuit to break into because it's big trainers and big horses and all the best vets in the world are there, but I figure if I'm going to go somewhere and not know if I am going to make money, it might as well be Saratoga.
People I know ask, 'How can you still love racing?' and I always think of the first time I saw
Quality Road
run in the 2010 Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont. He was coming down the lane and digging in, and Musket Man came up on his side, and
Quality Road
just found more. And I thought, 'This is what they've been bred for.'
I guess that is the addiction for me to keep coming back. The negative aspects will not erode my principles and my standards. I do have days when I think I am getting  jaded, and then you hang out with the horses and think, 'This is why I'm here. This is their life.' And nothing will ever change that.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rosemary Homeister, Jr., Jockey
When jockey Rosemary Homeister, Jr. enters the winner’s circle after a race, she looks skyward and blows a kiss to her late grandparents, Frank and Phyllis Sangi. After posing for pictures, she celebrates with the winning connections, greets the race sponsors and signs autographs for anyone who asks. Then, on her return to the jockeys’ room, she hugs and high-fives fans lining the rail to congratulate her. It barely leaves time to prepare for the next race, but Homeister’s enthusiasm is a tonic for a sport struggling to keep its place in a rapidly evolving landscape.
The second-winningest female jockey in history, behind Hall of Famer Julie Krone, Homeister is building a case for her eventual inclusion in horse racing’s shrine. She is 17 victories shy of the 2,500 mark. Her numerous accomplishments include being the first woman to win the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey, in 1992; induction into two Thoroughbred racing Halls of Fame (Calder Race Course and Puerto Rico, where she was the first woman to win the Clasico de Caribe on a filly named Alexia out of Panama); riding in the 2003 Kentucky Derby on Supah Blitz (13th); and finishing second in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Marathon for Jonathan Sheppard on Cloudy’s Knight. In addition, she has been leading rider at the Tropical at Calder meet, Hialeah and Colonial Downs.
 More remarkably, she has returned to top form after giving birth on Aug. 21, 2011 to the love of her life, daughter Victoria Rose. Homeister – who won Tampa Bay Downs’ opening-day Lightning City Stakes aboard Jenny’s So Great for Trainer Jason Servis – is fourth in the current Tampa Bay Downs standings with 44 victories. With fellow jockey Irwin Rosendo, Victoria Rose’s father, the 39-year-old Homeister is discovering the joys of parenthood while proving women athletes can compete at a world-class level after having a child.

After the races are over my main focus is getting home to see Victoria Rose. As soon as I pick her up and hold her in my arms, nothing else matters. I’m just happy I had a safe day and am able to spend the rest of the night with her. When she smiles, it clears my mind and I know tomorrow is going to be a great day again.
Back-tracking, getting pregnant was not in any future plans or at least not yet. When I woke up one morning feeling nauseous I thought I was getting the flu. To my disbelief I was pregnant. I woke Irwin up at 4:30 a.m. to tell him. He flew out of the bed so fast, he almost knocked me over. He was so happy and excited but then realized I was in total shock and I just stood there with a blank stare.
I knew in my heart it was a blessing, but I just wasn’t prepared or ready for such a drastic change in my life. My focus was on my future plans for the summer, riding in Kentucky. I felt I was at the height of my career again; I had been fourth-leading rider at Churchill Downs the previous fall meet and wanted to continue my success there. Everything just seemed to halt and I was confused and scared.
I went through an emotional roller coaster during my pregnancy. Fortunately, Irwin gave me a lot of support and was always there for me. Hormonally, I was completely out of whack – happy, sad, not knowing what to expect. I refused to go to the track because I didn’t want anybody to see me fat. I gained 50 pounds during my pregnancy, and at times I felt embarrassed, in a sense.
It took time to adjust to all the changes my body was going through but I did it and am happy that it happened. The best part of my pregnancy was the delivery. I was at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital in Tampa, and I had the best doctor and nurse. They walked me through everything and made me feel comfortable. When I finally pushed out my little blessing, after 9 ½ hours, nothing else mattered in my life but her. She was so tiny and precious.
Every day Victoria does something new. She keeps growing and learning so fast. At just 7 months she is saying “Ma-ma and Pa-pa.” I know I sound like a typical awestruck mother, but just to see her push herself up or roll over on her back seems like a miracle.
When she gets a little older, she is going to know she has two parents who adore her and will do anything for her. I just want her to always be healthy and happy. My friends and family tell me “There is no rulebook” to raising a child, and it is so true. Instinctually, I know what is good for her.
The biggest challenge I faced after my pregnancy was losing all the weight I gained – all 50 pounds of it. A week after I had Victoria, I hired a personal trainer to help me lose the weight the right way by helping me gain my strength while I was losing weight. I had no strength and my balance was totally off.
It was a very frustrating two weeks, but after going three times a week for 30-minute sessions I began to feel better and started to notice the change in my body. Losing weight is very frustrating. But I kept my focus, changed my diet and continued to work out.
I got a call from trainer Eric Reed (Victoria’s godfather), who told me that he and his wife Kay wanted me to come to Kentucky to start getting on horses at Keeneland and at their farm for them. They wanted to help me get fit so that I could start riding for them again.
I was so excited because I knew this was the only way to get back into shape quickly and be ready to ride by the Tampa Bay Downs meeting in December. I got on 3-to-6 horses a day for the next month and little by little, the weight started to come off. I was getting anxious to ride and Eric had started to name me on horses.
I was down to about 118 pounds by the end of October. I rode my first race on Nov. 9 at the Churchill Downs meeting for Eric and Kay and finished fifth. The next day I rode another horse for them, Eden Star, and won. It was the most exciting moment for me because of all that I had accomplished in a short amount of time to get to that point. I am so grateful to them for giving me this opportunity.

On top of everything, Eric Reed’s mother and father would watch Victoria Rose for me and Irwin while we worked for about four hours in the morning. We would then pick her up and spend the rest of the day with her. One of the biggest things when you’re a working parent is finding the right babysitter, and we were blessed to have Eric Reed’s parents help us in Kentucky.
Now, we have my friend Brenda Jones. She sings to her, teaches her shapes and colors and speaks to her in English and Spanish. Brenda adores Victoria. She comes to my house at 6 a.m. and stays until I get done racing in the late afternoon. I can stay focused on my work and know that Victoria is in good hands.
I’ve been a jockey for the past 20 years now, and a few years ago I had it in my mind I would retire when I turned 40 and maybe go back to doing real estate. But when horse racing is in your blood, you can’t get away from it. I love to be with horses, I love to compete and I love the fans.
Being a jockey is a continuous learning process. You’re always trying to perfect your style and devising new strategies to win, even with a horse you have ridden on a consistent basis. It’s mentally and physically challenging because you have the instructions from the trainer, you are trying to get to know your horse in the seven-minute post parade and you are deciding what you’ll do if plan A doesn’t work out.
Being a professional jockey takes total focus. You can’t be half-fit or ride half-ass. You are either full-force, competitive, work hard every day and want to win, or you might as well do something else. There are too many decisions and quick reactions to be made in any given race.
Riding the turf is very strategic – knowing what position I want to be in, who else is going to try to get there, and who is going to get in my way or be stopping in front of me. The main thing is getting good position the first sixteenth of a mile. If I’m on a speed horse, we’re going to go, but you still have to get yourself in position or you’re going to get swallowed up and run the risk of losing your position.
Down the backside, unless I’m in front, I’m constantly looking to see who might be stopping because you don’t want to get blocked. You want to save ground, but if the rail isn’t open you’ve got to start weaving out and finding room. It’s a constant process of quick thinking and quick actions. Riding the turf is all about making the right moves and the right decisions in a split-second and hoping your horse will do what you ask of him.
When I think about all the things I love about horse racing, I can’t say enough about the fans. I appreciate them appreciating our business. I want them to feel the excitement I feel when I win a race.
I give high-fives to all little kids, sign autographs and take pictures with the fans. It gives them a little piece of the action and excitement. When the meeting here ends, my plans are to go to Chicago to ride at Arlington Park for the summer.
My mother, Rosemary Homeister, Sr., is a trainer in south Florida at Calder Race Course. She has always been my No. 1 fan and biggest supporter. I never would have made it this far without her. Thanks, Mom!
I look at my life as a total blessing. I’m so grateful to be able to do what I am passionate about and I want owners, trainers and the fans to know how determined I am to win and how passionate I am about this game. And if I don’t win this race, I am going to try and win the next race and every race after that!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Joe Waunsch, Director of Stabling

Joe Waunsch knows what it’s like to ship a horse hundreds of miles for a major race. He trained horses in the Breeders’ Cup three consecutive years, with his filly Platinum Tiara finishing second in the 2000 Juvenile Fillies at Churchill Downs. So when the 75-year-old Safety Harbor, Fla. resident announced his retirement from training two years ago, Tampa Bay Downs racing secretary Allison De Luca saw him as a natural fit to direct the track’s receiving barn operation. As Director of Stabling, Waunsch coordinates the influx of ship-ins and ‘work-and-go’ horses that arrive each morning at the stable gate on the north end of the racetrack. A still-wiry 5-feet-4 and 145 pounds, Waunsch oversees a three-person crew that includes his wife, Sue. The Brooklyn, N.Y. native won the Tampa Bay Downs training title in the 1989-90 season with 33 victories. Known throughout his career for his realistic, straightforward appraisal of horses, Waunsch trained such stakes winners as Scratch Pad, Devil’s Disciple, Platinum Tiara, Silver Bandana and A Penny Saved. His son Joe is a wholesale jeweler in the Tampa Bay area.

I had a birthday last month, but I can’t say I feel any older. The main reason I’ve been able to stay in good shape, I think, is because I galloped horses until I was 65. And the reason I stopped had nothing to do with not being able to do it physically – I was just at a point where I had to spend more time at the barn, as opposed to being on the horses. After I quit galloping, I started to have aches and pains I never had.
Riding horses is the greatest exercise man ever invented. You use every muscle in your body when you gallop a race horse. You’re using your arms and legs, you use your back a lot – everything comes into play. That’s why jockeys are so fit.
I remember hearing one time about a test they ran on a jockey, simulating him riding a six-furlong race, and they said he burned as much energy as a guy digging a ditch for four hours. You had better be fit when you ride races, and you better be in pretty good health. The toughest exercise I get any more is writing stuff on these charts in my office.
Growing up I wanted to be a jockey, but I wasn’t small enough. Still, I wanted to work with horses. When I got to be 19 or 20, I went to Holly Hill, S.C. to work for Lucien Laurin, later the trainer of Secretariat, and learned how to gallop. He already was known as a very good 2-year-old trainer, and he had a big operation. It was a great learning environment and a great place for me to get started.
Around 1967 I was freelancing, and I had just had my son. New York didn’t have year-round racing then, and I didn’t want to travel all over the region with a kid. Ocala was just getting built up, and I had a friend who was running Harbor View Farm, Louis Wolfson’s place.
I remember we had packed up the car and told my family we were out of there for good, and they were like ‘Yeah, you’re a city boy. Can you imagine living in a place like Ocala.’ Well, it was 14 years before I went north of Jacksonville. The opportunity at Harbor View was excellent, I absolutely loved Ocala and I spent the next 17 years breaking yearlings.
I actually worked three jobs during breaking season: early in the morning at Harbor View, somewhere else in mid-morning and another farm in the afternoon. If I didn’t get on 25 a day, I felt like I was cheating.
I had the great fortune then to be around a lot of good horses. Two of the best were Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, and Slew o’ Gold, who won Eclipse Awards in 1983 and ’84 and ran second in the Tampa Bay Derby. I was on Slew o’ Gold the first time he ever breezed, at Wooden Horse Farm, which is Roy Lerman’s place now, Lambholm South. Slew o’ Gold might have been the best horse I’ve ever seen.
At the time I broke Affirmed, I don’t think anyone could have told you he would be a great horse. Harbor View had just sold a major portion of the place, and all they had was a small, 3/8-mile galloping track. He never showed anything spectacular there, but he became a great champion.
I took out my trainer’s license in 1983 and was fortunate to have a lot of success right away with a Florida-bred named Profusion, who won 12 races. He raced mostly at Tampa Bay Downs and Rockingham in New Hampshire.
Times – and money – being what they were, he only earned about $47,000, but he was the Tampa Bay Downs Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association Horse of the Year during the 1985-86 meeting. It’s funny that Mrs. (Stella) Thayer, who owns Tampa Bay Downs, bred a filly named Profusion who won at Gulfstream 10 years ago; my Profusion was a gelding.
As time went on, I kept getting better and better horses. I got a lot of horses from Bonnie Heath, who owned the 1956 Kentucky Derby winner, Needles. The better I did, the better caliber of horses I got. After I won the training title at Tampa Bay Downs, I went to Calder for the summer and wound up staying there 15 years. I was never leading trainer, but I usually had only 10-to-12 head and was able to win my share of races.
The first time I went to the Breeders’ Cup, at Churchill Downs in 1998, was with Dancing Gulch in the Distaff. She really wasn’t that kind of horse and finished seventh.
In 1999, jockey Willie Martinez and I teamed up to win the Grade II Walmac International Alcibiades with Scratch Pad for owner Jaime Carrion, so we had high hopes for the Juvenile Fillies at Gulfstream three weeks later, but she never really got into the race and finished ninth.
My best shot in the Breeders’ Cup came in 2000 at Churchill in the Juvenile Fillies with Platinum Tiara, who was owned by M375 Thoroughbreds, a partnership headed by the former major league pitcher, Rob Murphy.
About five of the jockeys were wired for sound during the race, and my jock, Shane Sellers, was rallying down on the inside when a horse drifted out in front of him. You could hear Shane saying “Watch it! Watch it! Ahhh, damn!” and he had to check her and the winner (47-1 shot Caressing) got around her. Platinum Tiara just ran out of ground and lost by a half-length.
It was disappointing, especially since I thought she was the best horse that day, but just to finish second in a Breeders’ Cup race was a big step. The next year, I ran her in the $150,000 Calder Breeders’ Cup Handicap, and she finished second behind another horse I trained, Silver Bandana, for Edward Somers. Running 1-2 in that race was a big thrill – the only thing better would have been a dead-heat.
Platinum Tiara wound up earning more than $600,000, and as a 4-year-old she won the Hillsborough Stakes on the turf here at Tampa Bay Downs.
As wonderful a horse as she was, I think the best horse I ever trained was a 2002 son of Devil His Due named Devil’s Disciple. A 2-year-old named B.B. Best beat Devil’s Disciple by three-and-a-half in the Wynn Dot Comma Stakes at Calder, and everyone said B.B. Best, who had never been headed, was already a living legend.
Four weeks later, we went against him again in the Criterium Stakes. I told my jockey, Rosemary Homeister, Jr., I thought we could run backwards and beat everything else in the race, and if she could get the lead without pushing him, to go for it. That’s what she did, and we ended up winning by nine lengths and ran the fastest Beyer Speed Figure in the country.
After we won another stakes at Calder, we decided to take Devil’s Disciple to Saratoga for the Grade I Hopeful, which was a $250,000 race. I felt great about his chances, but everything went wrong. We drew the No. 1 post, which is not where you want to be going seven furlongs, the track was sloppy and the jock (Cornelio Velasquez) had to rush him so he wouldn’t get smothered in the mud.
Well, at the sixteenth pole Devil’s Disciple opened up and looked like he was home free, but another horse came flying and beat us by a neck. You’ve probably heard of that other horse – Afleet Alex, who won the Arkansas Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont the following year.
Devil’s Disciple was injured in the Hopeful, and although he came back the following year and won an allowance at Calder, he never was the same. In horse racing you learn that you have to take the bad with the good, but I always wonder what might have happened if he hadn’t been hurt.
Most of the good horses I had, the stakes winners, were fillies. Maybe it’s because I was a little easier on them. A lot of people tend to train them the same way they do colts, but a lot of times they just need less hard training than you would put into some stocky colt.
People need to remember, every horse isn’t the same. Just like a person only has so much ability and can do so much work, it’s the same way with horses. You can’t train every one alike.
My main duties as the ‘Stall Man’ – everybody calls me that, even though my title is Director of Stabling – is to supervise the receiving barn and assign stalls for horses that ship in to run on a daily basis. Mostly, we get horses that ship in from Ocala or nearby locations, or people already on the grounds who don’t have enough stalls. We also have about 15 stalls for what we call ‘Work and Go’ horses – those that ship in to get a work over the track or get OK’d from the starting gate, usually from stables that don’t have training facilities.
I have an efficient, experienced crew, and we try to please everybody. Big days can be more stressful, especially when we’re getting several horses from trainers such as Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher and Christophe Clement, like during Tampa Bay Derby week. They expect first-class treatment, and that is what we strive to give them. So far I keep hearing we’re doing a good job.
The hours are much longer than when I was training, when I could set my own schedule. Here, they set it for you. When I was training at Calder, I’d be on the golf course by 9:30 every morning if I wasn’t running a horse in an early race – me and Eddie Plesa and Bill Kaplan and Tom Proctor, when he was training there.
This is a little more time-consuming. Sometimes I spend up to 12 hours here; there will be horses shipping in on Friday night, and I pretty much have to be here to make sure everything is done right.
Right now, I am pretty much going year to year. I’m happy here as long as my health holds up. The most enjoyable aspect of this job, to me, is being around people that I know and trainers that I’ve worked with. I still like watching the races, but obviously my interest is not quite as high as when I was training.
I have a 16-foot boat with a 50-horsepower engine that I take out for shallow-water fishing. We live right across the street from the dock. If this job lasted two more months, that would be OK, but I’m at a stage now where I want to have at least four months off.
I guess I’m kind of like those fillies I won so many races with. As long as you don’t overwork me and give me a rest when I need it, I’m going to give you my best effort.   

Friday, March 9, 2012

Jorge Navarro, Trainer
Although he has trained on his own for only four years, recent Hurricane Grill & Wings Trainer of the Month Award recipient Jorge Navarro is far from a newcomer to Thoroughbred racing. Navarro absorbed his fundamental knowledge from his stepfather, long-time Florida trainer Julian Canet, who won the 1996 Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs with long shot Mindy Gayle. His step-grandfather, Osvaldo Canet, won training titles at River Downs and Beulah Park in Ohio in the 1960s. Navarro, who started as a hot walker and groom for his stepfather, was an assistant for three years to Sam David Jr. at Fair Grounds, then worked as a veterinary assistant for three years. Following another four-year stint as an assistant trainer, Navarro broke young horses in Ocala before he felt comfortable going out on his own. Last year he won 23 races at Tampa Bay Downs to finish fifth in the standings. His wife Jennifer is the daughter of a trainer and formerly worked as an exercise rider. They have two daughters – Taylor, 13 and Miah, 2 – and a 3-year-old son, Jorge. Navarro has a daughter and son from a previous marriage who live in Miami.

A lot of what I know I learned from the old-time trainers, like my stepfather, Julian Canet. We came to the United States from Panama City in 1988 and went to Michigan, where he trained at the old Detroit Race Course. Kids weren’t allowed on the backside, but we went to the races on weekends. That is where my brother Marcial – who is also a trainer – and I fell in love with the horses.
My stepdad taught me how to take care of a horse. He was a good leg man. What are the keys to it? Working hard, getting on your knees and taking care of them, looking for heat or signs of bruises. Heat in their legs is usually a sign that something is wrong, that there might be filling in their joints. You want their legs to feel nice and tight and cold.
My employees and I believe in taking as much time as a horse needs to get ready for a race. I think a lot of younger-generation trainers lean a lot on the vet and don’t believe as much in working with an animal. It’s the same thing as a boxer – you’ve got to work with them and take care of them.
A lot of our horses might spend 30-45 minutes a day standing in an ice tub, soothing their joints. It’s like when you get up in the mornings – you have to take a couple of steps to get going. It’s the same thing with these horses. As a trainer, you get to know them so well that sometimes they’ll walk out of the stall and you’ll say ‘Whoa, what happened?’ and then they’ll do another turn (of the shed row) and they’ll be fine.
When you’ve got guys like I have, you don’t have many problems. I have four grooms, two hot walkers and two exercise riders, plus a good blacksmith, and they make it real easy for me. My workers are my secret. There is no medicine that is going to make horses run better. They are the ones who check the legs and tell me what they see. There are days when I’ll tell a groom ‘I’m going to run him’ and they’ll say ‘No, boss, not yet.’
I’ve got to listen to them. In most cases, they spend more time with the horses than I do. One of the realities of running a racing stable is that you deal with a lot of paperwork and talking with owners and planning the training schedules. When anybody asks me why we’re doing so well, I say ‘It’s them, my workers.’ They know they make more money when we win, and that keeps them going, too.
When I became a veterinary assistant for Dr. Jonathan Allen, I already was an assistant trainer, but it helped me get a better feel for the game. I also got to see how many mistakes trainers make, doing things that aren’t necessary to get a horse ready to race. Breaking horses in Ocala was another step toward getting more understanding.
The biggest thing in breaking young horses, as in so many parts of this sport, is patience. It probably took me three weeks to get a horse ready for the track. I would start with about six horses, then when we got to the next week I’d keep progressing with them and start with six new ones.
It will take you about a month to get them going, and it will take a bad rider to get them to go south in one minute. And they’ll carry that for the rest of their lives. That’s the way these animals are.
The claiming game is very challenging, but it’s something I enjoy because it tests your ability to evaluate horses. You can go into slumps, and that’s the time you really have to believe in what you’re doing. A claiming trainer has to spend time studying the condition book the right way.
There is more to it than training your horse up to a race and picking out the right spot. Once the meeting gets rolling, you usually know what kind of horses enter a certain race. Now, I’ll run against anybody, but with a guy like (Tampa Bay Downs leading trainer) Jamie Ness, you might try to avoid some of the spots you think he is going to, because he has some good horses. He is a good trainer, and he has an owner (Richard Papiese of Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc.) who knows how to play the game.
So if he runs second and you run third and you think he’s going to wheel his horse back in a certain race, you’ve got to figure out what’s best for your horse.
If you want to be in the claiming game, you had better put in some serious money because people are going to claim your good horses and you’re going to lose money on the cheaper horses. With the right owners who want to do it the right way, it’s a lot of fun.
I have three very good owners in Julian De Mora, Juan Matos (Blue Top Holding Stables) and Charles Justi. They know you can’t fall in love with the horses. If you claim a good one, manage him good. But if you claim a bad one, part of the game is you want to lose him. You’ve got to play the right way to stay in the business.
You have to be careful because you are always going to claim a bad one. I’m not going to claim a horse just because it drops in price. An owner of mine once said ‘How many times can you go in the cookie jar?’ and I always think about that every time I make a claim.
I don’t want to mention any favorites, because someone might claim them from me! But I have a couple of horses who have been with me a few years and are still winning. I broke (6-year-old gelding) Alkazabito when he was in Ocala, and he has won eight races. He has his problems, but if I don’t work with him, where is he going to go?
People ask me, ‘What are you doing to win races?’ and I say, ‘Come to the barn and see.’ I don’t do anything special. We work, and we spend money on shavings and hay and feed and supplements. We make sure they get their electrolytes in the morning. My guy over there, he is taking his time with the supplements – not just dumping it into their feed. When you do that, a lot of them back away from their feed and start losing weight. That is why we take our time and try to give them everything orally.
There is something about this track my horses love. I have horses that come from elsewhere with problems, and the problems go away. I don’t know the track superintendent (Tom McLaughlin), but he is one of the best I’ve seen.
I have a 24-horse stable, and that is just about the right size. My family lives in Ocala, and it is a challenge spending as much time with them as I’d like to. I’m staying down here this season instead of driving home every night, and they hate it. But we’re doing good, Ocala is a great place to live and Jennifer and I both know how hard this game is.
Her father, James Harris, was a trainer, and her mother trained too, so she came from horses like me. A couple of years ago I was on the computer watching replays, and she came and said ‘Is there ever going to be time for us?’
I was like, wow. We both know this is the only way you’re going to be successful. But I want to keep everything manageable. I want to have a life, to be able to make time for my family and the kids.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Charlie Miranda, Steward

Many racetrack veterans consider the view from the stewards' booth atop the Tampa Bay Downs grandstand the best in the house.  But when an objection has been filed and the fate Many racetrack veterans consider the view from the stewards' booth atop the Tampa Bay of hundreds of thousands in wagers is at stake, there is no time to admire the scenic horizon. Fortunately, the track has the services of state steward Charlie Miranda, who is celebrating his 25th anniversary as a TBD steward after training Thoroughbreds for 11 years. Miranda often compares his role, along with that of association stewards John Morrissey and Dennis Lima, to baseball umpires -- "Except we can't make a mistake, because what we do here is viewed by everybody in the country" through simulcasting. The 71-year-old Miranda, a Tampa native, is a member of the Tampa City Council and was instrumental in crafting its common-sense approach last year to the issue of street solicitation by the homeless and newspaper vendors. Miranda's wife of 48 years, Shirley, died in December of 2009. He has three children and eight grandchildren.

I am doing better since I went into the hospital last July for hernia surgery. During the operation, my esophagus was punctured and my left lung became infected. So I needed additional surgery to drain the lung. The end result was, I didn't take one step until Oct. 15. When I first got up, I couldn't walk from here to you. Let me tell you, your body really turns on you when you're doing nothing. It eats up all your fat and muscle to survive. But I'm doing a lot of walking every day, and I’m starting to feel pretty good.

Getting back to work here made me get well quicker. Actually, I keep the other stewards alive. I hit them below the belt once in a while to shake them up, but they are great guys to work with and very knowledgeable in what they do.

I had hoped to travel last November to Cuba with a group of senior baseball players -- some of them part of the 1954 Cuscaden Park Optimist All-Star championship 12 and 13-year-old team from Tampa, including me -- but my health wouldn't allow. It was a Senior Baseball Fast-Pitch tournament. Yeah, a bunch of us are still crazy! My late father was from Cienfuegos, Cuba, and I wanted to show my sisters where he was born.

The rest of the team went to Cuba and did pretty well -- they won three games, lost two and tied one -- and the guys were able to bring equipment to some less-advantaged youth in Cuba. The trip was in recognition of our Cuscaden Park team going to Cuba in 1954, right before the revolution. I don't remember any team that age going outside the continental United States to play ball then. I was the left fielder and the third starting pitcher, and I played with a bunch of great guys.

Tony LaRussa, who managed the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Championship last year, was our shortstop. He was about 9 years old -- that's how good he was! He and I were co-captains and we roomed together. Bucky De La Torre and Wayne Vigil were also great players on our Cuscaden Park team. Bucky was drafted by the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros), and he and Wayne both played for the great Clearwater Bombers fast-pitch softball team.

I did get to play some of our practice games before I went into the hospital to be repaired. Bucky, who was our field manager, told me I was starting pitcher against a team made up of fathers of the current Jefferson High players, guys in their 40s. It was my first time on a mound in 57 years. I pitched to one batter, and I struck him out on a 3-2 count with a slow-breaking curve.

Now, when I see him around town, he tells me 'Your ball really moved.' And I say, 'No, I'm so old the wind was moving it.'

A lot of Cubans ask me if I'm a native of Cuba. I'm actually from Ybor City, and it was a unique experience growing up there. It was an area where immigrants from Cuba and Spain and Italy landed and made their homes.

My late mother, who was born here, never spoke English. When I got to first grade, most of the kids -- myself included -- could only speak Spanish. But we made the adjustment. I was schooled in Tampa every step of the way -- Orange Grove Elementary, George Washington Junior High, Jefferson High, Hillsborough Community and the University of Tampa.

In the 1940s and '50s, we had a great transportation system of streetcars that went from Ybor City to west Tampa, all the way down Bayshore and Ballast Point through Seminole Heights and up into Linebaugh and Florida Avenue. But General Motors took care of that by saying streetcars are out and buses are in.

If we still had that system in place -- well, anything that works we seem to dismantle. But most of the changes I’ve seen have been for the better.

Our sport, horse racing, is a game that is in trouble. Fewer horses are being bred, and in the next two or three years a lot of tracks are going to have difficulty filling races. It's like the melting of the ice in the polar areas -- you and I don't see it, but we know it's happening. By the time the 2014 foal crop hits the ground, the number of horses available to tracks is going to decrease.

Horse racing is in need of a boost. I wish the industry would get more publicity -- we have a million stories on the backside, from people in khakis and overalls to multimillionaires who made their money somewhere else but are in racing for the love of the game. And it's an amazing production. From the breeders and owners down to the grooms, everyone has to work together to put on the show.

Every day in the sports section, you read page after page about a quarterback, an outfielder, a basketball player. A football team hires a new offensive coordinator -- what the heck do I care? Were they going to start the season without one? It's perpetual free advertising, but where do you see that about horse racing? The Daily Racing Form is seen only by a population that likes racing.

One major issue is that we are a sport that really has no heroes. The ones we have don't last long. They become stallions and broodmares. Your 3-year-old champion hardly ever races as a 4-year-old because of financial reasons, and he is forgotten by the public. The leaders of our sport need to find some way to keep our heroes running longer so the public gets interested and horse racing gets more backing from advertisers.

I am a fan of horse racing because it takes a lot of time and patience to develop a good horse, and it's very hard to do. Unfortunately, in a lot of racing jurisdictions, the industry is having to depend more and more on another industry -- gaming and slot machines, etc. -- to help fund the operational costs of putting on the show.

Does any other sport need income from another agency to survive? Not that I'm aware of. As an industry, we've reached a fork in the road and turned left instead of right, and I don't know where it's leading.

Tampa Bay Downs is doing very well compared to some other tracks because it is a winter destination and we get a combination of horsemen from all over the country here to compete. Not having a lot of media coverage makes it challenging, but 20 years ago if you went to the corner of
Racetrack Road
Hillsborough Avenue
and asked somebody where the track was, they wouldn't have known.

Tampa Bay Downs has the right attitude toward its customers. It treats them respectfully, and it tries to attract a younger audience with activities such as Family Fun Days and the golf driving range.

Politically speaking -- I know you don't want to go there -- I like to tell people I'm a member of the 'Human Race Party.' I'm not a follower of idealism, I'm a follower of realism. When I look at a candidate running for office, I want them to tell me what they're going to do, how they're going to do it and how they're going to fund it. One of our problems is we believe too much in what we hear and not enough in how we think. We forget to ask questions.

I am a great sports fan, but I'll never vote for any subsidization of a stadium for any franchise. That is gangsterism. Part of the media's job, I know, is to create this euphoric feeling that without a major league team in your city, you're not worthy. Well, then, there are a lot of cities that should be erased off the map.

As a city councilman, I would do the same thing for a sports franchise as I would for any developer. I would furnish the water, the sewer, the easements and the pavements, and after that it's your baby.

If you can afford to pay a baseball player $68,000 a day, then you can afford to build your own darn stadium. Don't come to somebody and hit them with another sales tax to build something. Do it on your own.

As a steward, I work with two fine individuals who have the same passion I do. During racing, there is no difference between a state steward and a track steward; it takes two votes to pass or defeat a call. The morning hours are the hardest part of our job. We deal with people who may have problems shipping horses or horses that are injured, plus a wide range of other issues. As a state steward, it is my responsibility to make sure all rules and regulations are adhered to.

Training horses taught me a lot. You work seven days a week, the hours are long and you have to understand there are peaks and valleys. The peaks are very tall yet short-lived, and the valleys are deep and profound.

You must take advantage of the horses when they are running well. They helped me to pay for some of the schooling for my three children to do whatever they wanted in life. I was also conservative. I didn't go out and buy a $50,000 truck; I did my running around in a Ford Ranger and when I hauled horses, I made sure to stay under the speed limit.

I won the 1986 Sam F. Davis Stakes with Fellow's Lady. I don't know if he was a hero per se, but he raced until he was 7 and won 10 times in 75 starts. I forget how much the Sam F. Davis was worth then, but his career earnings were about $86,000 and the Davis is now a $250,000 stakes. Yes, the sport has certainly changed in 25 years.