Mother Nature deals from the bottom of the deck in the winter. Weather can be ugly to say the least, and the people that keep the sport running have some very tough times keeping their horses ready. As I watched the early news weather forecast, it took me back to a time when I owned a few Thoroughbreds. The snow and arctic blasts had tracks losing racing dates, and there was no training due to the conditions. Just when our horse was feeling good and ready to run, the weather would get sour and the track would be forced to cancel races and training.
Northern Kentucky is located in an area that had freeze – thaw track conditions before the addition of the mega-million dollar Poly Track. The conditions would be 40 degrees on Wednesday, and the bottom would drop out and the track would freeze a day later. Once it was completely frozen, the track crew could do wonders with the surface and keep it safe and fast. When temperatures would rise, the dirt surface would gleam as the moisture would start coming up through the frozen dirt in slick spots. Parts of the track would be frozen-fast, and then you would step into a patch where the surface would crunch under your feet. It wasn’t safe for the riders and horses. The days where the riders would brave the conditions, they would come back to the jockey’s room with cuts and bruises from chunks of ice that would fly back and hit them in the face. Needless to say the track had to cancel races due to the unsafe conditions.
As an owner, this was a tough time. No matter if the races were running, the training bills kept coming. This had me in the dumps as I loved the sport, but when a bill comes in that looks like a house payment. You find yourself making hard decisions.
I was driving to my mother’s house for dinner when I drove past a harness operation. It had two big barns, and was located about 10 miles away from the track. It caught my eye and I wanted to stop and see if they knew anyone who wanted to buy a Thoroughbred. – As I walked into the first barn, I noticed it was as tight as a drum and about 50 degrees. There were about 30 stalls, and most were empty. I gave a shout to see if anyone was around, when an older gent came around the corner leading a well-covered horse to his stall. I introduced myself, and we started talking horses. Funny thing about the racing world. One minute you’re complete strangers, and the next you are laughing and talking shop.
When a lull in the conversation appeared, the old man asked if he could take us on a tour. He showed us the well-kept stalls, and how the barn was always kept warm as he liked his horses to be comfortable. We walked around a large wooden wall and the answer to my dilemma was waiting and I just didn’t know it. There was a large training pool and two treadmills. There was state-of-the-art therapy equipment that was used for harness horses for years. But when the owner passed away, his wife leased the operation to the old Thoroughbred trainer. He had patience for horses that needed time to heal, and he trained a handful of runners that would be sent to the track when they were ready.
It didn’t take long before I asked if he would be interested in taking on another horse. He spit tobacco juice off to the side and asked us ” what was wrong with our runner.” – After talking about the downtime at the track and lack of winter training, he smiled and understood our concern. He said he would be happy to have our aging gelding, and would see if he could help us get him ready to comeback to the races. It was four hours later, and a missed dinner at mom’s and our horse was on his way to the farm.
He swam every other day, and was eating better than we were. The other large barn had been transformed into a large walking ring where horses could stretch their legs in comfort over the manicured surface. It was too good to be true, and all we had to do was wait until the weather broke. He was running in $5,000 claiming races, and they were filling up so quickly that we couldn’t get in. It was at this time that I talked Larry into entering him in an $8,000 claiming event. He knew our horse was fit, but thought the class level was just too much. When he shipped over to races, our runner was tearing up the trailer. Needless to say he won that day, and paid a handsome price. We had found the perfect place, and kept him in training for a few more years before retiring the old boy to a life of rest and relaxation.
I won’t claim we were the only owners who ever used this method to keep their horses ready during tough winter racing, but it sure worked wonders for us. I feel it kept him in the game longer by allowing his ailments to heal while he received aerobic exercise to keep his muscles strong. Those years gave our runner a leg up when the weather turned ugly, and we would stable at the track when the seasons changed to be around the buzz of the backside. If I ever get back into owning horses again, I will definitely keep our old methods in mind before selecting our next trainer.