For years, I spent 365 days a year waking up at 3:30 in the morning to go to work. Work, are you serious? I get to see thoroughbred horses, is that really work? I guess it is for some, but for myself it was a passion that I had since seeing my first live horse race at Aqueduct Racetrack.
My first introduction to horse racing was while I was taking a tap dancing lesson at Phil Black’s Dance Studio on Broadway in NYC. Mr. Black was a perfectionist and while his wooden cane was tapping on the hard wood dance floor, those jingle of taps better be heard without missing a beat. While taking a group lesson at his school, up on the old Zenith black and white TV with the rabbit ears sticking out, was a powerful colt kicking butt to those poor thoroughbreds behind him. It was Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes. While watching that race, I stopped tapping (I could never walk and chew bubble gum at the same time), and when that happened, Phil looked over at my mother and said with an aggressive tone, “WHATS A MATTER WITH HER?” My mother looked at the TV and then looked at Phil and said (turn on the NY accent on high), “SHE’S WATCHING A HORSE RACE!”
I so wanted to see this sport LIVE!
Several years later, I received my wish! I can remember it like yesterday, seeing Seattle Slew, the big almost black son of Bold Reasoning enter the track on a spring day in April 1977. It was the Wood Memorial and Seattle Slew was making his last step before the Kentucky Derby and the coveted prize, the Triple Crown. His coat had a shinny glisten to it with a touch of sweat caused from his adrenaline being pumped cause he knew racing was upcoming. Slew went on to capture the Triple Crown as the first undefeated horse to capture such a feat.
After that touch of glory, I pursued a career in the Thoroughbred Racing world. At a local bar close to Belmont Park, Esposito’s, I met the foreman for one of the grandest barns of them all, Calumet Farm. Bob, the foreman, offered me a job as a hot walker. The pay was $150.00 per week for 7 days. I was currently working in a law firm for $130.00 for 5 days. But just the chance to be around those beautiful horses was pay enough. I took the job.
After years of working for other employers, and moving up the corporate ladder from hot walker, to groom, to foreman and finally assistant trainer, I carried out my goals in life.
I accomplished my bucket list. That was, 1 – to run a horse in the Kentucky Derby; 2- to run a horse in the Kentucky Oaks; to run a horse in a Breeders Cup race and to be an assistant trainer for Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas.
Not many people can say that in the sport of kings. Well I was lucky enough to do it all.
But with the aging process and staying close to my mother, I decided to try the administration skills as a career. I found seasonal jobs to still stomp my horse racing roots, but boy is it hard to watch your peers in the winners circle from the press box.
But like many 50 and up people, they dream about what they use to do. This year was no different for me. I found myself at the Breeders Cup which was held at Santa Anita Racetrack, my favorite of them all. Many great memories were tattooed in my brain along with watching Came Home win the 2002 Santa Anita Derby.
So, now I am viewing and spotting all those magnificent athletes prepare for their Breeders Cup races all week before the big event. I was feeling lucky, blessed and frustrated all at once. Even though I was working in a career within the sport, I still felt like a spectator. I sit up in the press box and do my very own assistant training while watching. Critiquing would be a kind way to describe what I was viewing. But, I was doing what every other semi-retired horseman was doing. Complaining that the new people weren’t doing the job the right way, (In our minds that is). I was noticing all sorts of stuff that I use to be paid to make sure didn’t happen on our horses. Bandages weren’t run properly, bridles weren’t at the proper place in the horses mouth, etc. We would go through the barn area, and on a cool morning which I would normally sponge a horse, they were giving full baths. That is like watching chalk screeching on a blackboard in my eyes.
Another barn which I am fortunate to have the open door policy in is D. Wayne Lukas’ barn. There is where I can walk in and get the best greeting from the help (which never changes) and the big man himself, D. Wayne Lukas! This year, I was lucky enough to exchange high fives with members of his team, share quality time with Mr. Lukas’ wife and accomplished horsewoman, Laurie Krause-Lukas. I even managed to get Wayne on the set for the after show at the Preakness. Team Lukas took the Preakness with Oxbow earlier this year.
Again, I felt like I was a hands on part of a barn and a family. But instead of shoveling manure, I get my picture taken with the big horse and post it on Facebook, (and get two days a week off most of the time). So for the younger generation that are reading this, document these times cause you will look back and love every minute you spent in them. You might be complaining that your hot walker only walked the horse that you are grooming 26 minutes instead of the 30 which is usually mandatory, but if you are, it only shows that you care about your animals.
January will be right around the corner, new turned three year olds will be preparing for the first leg of the triple crown. The Kentucky Derby.
Even though, December might be a little gloomy for this horse racing enthusiast, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. That tunnel is at Churchill Downs when they play My Old Kentucky Home on the first Saturday in May!