Of course I knew about racing. I own a Thoroughbred mare. I have been on the infield during the Preakness. What more did I need to know?
When I got the offer to ride for Alice Cohn at the New Orleans Fairgrounds racetrack, I figured, no problem, of course I can do this. I have been riding hunters since I was eight. How different could it be? It took less than five minutes for me to realize I did not know a thing.
It was my job to accompany the racehorses to the track, be with them through warm-ups and then pick them back up after their gallop. Sound easy? Wrong. My pony (who is about 16.2) was tacked and ready; the groom tossed me up and we were off. The minute we entered the track I felt like Bambi in the headlights. I have never seen so many horses going in so many directions -- and all before the crack of dawn. The first trip out was fairly easy--we just trotted once around and came off the track. And I knew I had a lot to learn.
- There are rigid rules on the backstretch for the safety of horses and riders. For instance, horses can only pass people in the shedrow when the person is on the left side of the aisle. A groom will stop and wait for you to cross to the inside, because he cannot prevent a horse swinging its rear to the outside and kicking you. An aisle has never looked so narrow or a ceiling so low as when a horse is feeling frisky.
- Every horse is walked 30 minutes to cool off after a workout or to give him an outing if he's not going to the track that day.
- All riders must wear the proper safety equipment -- helmets and safety vests -- or they're not allowed on the track.
- "The Gap" is no longer just one of my favorite places to shop. It is also the area on the track where you enter for morning training. Some horses want to duck out whenever they pass the gap, so it's a stretch where you must be on your guard.
- "Lugging-in" or "lugging-out" are like drifting or leaning when you're riding a hunter. The difference is, a horse lugging badly on the track is like a runaway freight train -- very dangerous to everyone.
- Watching racing from the grandstand, infield or on TV doesn't give you a clue as to how fast the horses are really going. When you're on a pony beside a galloping horse, and holding onto it by a thin leather thong looped through the bit ring, then you know.
- "Shedrow" is not just a term for a type of barn. It also means riding a horse around the circular barn aisle. I was lucky enough to shedrow a few of the racehorses. An exercise saddle, which is much bigger than a racing saddle, still feels like a mere scrap of leather with stirrups.
- A track pony is not really a pony. He is a companion horse for high-strung racehorses. My pony was an ex-racehorse who just happened to be afraid of anything white, the winners circle, the grandstand and trash. Ponies are supposed to be steadfast and unflappable. Mine left a little to be desired in the unflappable category; but he did his job and I loved him.
- A rider-less horse on a track is a loose cannon. The call came over the loudspeaker one morning that there was a loose horse going the wrong way (clockwise) on the track and to hold all work. We slowed down to a jog and moved over when we saw him coming, but the rider in front of us was not so lucky. The loose horse ran right into him, and then there were two rider-less horses. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
- Racehorses get as much affection as any pleasure horse. It is not uncommon to see a groom playing with a horse during a down time, or to see a trainer sharing a bagel with a horse.I learned a lot during the few months I rode at the track. I can pick up a galloping horse, and put a lead on a trotting horse. It is a thrill to watch a horse you have been working with make it to the winners circle. And it's sad to see an empty stall when one of your horses has been claimed. Perhaps the best lesson: There is no better way to start a day than to watch the sun come up from the back a horse.