A Taste for Gold

If you happen by Robert Gordon’s training barns at Los Alamitos anytime soon, be sure to take some butterscotch candies. With an instinct that defies explanation, Petey, a champion trotting horse, can sense a butterscotch in your pocket at 40 paces. You know he knows it’s there because he starts nodding his head and rolling his tongue expectantly. Petey’s sport is harness racing, in which a driver rides in a small, lightweight cart, called a bike or sulky, to which the horse is harnessed. Horse and driver communicate via a set of long reins, or lines.

Petey is a sleek, black Standardbred, a breed raised for eons to pace and trot. Pacing is faster. A pace is a two-beat gait during which the legs on the same side of the horse’s body strike the ground at once. The trot--which is what Petey does so well--is also a two-beat gait, but the diagonal legs strike the ground simultaneously.

There are more pacers than trotters, about 9 to 1. A horse paces or trots according to the genes handed down by its dam and sire, but it takes more time and effort to “set up” a trotter, as special shoeing is needed to achieve the best gait. Petey’s a “natural” trotter, which means he doesn’t need much in the way of special shoeing. He does sport an aluminum ridge on his shoes for extra grabbing power; it’s not exactly Gucci but it’s nearly as chic.

As a finely tuned athlete, Petey sticks to a strict regime. He jogs five miles most days, meaning he goes out with the jog cart, which is slightly heavier than the racing sulky. He races once a week. About four days before a race, he trains by taking three separate trips out to the track in a single day, at progressively faster times.

Unlike most horses, Petey has two grooms, Ann Monahan and Wayne Marcum, who see to the champion’s every need and whim, including whirlpool baths after sweaty workouts and, of course, his butterscotch candies.

He’s unusual, too, in that he has an extra-long stride, so he’s been provided with a special racing bike and a custom-made jog cart. The attention befits the Los Alamitos track record holder in his age category. Horses are raced in their own age group until they’re 4, and then they’re considered “aged” and all race together; Petey’s 7, so he falls into the latter category.

Petey is getting better as he gets older. Harness horses often have much longer careers than other racing horses, sometimes continuing well into their teens. His grooms say he showed more speed and consistency in the 1985 season--in which he earned about $95,000--than ever before. He’s just getting warmed up this year, and in his first three starts has had two thirds and a photo finish in which he placed second.

Like something out of a Hollywood movie (will the horse win the race and pay off the mortgage?), Petey has a flair for suspense. He likes to pour on the speed at the last minute and kick in the afterburners. He’s a come-from-behind kind of horse, the stuff legends are made of.

He’s a horse worth his weight in gold--or perhaps, little golden butterscotch candies.