Pampered Thoroughbreds Are Bosses in the Barns
They walk where they want, when they want, because on the backside at race tracks, horses not humans have the right of way.
“Comin’ through! Comin’ through!”
A rider or trainer will call out the universal backside warning and just like that, the mass of media, owners, and other horsemen part like the Red Sea as a majestic thoroughbred strolls by.
They are the center of attention, pampered for good reason because this is their show.
Their heads are held high and they almost strut through the Churchill Downs barn area, heading for the track. They are bred for speed and they seem to know they’re special. On the first Saturday in May, they truly are.
Fourteen of them made it to the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby, surviving the treacherous trip from foal to colt. One misstep can end that journey in an instant, and so they are catered to, treated with patience and care.
They are morning creatures, accustomed to working early. And so the thoroughbred community congregates at 7 a.m., to work them and to watch them. This crop had some of the heavyweights of their sport looking after them.
Over at Barn 41, Strodes Creek was led to the track by 81-year-old Charlie Whittingham, who’s trained more than 600 stakes winners. Sharing the barn was Derby favorite Holy Bull, where trainer Jimmy Croll, 74, spoke Stengelese to visitors.
Over at Barn 45, Blumin Affair was watched over by Jack Van Berg, who’s been saddling winners for 41 years. His face is leathery and lined from a lifetime of early mornings spent in the mist of the backside.
Down at Barn 44, Tabasco Cat was cared for by D. Wayne Lukas, led to graze peacefully on the grass, away from the mob. Lukas smiled when he was asked whether the throng of Derby week visitors disturbed the 3-year-olds. “The horses handle it better than the humans,” he said.
Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t.
Spooked by nobody knows exactly what, Tabasco Cat got loose in December and ran down Lukas’ son, Jeff, nearly killing him. Jeff Lukas is still recovering from his injuries and his father gently held the reins of the horse that ran over him.
The backside is a great place for lies and lines. Listen long enough and you come away convinced that every horse not only can win but will win. Hunches are as prevalent as hot walkers. At Barn 45, co-owner Ronnie Lamarque carried a lucky bean in his pocket, blessed by a priest, he said, to ensure an easy trip for Kandaly.
The green-roofed barns at Churchill Downs are home to the horses, some of them expensive 3-year-olds who went to the starting gate for the Derby, some less well-known thoroughbreds. All are treated equally, catered to by their trainers and handlers.
They are the stars of the show, treated with appropriate reverence by everyone around them. They are worked by exercise boys, who follow workout orders religiously, and clocked by trainers who refer to time fractions as “change,” confounding those not familiar with racetrack jargon.
They are led by hot walkers who cater to their every need, feed them, bathe them, wrap them, live with them.
“They are never alone,” assistant trainer Gary Aimonetti said. “There is always somebody with them, 24 hours a day.”
Aimonetti, who works for trainer Larry Edwards and has been at this business for 15 years, said, “Horses are curious creatures. I’m still finding out how much I don’t know. If the horses could talk, training would be simpler.”
Thoroughbreds are cooled out by the same hot walker every day, because they are creatures of habit and trainers aren’t about to upset their routine.
It seems simple enough to keep them happy--three meals a day, the first at 4 a.m., a hot bath after their workout, a cool wrap for their slim, fragile legs and a quiet stall equipped with hay and alfalfa.
Trainers often keep goats and cats around the barns, too, because, well, because thoroughbreds like goats and cats. Nobody knows why. Nobody asks why. This is their show and if they want goats and cats, that’s what they get.