Sunday, April 22, 2012

Saratoga: A Happy Place for RaceHorses

Maintaining physical fitness is imperative for a racehorse, so too is exercising the mind, especially in juveniles. Once accustomed to track routines, young horses bounce from stall to track like energetic Little Leaguers running from Mom’s car to the practice field.

However, horses, like kids, will get bored if they do the same thing day-after-day. Science shows mental fatigue takes a toll on performance -- depleting even the most enthusiastic players. A bored horse will begin exhibiting vices from cribbing, weaving, and stall walking to a sour attitude. All work and no play is as tough on our four-legged friends as us.

On the farm, UR horses work 6-days a week, on the 7th they frolic about the pastures from sunrise to dusk, as in today’s video. Training on the farm is a more natural atmosphere for horses than at the racetrack. Lengthy walks to and from gallops, daily turn-out before and after works, and familiarity with other horses are akin to the comfort of home gym.

Other than Fair Hill, most racing facilities don’t have ample space to create paddocks, turn-out, or bridle paths. Rather they are built for efficiency to accommodate 1000’s of horses and people getting on and off the track in about 5 hours on any given morning. That is the hectic pace we strive to prepare our horses to endure; it is a lot the equine mind to handle. Like our kids entering the real world work force -- it is scary, we worry for them, because we love them. The conflict for horse lovers like myself is that we know how much horses need their freedom to be happy and healthy.

In my opinion, the next best place to the farm and Fair Hill, is surely The Oklahoma Training Track in Saratoga.The well-groomed Saratoga ovals provide pristine surfaces to attain the level of fitness necessary for racing, and the refreshing atmosphere rejuvenates the senses.

Training hours, usually between 6AM and 11AM, dictate the protocol trainers must develop to get horses out for work, cooled out, and safely back in the shedrow. Adapting to nearly 23-hours-a-day in a stall is not easy for any freedom-loving animal. Such a life is in visceral denial of their desire to roam the range. Saratoga brings a balance to these opposing forces and even the most super fit equine athletes seem to take a deep breath and truly enjoy the rarified air between Union, East, and Fifth Avenues.

To those on the NYRA circuit, Saratoga offers a reprieve from the logistical demands of functioning at a big city track. It is a mecca, for horses and humans. Every trainer I have interviewed emphatically states, “horses love Saratoga, they blossom, they eat, they train better”. Walking about the grounds, horses can be seen grazing in green spots, sauntering through big pines, and rolling and bucking in little turn-out pens adjacent to their quarters. Nick Zito has been training horses early each spring at the Oklahoma track for more than a dozen years, he told the Saratogian, “we’ve trained Belmont Stakes and Jockey Gold Cup winners here. Now the word’s out. It’s not a secret any more. It’s probably the best training facility in the world.”

Clint and The Wild Girls will soon move from the life they've known for nearly three years on the farm, into their careers as racehorses. They love to run, and I believe they are prepared for the job ahead. Moving to Saratoga will be a big step for them, and the true test of our schooling at the farm.

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