by Mitzi Summers
In my early 20s I followed the Standardbred Horse Racing Circuit. Most of my time was spent at Vernon Downs Racetrack in Vernon, NY. I also wintered two years at Pompano Park Racetrack in Pompano Beach, FL. I also worked at Roosevelt Raceway and Monticello. It was a way of life then. You lived at or near the track and you worked seven hours a day but it was not really work—at least I never thought so. I loved ALMOST every minute of it.
I got my job with Standardbreds simply by going to the track and asking around to see if any stables needed help. I was fortunate that the first stable I went to was the Billy Haughton Stable.
I did not know it at the time, but Billy was one of the top trainer/drivers of all time.
Billy ran a successful stable and his rules were clear. I remember that I got into trouble almost immediately because of my method of mucking the horses’ stalls. When I attended a Horsemaster Course in England, we “banked” the straw in the stalls during the day. That is, the horses, which were deeply bedded down, had quite a bit of their bedding high along the walls of their stalls to prevent any possible injuries from rubbing their legs on the walls. Then at night we brought down the sides so that the horses were bedded in very thick and warm straw. When I bedded the track horses this way I was accused of hiding soiled bedding along the sides! It just took my explanation and a glance to affirm that the accusation was false, but it is an example of how thoroughly we were monitored in our care of the horses.
At that time, each groom in the Haughton barn was given two horses to care for. That is the time it took to properly care for Standardbred racehorses in training. We had to be at the track ready to work at least by seven a.m. If we wanted to come a little early to get a head start on cleaning we could, but generally they wanted all of the horses fed at the same time to alleviate anxiety.
The horses were fed to individual specifications. Some had supplements. Hay was weighed and usually put in hay nets. Water buckets came first—always dumped and scrubbed twice a day. Feed tubs were scrubbed and put out in the sun to dry after every feeding. Grooming implements were regularly cleaned. Horses were groomed to a shine every day whether they were working or not. Harnesses were cleaned and hung out every day for inspection before being covered. Tack trucks were cleaned and inspected at regular intervals.
We were also responsible for raking the gravel aisles in front of the stalls. We watered them down to prevent dust. Track bandages were manually cleaned in buckets with a washer plunger and hung out to dry. Coolers were always used to cool the horses down after training, so they had to be washed.
The minimum amount of time to walk your horse was 30 minutes. Any groom shortening his horse’s cool out time was subject to firing.
I do not mean to imply that any of this work was demeaning or expecting too much of grooms. It was the rule, it was part of your life, and I did not know anyone who complained about the job. On non-racing days we would all trade off duties so some of us could get most of a day off. In the morning, after feeding and mucking out, our horses were jogged. Sometimes a trainer would take them and “turn them”, trot or pace them in a counter-clockwise direction as they were raced. Occasionally they were needed in the afternoon for a qualifying race, and if they were to be raced that night they would be on a different schedule.
That was the only time the day did seem to be quite long. When a horse won or came in second he was usually tested for drugs. It took no time for the saliva specimen, but I can remember sitting outside the stall used to collect the horse’s urine for hours until they finally accommodated the official. Grooms were not allowed near the horses when this was going on. There were several times when I did not get to my quarters until after midnight. I confess that sometimes I would wish my horse would not win so that I could get done earlier.
If your horse was racing, you would take him to the track hours before his allotted race time. Unlike Throroughbreds, Standardbreds are usually taken on two “trips” before they actually race. They are driven fairly fast, and when they would come back to their racing paddock the groom would have to strip the horse, wash him, partially cool him, and then get him ready for the next trip. Getting the horse harnessed was often fairly laborious.
Even though there are still tracks with Standardbred racing, the tenor of the places has changed with the advent of off-track betting and gambling and lottery machines.
The day-to-day routines and comradery of the tracks such as Vernon Downs and Pompano Park will always be in my thoughts. There are so many humorous memories: I am tall, and the stirrups to the jog cart are adjustable. Usually the tallest trainers took my horse when it was time to turn him. I remember when a new, rather egocentric short trainer insisted on taking my horse. He sat on the cart from the back as we always did, swung around, missed the stirrups, and fell through the cart onto the ground. No one was hurt, and so it really was well deserved.
Another time at Pompano I was getting ready to take my horse to the track to jog and saw everyone coming back, most at a dead run. Wisely, I decided to determine the cause of all the hysteria before going to the track. There was an alligator on the track, wandering in from the nearby swamp! There was actually a number you could call and an alligator cowboy would show up on a four-wheeler. He would lasso the animal and he and another cowboy would deposit him alive and kicking back to the swamp.
I am grateful that I was able to experience this life of a type of vagabond traveler, following your assigned horses from track to track and meeting new people. What a pleasure to remember the horses, and the feeling of belonging to a large community of just good, well-meaning people.
Harness horse memories
by Mitzi Summers