Monday, October 24, 2011

What you don't see on the program. Road Trips.

Racing horses, as in life, is all about timing. You have good and bad streaks.

I had a good run one week with my stock. To my memory, the best week I had in harness racing as a trainer or owner. That came after a very bad run. I went a few months without making anything, when I thought I was setup to do very well.

I had 4 horses racing.  The two on Friday night, Buffalo Wings and Mac Ms R Nukes at Belleville, both won.  I sort of expected that, but you never know. It wasn't a lot of money, $1600 after expenses, but still a nice haul for a Friday night.

I had one horse in to go on Saturday night at Kawartha. Emersons Paradise. He always gave a decent effort, but he didn't always try his hardest to win. He was an honest nice little horse, but he was short on desire. If things went his way, he could win. If he didn't have the luck on his side, I could come home with nothing. I accepted him and that for what it was. Mostly, at the end of each month he made enough to show a decent profit for my hard work to keep him at his best, whatever that was.
This night, I had the top driver at the track, Gord Brown sitting behind him. I knew Gord from around for a few years but he rarely drove for me. He always had his pick of the best ones, and I rarely had the best one in any race. For whatever reason he ended up on mine this time.
It was a perfect summer night.  Warm and breezy, but not too hot. The perfect night to race a horse. Friday night had been the same. I knew I had a decent shot to get some money, but as I said, you just never knew for sure with Emerson.
Gord had never driven Emerson before, but he was always one to ask about a horse before he drove them. That is the true mark of a professional driver. I told him he is perfect to drive, just put him in position and see what he can do. Whatever you do, don't hit him with the whip.  He hated that and would not try one bit if you did, which is the opposite of most horses. He understood and it was on to the race.
Gord drove a perfect race. Had him in perfect position to do whatever he could as they got to the top of the stretch. Even still, you just never knew with Emerson. He might just be content to be in the pack with the other horses.
 This was a soft field, and Emerson was at his best that night, so he had every right to win. Just at that moment he slingshotted to the outside and pulled away from the field.  An easy winner. The weekend was going great. Three starters and three winners. Can't do any better than that.  For this win I got another $2500, so plus the Sunday starter who made about $700 I pulled in $5000. A very nice haul with the band of marginal horses I had at that point.

I had just come back from Sudbury two weeks earlier.  Sudbury had been a disaster. I took four there to race, and I stayed over for a month trying to make it work. It wasn't working. It should have been easier to make money there,  but it was not. My memory is that after expenses I actually lost quite a bit of money. After a while, I just decided to head back home and regroup. The Sudbury stabling experience was over.
It wasn't the first time I stayed over in Sudbury. The previous winter I had stayed over on Wednesday until the Sunday because I had the same horses racing on both days. That went much better and I came home with a good haul that time too. When spring came and Sudbury opened I decided I would try it for a month or two and see how it went. The travel back and forth was killing me and I decided to stay rather than go back and forth. Travel was always the worst part of the racing. It just wore on you month after month,  year after year.
While I stayed those few days in Sudbury that previous winter, other than wait for the second race, there wasn't much to do. I spent most of my days watching the off track racing from all over. I always liked to watch Flamboro because I raced against and knew most of the horses and guys who raced there.  It was really my first small time track I had ever gone to and had always kept my attention. The first horse I ever owned I bought there and raced there.
On this winter day, I noticed a young horse, a 2 year old filly named Pop And Chips. She was nothing special, a so so bred horse with so so ability. But she did show some sire stakes races where she held her own. By December she was still a maiden and was floundering. That particular day she raced so so and earned a cheque.
Being in Sudbury and racing there for a couple of years, I knew what type of horse to bring there to make money with. Racing maidens there was the easiest and best money.  I had just done that the previous summer with Buffalo Wings. Bought him cheap and raced him in a maiden race at Sudbury and made very good money with him all summer and fall there. I took note of Pop And Chips and kept tabs on her for another few months.
When I came back from Sudbury that next summer things only got worse. I raced Emerson at Flamboro on a nice Saturday afternoon and he looked like he should win, but he broke his equipment early in the race and had to be pulled up. It was a horrible run. In racing, as in life, you have periods like that. You just have to keep on trying.  I did.
The next weekend I won all 3 of those races, and was back on the right track. In Emerson's race at Kawartha was Pop And Chips. I had lost track of her while I was in Sudbury, and this was the first chance I had to ever see her live, in the flesh. She was a very big strong horse, and reminded me of Buffalo Wings. Just like him though, she had started out as a young horse with promise, but was very down on her luck at this point. While Emerson had won that race at Kawartha, Pop And Chips had finished last.
The next week I noticed she was advertised for sale and I decided to come train her at the farm she was at, which was only 20 minutes away and see if I liked her.
I did, and I bought her. I had that $5000 and decided to put it to good use. As the summer went on and hit late fall, she made back what I paid for her and then some. She was no champion either, but was a nice solid horse like Buffalo Wings and Emersons Paradise. When Sudbury closed however, it got much tougher. It was the dead cold of winter and if she was to earn me more good money,  I would have to travel with her. This is the story of the incidents that happened with her as I traveled.
With Pop And Chips, it was always something. If it wasn't an equipment issue it was a travel issue. No matter though, through it all,  she made me good money.
Three traveling incidents stick out in my mind with her. On New Years Eve I had her in to race at Kawartha. I thought she had a legitimate chance to make great money and come hell or high water I was going get there and race. I put Mike McNeil on her. I knew Mike from Sudbury where he was the top guy. He had worn out his welcome there and was now in my area and looking for drives. He drove her great and she got third, and could easily have won with a shade more racing luck. He said he really liked her and she should be a good moneymaker for me. I concurred. I had liked her from the first day I jogged her and had high hopes for her. In the long run, she disappointed me, but so many do.
That New Years Eve day at Kawartha she made a $1000. That was the good part. Getting there was difficult but I managed to make it. Getting to Kawartha in any kind of poor weather was always an adventure. The roads were extremely hilly and you had to be careful going downhill and hopeful trying to get back up the high hills in the poor traction on the one lane roads. I managed. Some others didn't.  Many were in the ditch because they didn't take caution. That got me there, but not back home.
By the time I packed up and headed back, the heavy snow had accumulated. My truck was strong,  but had many miles on it. The steep hills were always a chore. As I approached the steepest one I gunned it as fast as I could so I would have some momentum to get to the top. I knew that if I came to a complete stop I was going to be stuck and it would be a long day.
I got most of the way up but the snow was very thick and I started to lose traction and speed. I was now near the top, but it was dicey to see if I would make it. I didn't know for sure, but I was just going to keep full throttle and try. Luckily, as I just seemed to be at a standstill, I had made it. But, not without a price. I had taken a lot out of my old worn out engine, and I knew it. I made it home without incident, but I was later to pay for that journey many times over.
Because she had done well and made me some money, I had paid Pop N Chips into a late closer series for young horses who had not made much money to that point. That was now about to pay off. She had improved quite a bit, but got to race with much weaker horses. It was still the dead of winter and the races were in London, which was 2 plus hours away, but I thought it was worth it.
By then, I had probably raced another 8 or 9 times with various different horses I had in training. The truck was wearing fast, but still running. However, the oil gauge did sometimes go to the red zone, due to the clogging of the filters at that point. I was always carrying extra oil and ready to change the oil on the fly if I thought I needed to.
I was only racing Pop N Chips this day in London, and started early. I had my reservations about going at all. It was a horrible rainy, slightly cold winter day. No snow but there were major traffic jams due to the road conditions. No matter what, I knew I could make good money that night and being brave, I was going.
As I got about 20 minutes away from the farm, the oil light went on and I had to pull over. The only option was to change the oil so I could have a safe worry free trip. I pulled over onto a side street and did that. Problem solved. The roads didn't seem too icy while I was out of the truck, so it appeared I was home free that night. I got back on the highway, but things were moving very slowly. That was no worry for me, as I had lots of time to get there.
Things moved very slow for about half an hour, but suddenly they picked up. I moved to keep up with traffic, but at a safe distance. When you drive a truck and horse trailer, you learn to keep your distance. I did.
As I began to pick up speed I was thinking this night was going to work out. In about 10 seconds, that all changed. The car in front of me stopped abruptly and I attempted to do the same. I had more than enough distance to do that. The problem was, the rain that was underneath the road had now just frozen and I began to lose control. I was about to hit the car in front of me when I turned to avoid him. I missed him, but now I began to spin. It seemed to take forever, like slow motion, but in reality it was probably only a second or two. Miraculously, I missed everyone and didn't collide with anyone. The trailer jackknifed a bit and I had spun around completely at least twice. It was still attached and had not been damaged. I got out and checked the horse.  She was upright, and she was fine. She was a bit nervous, but she was okay.
As I went around to check the trailer, I noticed one tire was completely flat and the rim was bent. A second tire was flat but the rim was fine. I called for help and already 3 police cars were there. I was lucky in that I had spun out into the divide for an off ramp and was out of the way of all traffic. The tow truck came and was able to change off one tire, but not the second one. The hope for the race was now over. I was never going to get there, and considering how much worse the roads could and would get, I was almost happy about that. 
Now, how to get home. Getting the trailer towed would be a tough proposition and very costly. I had that happen before and was not looking forward to it.
One of the policemen suggested I get off the highway and get it fixed.  He advised me that you could drive on just three tires with an attached trailer, as long as you were careful. Considering where I was and how this day was going,  I decided I would try it.
I went very very slow, and it seemed to work. Obviously you had very little balance and could not stop at all fast. So I took it slow.
I was now heading back in the direction home to the barn,  and as I went farther it seemed like a good idea to just keep going, slowly and try and make it home. To change the other flat with the horse out of the trailer, while it was detached, the next day would not be a hard thing for me to do. I went for it.
I drove very slow and stayed on the main roads and took the corners very slowly. After about an hour, I was home. Had to phone my wife and tell her what had happened, but I was safe, the horse was safe and the truck and trailer had no damage. It cost me the race, but otherwise things were okay.
I changed the tire the next day and I was back in business. Two weeks later, I was back in to race in London. It was a nice pleasant March day. No snow. No rain and not that cold. I had a good post and I was sure I was coming home with some good money with Pop N Chips. She raced well and I made another $2000. On the way home the oil light started to go on again. The truck was still driving good and I did have some oil if I needed it, but I decided to just keep going. As I got back to the city, I was only half an hour from home. However, a total blizzard hit and the roads were very snowy and deep, just like that. I had to keep gunning it to maintain my momentum. As I did that,  the oil situation got worse. I decided I had to get off the highway and change the oil. I did barely get off, but it was too late. The damage had been done. Just as I almost got to the gas station, the engine shut off on its own. I put more oil in, and it started back up. I decided to park it and let it cool down, then try to add more oil in a while. It was now 2am and dark. And cold. And snowy. I pulled out of the alleyway and was headed for a gas station to get more oil and a filter. As I got close, I started to hear a grinding and knocking sound. All the oil had been blocked and now the engine was empty of all oil. Just as I got to an intersection across the street from the gas station, the bang came. Metal on metal. The engine completely blew. I was luckily able to get out of the intersection and into the parking lot of the gas station, which was also a donut shop.
I parked and called for a tow truck. The only ones that would come would take the truck, but not the trailer. The horse was still inside, and I had enough hay to keep her busy through the night, but how was I going to get the trailer and her home? I didn't know.
I waited until 6am and as the light of the morning appeared, the tow truck showed up. It took that long because of the blizzard and all the accidents and people who got stuck. I had no choice but to detach the truck from the trailer and leave it and the horse there.
The tow truck driver took me and the truck home to the barn and one problem was solved, for the time being. At the barn, the barn owner loaned me his truck and I had to go back and get the horse and trailer. I did that. It was now 10am. It had been a long day and night. I got her back to the farm without incident and got my wife to pick me up with her car.
A few days later I took the truck to the shop and it cost me $4000 to get a new engine in it. All the money I had made on these trips was now gone,  and all I had to show for it was these stories.
Like I said, the back and forth of shipping horses was always the worst part.

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