Monday, October 31, 2011

What you don't see on the program.

When you train racehorses you are taught to always do a quick check of your equipment before you head out to the track. Most of us never do. You train so many in a day, and day after day, that you get lazy and complacent. I was one who usually did check my equipment anyway. However, not every time. Of course there would come a time when this would backfire. This is the story of just such a time.
I trained a nice little horse named Emersons Paradise, for who I also owned, as I did with all the ones I trained. I had trained and owned him several years before and made a lot of money on him, then sold him. When he was down on his luck I bought him back and fixed him up. Within a few weeks with me was back to his old self.
He was one of those horses that was meant for me. I could make him go because I knew things about him and knew how to make him go. He was also a very sensible horse.
This particular day it was late evening and he was the last one to go out onto the track. I usually left the best behaved ones for last, because you were tired by then and wanted the easiest ones to train and drive. Being late evening there was no one left at the barn. I slapped the equipment on him and off we went to the track. We went along jogging for about 20 minutes, just as we always had. He was automatic pilot when I drove him. I could zone out and not even take much hold of the driving lines. He drove himself. He knew the game and did what was needed on his own, most of the time.
He did have one quirk, which a lot of them had. Whenever you passed by the opening to go off the track, he would veer slightly to test you to see if he could finish his work and go back to the barn. Some were bad about that and you would have to yank them back towards the track. Some would insist on going off and you would have to fight with them. Most, like him, just needed a tug on the right line and they would just keep going until the time you didn't tug on the right line and let them off.
As we approached the opening to the gate, he pulled slightly as he always had. I tugged on the right line and pulled him back towards the track. No big deal. I had done that a hundred times before. As we ambled along down the straightaway I noticed a rabbit ahead. As with any loose animal on the track you had to be careful because a racehorse will shy and veer suddenly when they see that. If you are not careful and prepared when that happens you can get dumped from the cart in a split second. So I took hold of him. It was at this point that I got that sick feeling in my stomach that all trainers get at one time or another in their training career. As I pulled back, the right line was now broken and all I had was the left line. I had dropped the lines many times before, so I knew how that felt. But in those times, other than a few seconds of panic, I always got them back and the horse under control. This was not going be one of those times.
I now had one line of control, a dangling line on the other side that would make its way between the horses legs at some point, a fast approaching rabbit on the track, and a usually calm horse who would be grabbing on and wanting to go because of said rabbit and the fact that I had tensed the driving lines. life and the horses life was now in danger. Being that I was just jogging the horse and it was a hot summer night, I also only had on a t-shirt, shorts, and NO HELMET.  The horse had no leg protection. Anything could happen. I had never had to actually deal with this and I had two choices to make.
First, I could bail when we slowed down and then take my chances with the fall and hope for the best for the horse and cart. That was tempting but I decided, based on this particular horse, to stay on and do my best. He was sensible and on some level I trusted him to look after himself..and me.
Now, what to do? Being somewhat level headed and calm, I decided to just keep driving him with the left line and getting his attention that way. I couldn't slow him down, nor could I completely steer him but I did have some control. He was a very sensible horse so I hoped for the best. But, he was a race horse and his natural instinct was to go as fast as he could when riled up.
We passed the rabbit and now he was at full speed. My biggest immediate concern was the turns. If he kept at full speed in the turns and did not stay straight I was likely to fall over and off the cart. I had to shift my weight to compensate for that. I had learned to do that with another horse I had trained many years ago.
Back when I first started training horses I had two of my own to work with. One was the very sensible and easy to train and drive Edward Seelster. He did just about everything right and I could not do anything with him that would get me in trouble. He was steady, yet unspectacular. The other was Almahurst Loraine. She was probably the most dangerous horse I ever drove. I take that back. Not probably, for sure she was the most dangerous. She was very very big and strong. She was also bred to be a bit headstrong and strong willed. On top of that she was broken and trained as a baby horse by a guy who is known to push them for all they have got long before they are ready to handle that. I bought her as a 4 year old as a prospect who had never achieved her full potential but had showed that potential many times. At the time I had a trainer and he said she was the fastest horse he had ever driven. He also said she was the strongest and hardest puller he had ever driven. All of those things were true. I have trained many fast and headstrong horses in my time, and none have ever approached her on either level.
When he came to me one winter and told me he could not train for me anymore due to his life circumstances I decided to train these two and one other of mine myself.
He shipped them to me and I began with Edward Seelster who was very easy to train as I mentioned before. Figuring how hard could it be, I decided to give Almahurst Loraine (Loraine) a shot. It became apparent as soon as we headed out of the barn and down the pathway to the track that she was going to be a whole lot of trouble.
She pulled hard, and no matter how hard you pulled back it did not matter. If you let her get one step of any momentum, she was gone and you were just a passenger until she was completely out of energy, which was almost never. Then she would rest a bit and then decide to go full speed again. There were times when she would go for a full hour full speed, while most horses could only go for about 3 minutes. Most horses look to go off the track when they see the opening back towards the barn, as I mentioned before. She was not one of those. She looked to stay on the track and keep going until you made her stop. Even when you did get her off, she would go full speed all the way back to the barn then make a super fast stop right before the door. One time I drove her in a practice race and she didn't even stop for the starting gate, like every other horse does. She just banged her head right into it. Even that didn't deter her. As soon as the starting gate drove away she flew out of there and was on the lead in two steps.

 That first time I realized how much trouble I was in and I pulled as hard as I could and got her off the track after just one lap, safe and sound.
I decided to take another shot at training her a week later. This time I was ready for her. Or so I thought. I got her out of the barn nice and slow and down the pathway. I could feel her start to swell up but I had control of her. She walked on to the track and went the first lap nice and easy. I thought I had her calmed down so I let up a bit on my hold of her.
Big mistake.
 Within two strides she hit full speed and we were off. I have never traveled that fast in any vehicle. To sit behind a race horse of her caliber and go full speed on a farm track in a jogging cart is a very scary thing to have happen. No matter how hard I pulled on her, it had no effect. The only thing that could slow her down was to throw her off stride. Even that was only temporary as she could regain  her stride and start again. At some point I just learned to let her go as far and as fast as she could and just stay on. Staying on however, was a major chore. She had no intention of slowing down in the turns, and many times I was inches from falling off the jog cart because I could not balance myself from the speed she took the turns. I did always stay on, and I learned to shift my weight just enough to last through the turns. At times I learned to take her very wide going into the turn then angle her back to the center so it would slow her just a shade and I could stay on.
This early lesson proved very valuable on this day some 8 years later with Emersons Paradise. He was nowhere near as fast or as crazy as Loraine, but he was still going fast and the turns were going to be an issue. I had my left line to keep him on track, and I knew with him he did not have that crazy stamina that Loraine had. We went around about 6 or 7 times and he was getting tired, but still he was confused. Horses are taught to respect the drivers touch and control, so being out there in total control was confusing for him. As he began to settle down, I started to speak to him. He was one of those horses that responded better to sound than to touch. That was one of the things that I knew about him that other trainers didn't.  I always told the drivers in races "Don't hit him with the whip, he won't respond to it". Some horses are like that. He was one of them. At best you could just gently tap him with it and he got the message. Mostly, if you hit the whip against the shaft of the race bike or jogger, the sound of the crack of the whip was what motivated him and instructed him it was time to step it up. I always raced him with ear plugs so that he didn't hear other horses getting slashed by the whip, then told the driver to pull out the earplugs and let him know it was time to get going.
He also responded to commands in this way.  Knowing all of this, I sensed he was tired and I bellowed out "Whoa". He responded by slowing down to a very light jog, then a walk. We were only about 50 feet from the opening to the pathway back to the barn. He was now walking calmly and if I wanted to I could have gotten off the jogger. But I trusted him, so I just stayed on. As he approached the opening, he calmly walked off and made a light jog back to the barn and towards the barn door. He stopped at the they are all taught to do. I got off and he stood there as I led him in and tied his head into the cross ties.
All's well that ends well.
He got quite a workout that day, and when he raced a few days later he went the best race he had ever gone for me. Little did the crowd at the track that day know, but we were just an unlucky break away from not making it to the track at all. That was not on the program.

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