Saturday, August 27, 2005

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Winner's Circle

John Velazquez atop Flower Alley approaching the winner's circle at Saratoga.
A few moments earlier, with many enjoying Sam the Bugler's extended Travers Day musical serenade calling the horses to post, the Travers Cup itself was being brought down in advance of the race.
Down, through the box seat area it was carried, past Gov. George Pataki, past Saratoga socialite Mary Lou Whitney and OOOPS... clank it went, tumbling down the stairs after it had slipped out of the hands of its handler. It was a quick recovery however, with neither horse nor man seeming to be any worse for the wear.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Land of a Thousand Horses: The Soundtrack

By Thomas Dimopoulos

Every summer, this town turns into the land of a thousand horses. And since no one has yet stepped forward to issue its soundtrack, consider the following musical selections for your sonic accompanyment next time you rev up the CD burner.

Track 1: You gotta start with Carly Simon. For both its pleasant familiarity and its regionalized lyricism, “You’re So Vain” wins hands-down.
“Well, I hear you went up to Saratoga / And your horse naturally won.” Naturally.

Tracks 2 and 3: Ease in a pair of country rockers like the Cowboy Junkies’ “A Horse in the Country,” and Neil Young’s “Saddle Up the Palomino.”

Tracks 4 and 5: Delight metal-heads with Deep Purple’s “Painted Horse,” then bring it back down with U2’s “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”

Tracks 6 through 8: Build these tracks around classic rockers: George Harrison’s “Dark Horse,” America’s “Horse With No Name,” and The Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare,” will do just fine.

Tracks 9 through 11: Go more modern with Kristen Hersh’s “Whole Heap of Little Horses,” Shakira’s “Poem to a Horse,” and De La Soul’s “Pony Ride.”

Track 12: Punch up Paul Simon’s digitally enhanced equestrian paradise of “One Trick Pony,” which, sings Rhymin' Simon, is about a pony who “Does one trick only / It’s the principal source of his revenue.”

Tracks Number(s) 13, 14, and 15 to consider: There are “Horses” by Rickie Lee Jones, “Horses” by Tori Amos, and “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones.

Track 16: "Mr. Fitz."
OK, so this track doesn't actually exist yet, but there is certainly a songwriter out there with the talent to pen an ode to champion horse trainer 'Sunny Jim' Fitzsimmons.
During his 70-year career, the Brooklyn-born trainer saddled nearly 2,500 winners, capturing three Kentucky Derbys, six Belmonts, 10 Saratoga Cups and a pair of triple crown winners in the process. He also spent a significant amount of time as a resident of the region on the family compound of Fitzsimmonsville,which sits near Saratoga Lake. AND, Jimmy Brelisn wrote a book about him, to boot. So, there ya go.

Bonus Track: Finally, no collection would be complete without the inclusion of Patti Smith’s “Horses,” a tune that smashes together the prose of Patti's BoHo-street rap, with the delicious,
joy-pounding rhythmical refrain that asks:
“Do you know how to pony? Ungh, Like Boney Maroney? Do you know how to twist?
It goes like this, It goes like this...” Yeah. Just like that.

Segments were published in The Saratogian

Saratoga: Sunrise on the Backstretch

By Thomas Dimopoulos

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- The sun rises over Saratoga Race Course like a big orange omelet.
Its light blazes the tree line along Union Avenue and drapes long shadows across the fabled street that leads to the backstretch.

Here, Francisco Zuniga is already at work.
'I come here at 5:15,' said Zuniga, tending to the morning workout, where the work is anything but routine.

'Each day is different,' said the groom. 'First thing, I check the horses. I take the bandages off make sure their legs are OK.'

Zuniga, who has been coming to Saratoga for the past 12 years, looks after five thoroughbreds. They stand in barns on the Oklahoma side of the backstretch.

Zuniga is one of the hundreds of grooms and hotwalkers, exercise riders and others who work here behind the scenes.

Many make their permanent residences downstate, where they are near NYRA's two other racecourses at Belmont and Aqueduct. That's where Zuniga's wife is, along with their two daughters. Their youngest celebrated her fourth birthday during a visit here last week. While some loved ones are able to come to Saratoga on an organized bus trip, for most, the six-week summer means being separated from family.

Times, cultures mingle at work and at play

The work keeps everybody busy during the day. Those looking for recreation during down-time can find a variety of activities on the backstretch, which is its own little town. The backstretch where they work is also where they eat, sleep and play.

Inside the Recreation Hall, there are five pool tables that get regular play; their ornate carvings date back to the war years of the 1940s. A sixth was converted with a special top into a ping-pong table and a jukebox leans against the far wall. English classes are offered twice a week.

Outdoors, there is a basketball court and a soccer field where workers play organized games in teams named Los Astros and Rinconada and compete between the goal posts under the night lights that tower over the field.

If the backstretch is its own town, then Nick Caras is its mayor.

The human resources employee, who has worked for NYRA for more than 25 years, is the go-to guy for everyone on the backstretch.

'If you had a grievance, this is where you settled things,' said Caras, pointing out one spot near the Recreation Hall where a boxing ring stood in the 1950s and 1960s. Times have changed. Today, the green, four-sided structure where the boxing ring used to stand reads 'Authentic Mexican Foods.'

There is a new medical center that is open every day, staffed with English- and Spanish-speaking doctors and nurses, as well as a new health care plan that offers workers more affordable medical insurance than what had existed in the past, Caras said.

Along the backstretch, there are also new offices being constructed for Umberto Chavez. He's the official ordained minister who begins his day seeing workers from backstretch to jockeys at 7 a.m.

'There is no typical day,' Chavez said. 'Every day is something new. A lot of times it is the depression of people being separated from their families. But it is rewarding, absolutely. We deal with the spiritual, the emotional and the social,' he said.

While many things on the backstretch have been converted through time, the area it sits on is historic ground.

Thin white rails wrap around part of the oval where Horse Haven, the mid-19th century track, stood when the race course was called Saratoga Trotting Course.

There are approximately 80 barns that now stand on the site, piled high with mounds of hay and rows of stalls adorned with hanging red plants and fixed with yellow buckets, adding to the scene's natural color.

Here, thoroughbreds are caught in a silhouette of early sunlight, a mist trickling off their torsos in the fog-filled morning.

Inside the adjacent Oklahoma Track, horses are running through their a.m. training. Their riders circle with them around the track, a rhythmic patter of distant hooves and the rider's calming tone: 'OK pappy, OK...'

The summer galas with their sparkling summer cocktails take place a few streets away. On Broadway, a band plays music the backstretch, fast asleep, will never hear.

Greeting the new day

Pamelo Andrade begins her morning around 5:30 with an exercise ritual for the equine. She wears a purple riding outfit that is as brightly colored as the dawn. She works alongside her brother and mother at Saratoga. Her father and two sisters do similar work for a trainer at a racecourse downstate.

Asked what was the first thing she does in the morning, her mother, Francisca Garcia, ponders the question.

'The first thing? Café,' she laughs. They work at the barns until noon. Then there is a mid-day break before returning for a few more hours of work in the late afternoon and early evening.

In addition to working the backstretch, many have second jobs at the main track across the street. They work in food service, as parking attendants or among the cleaning crew.

By 9 a.m., workers are starting to make their way into the main track wearing neatly pressed white shirts and black slacks, for a day of service. Some are already comfortable in their red vests, while others clutch them folded, trying to stave off the day's already sweltering heat. A parade of trucks pulls into the warehouse with goods that vendors will be selling to their customers throughout the day.

Under the roof of the grandstand, all is silent except for the whir of the ceiling fans. At the trackside below, rows of green benches are vacant, with no one yet there to occupy them. Race time is still a few hours away.

Shortly after 11 a.m. Francisco Zuniga begins to make his way across to the main track as well. He has worked as a groom on the backstretch all morning and now heads across Union Avenue, where at 11:30 he starts cooking sausages. It is how he will spend his afternoon when the crowds begin filing in, when the crescendo of human voices rises, when the sound of thoroughbreds race through the gates.

The bugler will sound the call to the post, and jockeys will mount their horses in the paddock. Gamblers will place their wagers, a variety of foods will be cooked, racing programs sold and the horses will run, for those two minutes of a race, like everything in the world depended on it.

Between the rising of the dawn and the parade to the winner's circle of the day's final race, everybody's got a job to do.

Published in The Saratogian

Saratoga Race Course: At The Starting Gate

By Thomas Dimopoulos

SARATOGA SPRINGS - There have always been two things you could count on,
a starting line and a finish line.
From chariots to Chargers, competitors have
been held behind ropes, leaned over chalk lines and awaited the shot of a starter gun
at the beginning of a race.
The 1920s ushered in the technological age and the installation of the mechanical
starting gate at racecourses. It may have made the starting line more fair, but it
also meant a whole new learning curve for horses.

At the Saratoga Race Course, more than a dozen people work on the gate crew,
training and re-training the horses every day in the unnatural act where racehorse
meets machine.
Shortly after the bugler sounds the call to the post and the outriders lead the parade
to the starting gate, nothing happens until head starter Richie Brosseau says so.

'Once they get to the gate, they are our responsibility,' Brosseau said.
'Then afterwards, we are either blamed or congratulated depending on how things went.'

Brosseau and a group of assistant starters work the races throughout the day,
but the practice with horses begins hours prior to post time.
Half the crew works with the horses at a starting gate on the Oklahoma side.
Brosseau leads another group on a far corner of the main track that they call
the seven-eights chute.

'We are here from 7 to 9:30 a.m. schooling the young horses and also working
with the (experienced) ones that need a refresher course,' Brosseau said.
Even veteran horses need some fine tuning from time to time.

'Maybe they have two or three good runs, then something happens that might
scare them. So they come back in for some maintenance,' he explained.

During the actual race, the crew keeps detailed charts. If there is a problem
with a start, Brosseau notifies the trainer that their horse will have to come in
for schooling.
The trainers are pretty good about it, Brosseau said.
From their position at the starting gate, the crew will sometimes see a problem
up close that can't be noticed from the distance. It is all about making the horse
a better competitor. The morning schooling program, brings many equine students.

'We probably see about 100 horses a day on both sides,' said Brosseau, who grew
up around horses in his native Montreal and began his career with the trotters
before moving on to thoroughbreds in 1969. He became an assistant starter
in the early 1970s and recently elevated to the title of the head starter.

'This career is something you have to learn on-the-job,' he offered.

Butch Hocker has been an assistant starter for more than 20 years, and has
been around racetracks, he said, ever since tagging along with his father and uncle
to tracks as a boy growing up near Delaware.

He started out as a hotwalker and worked his way up through the ranks of
the backstretch. A generation later, the job is still as unpredictable as it was from
day one, and requires a certain type of person to do the work.

'It's something you really have to love,' Hocker said. 'As assistant starters, you
can't be the kind of person who worries too much about things.
You can't be scared about getting hurt. You take your lumps and bumps,
dust yourself off and get right back up,' he said.

'Wednesday was a good day, Thursday I had a day off, and Friday was just bad,'
he said, recounting an up-and-down week that saw him both at the top of his game
and nearly trampled under foot during one early morning session.

'I was standing at the gate, and one of the horses had a problem being a little
nervous,' said Hocker, pointing to the green gate where there are 14 stalls
with gates that bang open with the buzzer. On the back, there is a short
V-shape gate that locks the horse in. The chutes are lined with padding throughout
to protect the horses and the riders.

One moment, horse and rider were sitting calmly inside the gate. In a heartbeat,
everything changed.

'All of a sudden, the gate popped open. It had malfunctioned somehow, and we
were both caught off guard,' he said. The horse took off, with its rider awkwardly
bounced in the air. Without time for thought, Hocker grabbed hold of the horse's
strap, which he calls a shank.

'I had a hold of the shank. You're taught to hang on until you can't hold on
anymore,' he recalled with frame-by-frame accuracy: The horse breaking out,
the rider nearly thrown clear, being tossed up into the air, and Hocker holding
on to the strap beneath the horse's legs, while tumbing next to the charging thoroughbred.

'The shank was in a funny spot,' he said. 'I held on until I saw the hind legs.'
A close call, but order was restored.

'I got up and dusted myself off. You just chalk it up and put it behind you.
Eventually, you get to see the horses day in and day out and you get to know
their personalities. For the races, we're there about a half hour before they start,
getting ready. In between the races, we have about 20 minutes, so we'll talk
about anything that may have gone wrong,' he said. 'Then it's on with the show.'

Brosseau's demeanor, is like that of a calming therapist.
Hhe can be found at the starting gate, leading a troupe of uniformed assistants
who wear bright red visors on their baseball caps. At race time, after the tractor
has pulled the gate to its starting position and its engine idles with a soft rumble,
they can be seen directing the horses into the starting gate, one at a time.
One man pulls the thoroughbreds into the stall by the reins;
another secures the swinging gates into their sealed 'V' position from behind.
It is not more than a heartbeat when the last horse is in that the loud ringing of the bell
sets the cacophony for the opening of the front of the gates, and the voice of Tom Durkin
can be heard echoing around the track: 'And ... They're off.'

Barely two minutes later, as all eyes turn to the prize and the celebrations in the winner's circle, there are 14 men at work making their way around the track to the next starting line, far away from the ecstatic joys and grunting agonies of the crowd.

Afterward, they will either be blamed or congratulated depending on how things went. Then they will dust themselves off and get right up to the starting line again and again.

Published in The Saratogian

Sam the Bobble-headed Bugler

By Thomas Dimopoulos

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- They have waited in line by the thousands these
past three years, for Jerry Bailey, Edgar Prado and John Velazquez.
Outside the gates of Saratoga Race Course, now they stand in line
for the man they call Sam.

'It's unreal,' said Sam, the focus of everybody's attention. 'I'm very nervous.
How would you feel if you looked up to see people holding up 30,000 dolls
with your head on them?'

For 40 years, he has gone by the name Sam Grossman.
Racing fans have come to know him as Sam the Bugler. From trackside 'spinners'
to eBay sellers, Sam the bobblehead doll will be on everybody's mind as the
image of the NYRA bugler becomes the fourth in a series of annual promotions
at Saratoga Race Course.

It's been a long journey for the Long Island native, who grew up having
his heart broken during those long years of futility for his beloved Yankees
in the early 1970s. Those were also formative years for the young man, who
began playing the trumpet when he was 6 years old. In 1993, he auditioned
for an unexpected job opening as the bugler at Aqueduct.

'That was just luck. The bugler who was there had won the Pick 6 and quit.
So, I auditioned. I said, 'I'm your guy. Give me the gig.' I had never gone to a
horse race in my whole life, but somehow, I knew I would get the job,' he said.

Married with two children and now in his 13th year of bugling for NYRA,
he lives near enough to Belmont and Aqueduct to make the nightly commute
home when playing at those tracks. The distance to Saratoga may cut down
on family time, but he said the season is a special one.

'This one is our most precious,' he said.
'I'm here for six weeks a year to entertain over a million people who are charming
and polite and quite refreshing. It's like going to a different planet.'

With his red jacket, black hat and long, red horn, he walks a path across
the racecourse several times a day, introducing each race with the call to the post.

The short walk would take about one minute, but the popular bugler gives himself
five times as long for all of the hand shaking, back slapping and picture taking that
goes on during his walk to the winners' circle. Once inside, he turns to face the crowd,
tilts his head back and unleashes the piercing salute that announces the next race.

Standout memories in his 13 years of racecourse bugling include Fusaichi Pegasus
winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in 2000, and Jerry Bailey riding Cigar.
Now, there is a third, as he is forever immortalized in bobblehead form.

There are 30,000 of them, each standing 7-inches tall.

'Hey, at least the nose and the gut are smaller,' he said. He didn't seem to mind.

Published in The Saratogian

Saratoga Race Course: The Outrider

Outriders ensure safety on the racecourse
By Thomas Dimopoulos

SARATOGA SPRINGS -- It's the first thing the children see, their faces
planted against the infield fence and craning their necks to catch a
glimpse of the jockeys and their horses entering the track for a race.

At 10 minutes to post, the sound of the bugler's call fills the air and the lead
outrider escorts the parade of colorful silks onto the track.
Mounted atop a horse and dressed in black hat and boots, red vest, white pants
and shirt, a pair of outriders bookend the procession as the thoroughbreds
are walked onto the turf.

A voice over the public address speakers counts down the minutes
to post and announces that the horses have reached the
starting gate. As the blur of thoroughbreds blaze by, the outriders stand watching
and ready. At a moment's notice, they could be called into duty.

'We're here to help the jockeys in case they're in trouble," explains outrider
Miguel Gutierrez, who has been involved with the horses at Saratoga since 1986.

The outriders' responsibility is the orderly conduct of the horses on the racecourse,
which includes everything from escorting horses to the post at the start
of every race to assist in controlling unruly equines.
They also radio in objections to stewards and, when necessary,
call in medical personnel for people and animals requiring attention.

Three outriders work at any one time and share duties riding the entire day's card,
as well as working at the track in the mornings. They are on duty from the time
the horses enter the track until they return to their handlers at the end of the race.
Then there is the ride back to the paddock, where there are about seven or eight
minutes to spare before escorting the field onto the track for the next race.

"As an outrider, you have to have people who really know how to ride," said Gutierrez,
after securing his horse Diamond Flush in paddock barn No. 13.
"You have to be able to ride your own horse and to be able to get over
to catch another loose horse. You really have to be sharp and to be able to work
with two horses at the same time," he added.

For Gutierrez, it is a six-day a week proposition that extends beyond
the six-week season in Saratoga.

"We work at Belmont and at Aqueduct also," he said. "We work all year around."

His equine background dates to his youngest memories, growing up in the
colonial Mexican city of Puebla. It is a place known for year-round spring-like weather
and dome-shaped church roofs, as well as for manufacturing the VW Beetle.

"When I was a little kid I began working with horses on my grandfather's farm.
When I came to America, I got the opportunity to come to the racetrack and
to continue working with the horses in my life," Gutierrez said.

He has a wife and children, but if the lifestyle is difficult on the family he isn't saying.
And at the age of 40, Gutierrez said the job of an outrider is not as age-specific as the importance of being in shape, mentally as well as physically and up to the task of the responsibility the job requires.

"When you have spent many years riding with the horses, you know right away what you need to do and how to do it," he said.

The electronic scoreboard in the paddock winds down. At 13 minutes to post,
fans opposite the white fences are sizing up their bets.

Gutierrez has already climbed aboard Diamond Flush and waits for the jockeys
and horses to approach. One outrider takes up the rear position,
the other the lead.

Gutierrez, the one up front for this race, escorts the silk flurry of hot pinks,
bright yellows and deep turquoise-draped jockeys aboard their thoroughbreds out
for the next race, as the distant sound of the bugler's call echoes in the air.

Published by The Saratogian