'Piggy' braves first lessons Racing: The 2-year-old filly aces her early tests, including entering a makeshift starting gate and turning on command.

June 26, 1998|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Mary Bo Quoit started school this week, a wanna-be racehorse training for her day at the track. The dream is the same for every thoroughbred -- to be the greatest ever.

Welcome to the Secretariat pool.

The odds against stardom are daunting; there is no guarantee Mary Bo Quoit will even race. But her trainer likes what she sees of the Carroll County filly, whose trek from birth to track is being chronicled in The Sun.

"She's super smart and self-assured," says JoAnne Hughes, trainer and part-owner of the 2-year-old, whose barnyard name is Miss Piggy. After four days of lessons, the spirited roan filly has learned to:

Abandon the herd for her handler;

Stand in a makeshift starting gate;

Turn left and right on command; and

Wear a saddle.

Next week, the saddle gets a rider. It's time to put someone on Miss Piggy's back.

"Every day she gets a new teaspoonful of something," said the 49-year-old Hughes, a patient, deliberate trainer who addresses her charges as if they were children.

"C'mon, sweetheart, are you ready to work?" she asks, leading Mary Bo Quoit out of her pasture and into the barn at Liberty Run Farm in Winfield. Two of her comrades call to Mary Bo, who whinnies loudly. "Tell them you'll be right back," Hughes coos, stroking the horse's head. "As soon as you're domesticated."

There's nary a peep from Mary Bo, who sashays along beside her mentor.

"It's a lot like kindergarten," Hughes says of her training regimen. "These horses learn manners, and how to deal with people."

Slowly, surely, a racehorse takes shape. Hughes begins by weaning Mary Bo Quoit from her peers, two yearlings with whom she'd been grazing; a bucket of feed lessens the sting. "They learn routines so fast, especially if they get to eat, too," Hughes says.

She ushers the filly through an obstacle course, familiarizing her with tools of the trade. Mary Bo Quoit is led toward a narrow wooden chute, as cramped as a starting gate. Will she enter? Young horses often balk at confinement.

"Those that go into the gate calmly have a huge advantage in a race," says Hughes. Mary Bo Quoit takes the chute with ease.

Hughes places two bales of hay on the ground, several feet apart, and guides the horse between them, gradually narrowing the gap. She then climbs onto a bale and hovers over the animal, like an assistant starter in the gate, skimming her hand over Mary Bo Quoit's back to desensitize the spot where a jockey will sit.

The filly doesn't flinch. "Good girl," Hughes says. "This is important stuff."

The spell is broken by two horses galloping in a nearby field. Mary Bo sees them, snorts, paws the ground. Predator alert. Hughes slaps her rump, a loud thwack. "Pay attention to ME!" she exclaims. Mary Bo settles down, regains her focus. Ditto, Hughes. "Sweetheart, there will be horses running around us our whole lives," the trainer says. "See, nothing's going to hurt you."

Another lesson, another milestone. The filly learns to turn -- who wants a rudderless racehorse? -- and allows a saddle pad to be secured at her girth.

The saddle itself goes on, once horse bows to handler -- a benchmark in a thoroughbred's life. To establish dominance, Hughes leads Mary Bo Quoit into a large round pen and herds her left and right, over and over, with the help of a lunge whip that she snaps in the air. The hectic drill lasts 30 minutes, until the animal drops her head, licks her chops and cocks an ear toward the trainer -- submission signs, all.

Hughes turns abruptly, her back to the horse, who sidles up behind her in compliance. The trainer is Alpha mare now.

"Are you going to let me lead the herd? Good girl," Hughes whispers, placing the saddle on her back. Mary Bo Quoit circles the pen several times, making no effort to dislodge it.

Elated, Hughes removes the saddle and treats the sweating filly to her first bath, hosing her haunches with a stream of cold water.

"Call it part of life's little rewards," the trainer says, watching her protege slurp from the nozzle. "To her, it's a horse's martini."

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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