Going the extra mile

Come summer, Maryland horses travel long, hot road to compete

August 13, 2006|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN REPORTER

Before they can run, they have to ride.

That's a fact of thoroughbred life for Maryland's racehorses during most of the summer. Between June 10, when the Pimlico Race Course spring meet ended, and Wednesday, when Laurel Park opens for a brief meet, there has been no live racing in Maryland. So if a trainer wants his horse in a race, it's into the van for a drive from Pimlico or Laurel, most likely to Delaware Park, Charles Town in West Virginia or Colonial Downs in Virginia.

The longest trip goes to Colonial Downs, about 170 miles from Baltimore in New Kent. It's a four-hour ride in a metal trailer where the temperature on this day may reach 107 degrees. The Sun went along for the ride.

It's pre-dawn at Pimlico and the barn lights twinkle through the night. At 5 a.m., groom Juan Sanchez walks Karzai, a 4-year-old dark brown horse, out of the darkness and on to the waiting tractor-trailer. Sanchez, 22, who works for trainer Tim Hooper, hooks Karzai's bridle to thick chains attached to a wall on one side and a pole on the other.

When County Wish boards at Laurel an hour later, there will be about three feet of space between their noses. The air is cool, something of a treat before the heat of the coming day.

To save the $600 to $800 cost of private shipping, the trainers of these horses opt for the Maryland Jockey Club-provided service.

The 45-foot-long trailer is split into two sections with four stalls each, plus a 10-foot storage area. There are eight windows and four large doors, two of them open at the top for airflow and one with a metal grill.

Driver Ron Emery said the trailer "radiates heat like an oven," bringing the temperature inside to about 10 degrees hotter than outside.

"It's not so bad when you're moving, because the air flows so well," Emery said. "But when you stop, it immediately starts to rise."

A last-minute scratch will mean only six horses on this trip, but still it's a tight fit in the back half of the trailer, where four horses have already been loaded. Two grooms will ride back there, sitting on upside-down buckets or standing at the window-like space above the door.

A third, Roman Mendez, 23, who is traveling with Pleasant Beau and Skydigger, will set up his folding chaise lounge in an open stall next to Karzai. Assistant trainer Trina Cefalo sets up her chair in the little bit of open space between Karzai and her horse, County Wish, to take advantage of a breeze.

"We're lucky today," said Cefalo, whose husband, Al, is the trainer and will drive down after finishing the work at their stables. "These horses are good shippers. In Maryland, almost every horse has to ship somewhere sometime, even if it's just from Laurel to Pimlico or Bowie. They're used to getting on and off the vans. If a horse is nervous about shipping, he can run his race on the van."

As Emery, the driver, merges into traffic for the long ride down Interstate 95 south, Sanchez is getting as comfortable as he can. He places a chair in one of the open stalls and bundles his T-shirt over his head to block the light. It must be working - Sanchez starts to nod off.

The morning ride

When you're a groom, making the hot, uncomfortable trip can tie up nearly 20 hours of your day several times a week. Grooms make, on average, about $100 a week per horse, which means in most cases they earn about $600 a week because they care for up to six animals a day. Some are paid more, depending on the trainer, and some receive commissions.

Some grooms may, like Mendez, get an extra paid day off during the week to make up for the long hours. Others, like Sanchez, who is traveling with just one of his horses, still get paid for the other horses that are also their responsibility.

"I'll basically do his job, caring for the other horses while he's gone, but he still gets paid for them," trainer Tim Hooper said. "And I try to make the day after they get back a lot easier on them."

Despite the discomfort and the heat, Sanchez said again and again how much he likes his job. But he also said the repetition wears on him.

"I like it all," said Sanchez, who grew up with horses in Mexico, where his father worked with quarter horses. "But every day it is the same job with no time for nothing. Tomorrow, we go to Charles Town. It will be a different van and we won't leave so early ... but maybe too much the same, the same, the same."

Sanchez's job will not be done until nearly midnight, after returning to Pimlico, giving his horse a post-race medication and then having to wait an hour before feeding him.

Mendez, who works for Tim Tullock, also says the work is long and hard.

"The shipping, with horses and people together, I think it is no good," Mendez said. "It is too much work. Sometimes you get back at 1 or 1:30 in the morning and have to get up the next day at 4:00, then you are too much tired."

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