Chillin' out part of winter barn life

Horses, handlers cope with harsh weather

February 20, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Reporter

Slip inside a stable door in the Laurel Park barn area early on a cold morning, and you will find a smell as sweet as a childhood memory. It is the smell of a long-ago winter's day on a country farm, filled with hay, straw and feed made with molasses.

Outside the barn doors, Laurel Park's stable areas are nearly deserted. Trainer Robin Graham is one of the few who have allowed any of her horses outside. At this moment, her lead pony is the last of five horses to have the pleasure of romping in the outdoor pen. The pony is kicking up his heels, enjoying what the humans would call miserable weather.

Year-round racing at places such as Laurel means the horses and their handlers must endure the harsh conditions as they go about their business.

On this day, the wind chill is in the low teens. The racetrack lies silent, covered with snow, sleet and icy rain. The race card canceled - Laurel was one of 12 tracks to call off racing this month because of weather - most of the humans and the horses are inside, where the air is more temperate, warmed by a few heaters in trainers' offices, tack and feed rooms.

And, of course, by the body heat of the horses.

"The horses, they don't mind the cold so much," said groom Juan Ramirez, as he wrapped Sweetnorthernsaint's legs. "Sweetnorthernsaint and You're Bluffing, they love the cold weather."

In fact, the horses seemed perfectly comfortable.

In trainer Mike Trombetta's barn, where every window and door is closed against the wind and cold, they stand in deep wood chips with blue and tan plaid blankets over their backs, content after their morning walks around the shedrow.

"I've never had one tell me he's cold," said Trombetta, but he gives his horses blankets - sometimes two - because he believes in clipping their coats so they can be quickly dried after a workout or a race. "And our grooms spend a tremendous amount of time seeing to their comfort."

`Let the air circulate'

But even in trainer Hamilton Smith's barn, which has open windows and doors, the horses look at ease, free of discomfort, knee-deep in straw, some munching on robust balls of fresh-looking green hay, as they observe the wintry scene of snow and sleet beyond their stalls.

Smith said he is a believer in letting nature take its course.

"I don't enclose my barn, because the dust gets too high," he said. "I let the air circulate. There are no doors on the stalls. I took them all off. I don't use blankets - except on the two or three horses that have been clipped. I usually don't clip my horses. When you do that, you have to use the blankets because you have to give them back what you took away.

"I believe in the horses taking care of themselves, just like they'd do in the fields. But I do bed the straw a little thicker."

When it comes to deciding whether to race, it is an inexact science. There is no set temperature that automatically signals a track will close.

"We look at the forecast a thousand times," Maryland Jockey Club racing secretary Georganne Hale said. "We have a weather service we pay for, but of course, you have to keep checking because as you know the weather forecast often changes. ... We like to make the decision as early as we can to prevent horsemen from shipping their animals."

Safety first

Hale said the first concern is the safety of the jockeys and the horses.

"The fans," she said, "will make it through to the track for the simulcasting even if there is no live racing."

Management also has to keep the track itself in mind. The dirt course can generally handle rain, but freezing rain and sleet are another matter.

"You don't want the sleet to get into the racetrack," Hale said. "Because it is hell to get out. It will freeze below the surface and then when it thaws it is a mess. ... Slipping is really the danger. It gets really sloppy and the horses' hooves go deep into the surface and you don't know if there is ice down there."

Out on the farms, Larry Murray, who trains horses at Howard and Sondra Bender's Glade Valley Farm, and Jim Steele, the manager of Shamrock Farm, agree horses are cold-weather animals who don't need a lot of pampering.

"Here at the farm, most of our horses live outside day and night," said Murray. "In my opinion, they thrive in cold weather."

At Shamrock Farm, Steele said: "Whether they're racing or on the farm, the important thing is to keep their caloric intake up, as long as they're working good, and they'll work like a furnace. They'll make their own body heat. And you have to make sure they drink plenty of water. That's the hard part. Some trainers put a little salt in their food to encourage them to drink and some warm the water a little to take the edge off."

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