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BC Journal: A life full of left turns
Marcus Hersh, Oct. 22:
ARCADIA, Calif. - All the time we're writing about owners, trainers, and jockeys. Assistant trainers get a mention if the boss is absent, and exercise riders - if they exercise the best horses - occasionally get their name in print. Spend enough time in a stable, and you might even find cause to refer to a particular groom. But we still haven't gotten down to the very bottom of the totem pole. There, one finds the hotwalker, whose lone tool is a lead shank of leather and metal; who is called upon to hold cantankerous animals still while they are bathed, or shod, or treated by a vet; who will learn, if they practice, to whistle in just such a manner to encourage a horse to urinate on command; and who, like the auto racer, is paid for going around in circles. Here, the aim is not speed, but a gentle cooling-off, post-exercise period for racehorses.
As in so many professions, technological advance has cut down on the hotwalking work force, especially out West, where the automated walking wheel often gets substituted for human ambulation.
Trainer Ron McAnally, who started as a groom way back in the middle of the 20th century, just had made out payroll for his hotwalkers at the end of training hours Wednesday morning.
"Let's see, it's about $550 for every two weeks," McAnally said. "That's not too bad, since most days they're done working in the middle of the morning."
Break the number down, and we get $275 per week, a little less than $40 a day, and probably about $5 per walk.
It is not precisely a job to which one aspires. Go to the stable gate at any racetrack, and you, yourself, have a decent chance of landing work walking hots. Experience is appreciated, not required.
"Dependability, that's the key," McAnally said. "You have some people that stick around for years, but a lot of them are just fly-by-night; here one day, gone the next."
Larry Ramsey fits distinctly into the rarer first category: He has been walking hots for roughly a quarter-century, and has spent years in the employ of trainer Bruce Headley.
"Darrell Vienna said he wouldn't last a week," Headley said, referring to a fellow trainer. "Wanted to fight everybody."
Mr. Ramsey does confess to periodic bouts of fisticuffs, and looks like the type who usually comes out on the right side.
"I have to try and ignore a lot of the people back here," he said. "They can drive you crazy. I've been ruled off too many times for fighting."
Ramsey took one of the Headley stable ponies he oversees from a walker and led him by the halter - no shank needed here - to a stall. The horse, an ex-racer, nickered appreciatively. "He likes me because I feed him," Ramsey laughed.
This writer actually has done time in the vocation, but for only about a week - one of McAnally's fly-by-nighters - driven out by the sheer boredom.
"Yeah, you can get bored," Ramsey said. "It's just routine. You do a lot of thinking. But the horses all got personalities. You've got to talk to them, got to focus on the job."
Let your mind wander with the wrong animal, and things can become vastly more complicated.
"I've been kicked in the head before," said Ramsey. "There's a horse over on the other side of the barn doesn't like me at all - bites me, mauls me."
Before coming to the track, Ramsey worked at a gas station, had a job with an auto upholsterer. He pointed across an open space to where one of his hotwalking brethren was cooling out a horse on one of the small oval paths outside every Santa Anita barn.
"Look at him, going round and round. Turning left - that's all he's doing."
The rise of Rosas
Higher up on the food chain sits Carlos Rosas, who gets more public attention right now than probably any exercise rider in racing because he gallops and breezes Curlin. But not all that long ago, Rosas occupied a much different station in the equine world.
Rosas has worked several years for Steve Asmussen, but he did not come up at the Asmussen family training center, El Primero, outside Laredo, Texas.
"I was working at another farm in Texas," Rosas said this week. "At the time, what I mostly was doing was washing a lot of feed tubs and water buckets. But the guy that owned the farm, he had the Racing Form every day, and I'd look at the photos of the guys galloping horses, and I'd say, 'I want to do that.'"
No wonder Rosas always seems to be smiling, always takes time to answer questions from media types.
"This is something special for me," he said. "This is what I dreamed of doing."
Not a hot walker - a hot jogger
By 11 o'clock Wednesday morning, the sun was way up in the sky and beating down on the San Gabriel valley. Had to be close to 90 by then at Santa Anita. And there came jockey David Flores up the tunnel and onto the racetrack wearing about three layers of shirts and sweatshirts, heavy track pants, and a ski cap. Two laps around the Pro-Ride, and Flores could shed maybe three or four pounds, he said.
"I feel a lot stronger doing this than sitting on the hot box," Flores said. "I used to get weak sitting in the box."
Flores runs every race day; after two dark days, Wednesday exercise is especially necessary.
"I run up in the mountains if I can, but today it's too late," said Flores, and he was off - not trying to beat the heat, but sucking as much of it in as he could.
Jay Hovdey, Oct. 22:
ARCADIA, Calif. - Right on schedule, a Breeders' Cup Week wildfire broke out in the wee hours of Wednesday morning and was still burning 12 hours later near the town of Rancho Cucamonga, about 30 miles east of Santa Anita Park. By Southern California BC Week standards, the 300-acre blaze has a long way to go to challenge the 280,000-acre Cedar Fire of 2003, or even the 16,000-acre Malibu/Old Topanga fire of 1993, both raging as Santa Anita hosted the event. Still, there were Santa Ana winds on the way. . . .
From the Department of Happy Endings: Siphonizer, once owned by B. Wayne Hughes and trained by Richard Mandella, won the 2003 Del Mar Futurity and then finished 10th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park. I remember this because my wife, Julie Krone, had the mount, and because I'm supposed to remember Del Mar Futurity winners. Last Sunday, this same Siphonizer, a winner of more than $300,000, ran for a $4,000 claiming tag and an $8,400 purse at Remington Park (he finished fourth). Becky Witzman, former Mandella assistant and current HRTV producer, sent up a red rescue flag when she saw the entries and got Steve Asmussen's man in Oklahoma to drop in a claim for owner Maggie Moss. Siphonizer will now be heading for the Old Friends retirement farm near Lexington. Thank you, Maggie Moss. . . .
It was kind of hard to swallow when we learned that a bunch of AIG execs treated themselves to $443,000 worth of spa treatments and assorted luxuries at a Southern California resort, just days after they were given an $85 billion bailout by the U.S. government. On the other hand, AIG still sponsors the Shoemaker Award given to the leading jockey of the Breeders' Cup festival, and the company has pledged a $10,000 donation to the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund for the "Ride of the Day" on Friday and Saturday. Wonder if Congress would approve. . . .
This is the 25th Breeders' Cup (XXV for you Romans counting at home). Among those who were involved in the first Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984, now gone from our company, are Fred Hooper, Ethel Jacobs, Leslie Combs, Woody Stephens, Laz Barrera, Don MacBeth, Bill Shoemaker, Gene Klein, Robert Sangster, Dolly Green, Joe Manzi, Earl Scheib, Lou Wolfson, John Mabee, Allen Paulson, Frances Genter, Eddie Gregson, Charlie Whittingham, and Maxwell Gluck, who died 11 days after the event was run.
Believe it or not, there are eight trainers who ran horses in the first Breeders' Cup who have, against all odds, showed up with horses in XXV as well. Neil Drysdale and John Gosden won races that long-ago day. Bobby Frankel, Jerry Fanning, Wayne Lukas, Richard Mandella, Ron McAnally, and Bruce Headley all had runners.
Fanning, 72, may be the most unlikely of those who have transcended the years. He has been all but retired a couple of times, but loyal clients and a few decent horses keep pulling him back. Now, thanks to the brand new $500,000 Breeders' Cup Marathon at 1 1/2 miles on Saturday, Fanning is in the hunt with Booyah, winner of the Hinds Memorial at Fairplex Park.
Fanning could be found late Wednesday morning wrapping things up at his barn, where Jill Bailey, the official vet, was doing a routine examination of an upcoming starter.
"He'll be sound all of his life, doc," Fanning said as Bailey watched the horse trot. "He'll never run fast enough to be sore."
Desert Wine, Fanning's runner in the 1984 Breeders' Cup Classic, ran fast enough to be second in both the 1983 Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He finished fifth in the inaugural Classic, a far cry from the Desert Wine who had beaten John Henry in the Hollywood Gold Cup earlier that year.
"He got sick after running in the Arlington Million that summer and never really got back to his best," Fanning said. "I think he made $150,000 for fifth in the Classic anyway."
Booyah is owned by Lathrop Hoffman, 83, a lifelong racing fan and local auto dealer who is not feeling too well these days. Hoffman missed being there for his first victory in a race worth as much as $100,000 in the Fairplex event, and he'll be staying home again Saturday for the Marathon, leaving it to Booyah and Joe Talamo.
"I bought him as a $40,000 horse and he's turned out a little better than that," said Fanning, who once beat Affirmed with Little Reb. The trainer stepped into Booyah's stall and turned the colt around. "He's bred to go a mile and a half [by Running Stag], and a lot of horses will run a mile and a half. They just don't get that chance anymore. I just hope he runs well for Lath." . . .
Tout of the Day: Asked why he was running the British classic winner Sixties Icon in the lesser Marathon, which is being compared to a Grade 3 event, rather than the more prestigious Breeders' Cup Turf or Classic, trainer Jeremy Noseda offered a lesson in practicality.
"We looked at the races and decided it was best to pick the one he could win," Noseda said. "I don't concern myself with something like the grade of the race. It's a Breeders' Cup event. If he runs his race he should win it, and we'll be thrilled."