by Teresa Genaro
At 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday, February 24, temperatures in the greater Baltimore area hovered in the single digits. Though classified as below normal for the region, they were all too normal in this winter of 2015, when words like “polar vortex” and “Siberian express” and “biting wind” have become unwelcome entries into the vernacular.
Throughout the Mid-Atlantic, race tracks have been forced to cancel cards, so often that on Wednesday, February 25, Erich Zimny, vice president of racing operations at Charles Town, tweeted,
After the weather of the last 2 weeks, I feel compelled to announce that Charles Town is actually racing tonight….
— Erich Zimny (@ErichZimny) February 25, 2015
But even on the days when racing doesn’t happen, training does: even if they can’t breeze or gallop, horses need to be fed and exercised, and barn staff needs to report while it’s still dark out, no matter how cold it is. And when it’s really cold, it’s also really tough to get, and stay, warm.
Thursday, February 19 was one of those days that started frigid and topped out at frosty, with high temperatures in the high teens in the afternoon. Reached by phone that morning, trainer Michael Aro quipped with a wry laugh, “It’s a lovely day.”
Based at Parx, Aro is originally from New England.
“I come from Suffolk and Rockingham,” he said, referring to two now-shuttered tracks in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “Now you’re talking winters.”
So while hardly a stranger to cold, inclement weather, even he is a little daunted by Old Man Winter’s work this year.
“There’s not as much snow, but there’s a lot of cold,” he said. “The tracks are tough.”
“You train, you don’t train; races are cancelled,” he went on. “It’s a battle, and there’s no way to stay warm.”
On the mornings that he’s been able to train, he can try to squeeze into the “overcrowded” trainers’ booth, but often ends up just hanging out trackside, in the cold and the wind. On the really cold mornings, both he and his horses stay back at the barn.
“I don’t believe in taking them out in the winter, when the temperature is zero,” he explained. “Most of the time they stay inside.”
His concern is as much for his riders as his horses, noting how hard it is to be on horseback in the freezing cold.
He’ll also start a little later, waiting to go out until the sun comes up to offer at least a scintilla of warmth, but acknowledged that his weather-related accommodations definitely affect his training program.
“We’re all backed up,” he said. “This throws everything off, especially if you have a young horse. But there’s nothing you can do but wait for better days to come.”
A little further south, at Laurel Park, exercise rider Sarah O’Brien knows all too well what it’s like to try to get on horses when it’s freezing. Speaking last week from her snowed-in home in Glyndon, Maryland, she gave thanks for her boss Dove Houghton’s approach to winter training.
“Dove’s pretty merciful,” said O’Brien. “If the conditions aren’t good for the humans or the horses, we stay inside.”
O’Brien has spent more than a decade exercising horses, both on farms and at the racetrack, and she’s pretty succinct about what it’s like to try to work with a horse on the track during dreadful winter months.
“It’s really impossible,” she said. “We’re just hanging on. We can’t feel our hands, and we can’t function with all the layers we’ve got on. We’re just trying not to fall off.”
Punctuating many of her comments about the extreme weather with a laugh, O’Brien sees a certain absurdity in the lengths that she’ll go to to try to manage both the cold and the horses.
“They feel so much better than we do when it’s cold,” she pointed out. “They’re locked up, and when we can’t train, they have so much energy that they’re much more badly behaved than they are in any other season.”
“It can feel like bedlam when you’re on them,” she admitted. “You know you can’t do anything. It’s complete chaos, just trying to stay out of other horses’ way.”
In trying to navigate between the need to stay warm and the need to be able to control her horse, O’Brien has mostly been taking the minimalist approach. She eschews chaps, preferring to ride in just jeans and maybe tights; tested this winter, she’s relented and on occasion added leggings and inexpensive rain pants.
On her hands, she prefers “super-thin stretchy gloves with a nice grip on them.” In additional to allowing her more control with the reins, she can also warm up her hands by putting them on the horses, whose body heat can permeate the gloves’ thin material.
On her face, she wears a Lycra headband that she’s crafted into a mask. But the bulk of a jacket poses another problem.
“You have all these layers of collars and hoods, and it’s really frustrating because you’re trying to gallop, and your body is down but you’re trying to keep your head back, and all that bulk behind your neck throws your helmet forward into your face.
“That’s the biggest struggle, the helmet constantly falling in my face,” she said energetically, her voice suffused with both frustration and amusement at herself. “I get so annoyed by the end of it that I end up ripping things off.”
Another problem, somewhat paradoxically, is finally getting warm. Once her body warms up and starts to sweat during a set, the cold between sets and during the break is, said O’Brien, “really horrible.”
“You end up having to strip off one or two layers, but it doesn’t matter what you do, you always end up sweating, and then the sweat gets cold,” she said.
Getting too warm and sweating is not, unfortunately, a problem during Sarah’s afternoon work, when she’s part of the pony crew that works with horses on the track.
“We’re OK until it’s about 25 degrees, then we all—horses and humans—start to get cold because we’re just standing there.”
The riders try to add layers to their horses to keep them warm, doubling up quarter sheets when necessary, but working in wind and, especially, in snow, creates trying conditions.
“We’re all getting covered in snow, and the horses’ body heat melts it, so then they’re just wet and freezing. It’s like spraying a horse off and making him stand there,” she said.
In a departure from her morning minimalism, O’Brien bulks up in the afternoon: a full Carhartt suit, two coats underneath that, two facemasks.
And still, she says, “There’s just no way to keep warm. We’re not moving around, we’re not on and off the horse. We do a little bit, then we stand.”
And they stand even more than they do on a regular race day: those shorter post parades that minimize the time jockeys spend exposed to the elements mean less time moving on the horse for the people who pony them to the gate.
“I feel bad for the ponies,” she said. “It’s hard to keep them comfortable; I’m the crazy person deciding to stand out there and do this for work; they’re just there to help us, and we expect them to be perfectly well-behaved even though they’re just like racehorses: they’re going several miles a day, the wind is whipping, and you can’t even turn them out because their paddocks are frozen.”
O’Brien, who has also worked as a groom and a hotwalker, observed that anything that involved water—washing horses’ legs, doing water buckets—was miserable. But she also noted that there is one barn task that will warm a worker up faster than anything.
“Doing stalls,” she said. “It’ll warm you up a lot.”
From appearances only, it would look like the gate crew might have one of the worst jobs in racing: a lot of time outside, their milieu masses of cold metal, their charges energetic animals.
But, said Maryland-based Chris Campitelli, it’s really not so bad.
“We’re lucky: we’ve got a little shack we can go into to stay warm between races, and of course we bundle up for the time we’re outside,” he said.
Like O’Brien and Black, he talked about the hands, and the difficulty of maintaining both dexterity and warmth.
“Some guys don’t like to wear gloves because they like to have that feeling with the horses,” he said. “That can beat up some guys.”
He referred to a recent day on which temperatures dropped as the day went on, and in the last race, as the wind started to pick up, a horse broke through the gate. One of the assistant starters tried to grab the horse, but his cold hands compromised his ability to hold the animal, his hands getting torn up in the process.
“That’s the kind of stuff we’re used to,” he said. “Nicks and bruises.”
He doesn’t think that the horses are any harder to manage, noting that they handle cold much better than humans do, though he did say that the wind can make life difficult for riders, giving the horses a little jolt that can make it harder to stay in the saddle.
“There’s not much that we do differently when it’s cold,” he said. “We get some snow and ice that can build up on the ledges where we stand, and that can be dangerous, so we designate people to make sure that that’s all cleared off.
“And the magnets that hold the latches together can get a solid covering of ice, so it’s very important that they stay clean.”
In his estimation, the jockeys and the exercise riders have it worst.
“They’re going fast, and even when it’s not windy, they’ve got wind in their face,” he said. “I don’t know how they do it. Our job is pretty much business as usual; theirs is just miserable.”
In his 44-year career as a jockey, Tony Black never, he said, missed a winter. He doesn’t ride as much these days—just three times this year–but even if he’s not on a horse, he continues to make his presence known at the track.
“I had a few conversations with riders recently,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that they knew the difference between being uncomfortable in the cold and being unsafe.”
Those jockeys have it better now, he said, than the group with which he came up in 70s, when it was much harder to find warm, lightweight clothing than it is now. Both Black and O’Brien sang the praises of the products of Under Armour, the Maryland-based business owned by Maryland native Kevin Plank, who purchased historic Sagamore Farm as a base his racing and breeding operation.
Still, he said, “You always have trouble with your feet and your hands. If you can keep your hands warm, you have a heck of a shot to make it through the day.”
Like O’Brien in the morning, Black, who’s won more than 5,200 races in his career, said the first one is always the toughest to ride. Once the riding starts, bodies warm up, and between races, riders can take refuge in the jockeys’ room.
Black also gave credit to racing management.
“They get it. They make the game simpler: you get to the paddock as late as you can, you get on the horse as late as you can, you go right to the gate, as soon as you can,” he said. “If you’ve got a high in the 20s and a chill factor in the teens or below, it’s uncomfortable but it’s not unsafe.”
He reserves the “unsafe” label for temperatures that drop below zero, conditions in which riders can’t, he said, keep their hands and feet warm enough, putting them at risk of frostbite and compromising their ability to handle their horses.
In those temperatures, too, the track can’t be properly maintained, and that, Black said, is the main factor that leads to a lack of safety.
“You have to keep it in a condition that is safe enough to run across: no ice, an even bottom, a soft cushion,” he explained. “You can’t have a track that’s balled up and frozen. You can’t ask a horse to run across of that, kicking back clods of frozen rock. You can’t endure that.”
He recalled a race years ago when he wore three pairs of a goggles on a cold day and came back with two of them cracked by frozen clods of kickback.
“The game has changed,” he acknowledged. “We tried then in circumstances like that, and we don’t do that anymore.”
He also pointed to the rise of simulcasting as a factor that has led tracks to be comfortable cancelling a card, as simulcasting offers the opportunity to generate at least some revenue on a dark day.
Black laughed as he acknowledged that his riding style often meant that he was a little more able to put up with winter racing, and to benefit from it.
“I always liked to be on the lead,” he said, “and a lot of times winter tracks have a speed bias, so the horses on the front were tougher to catch.”
The following days brought more cold, and then snow, to the mid-Atlantic region. In other words, business as usual for the people who put on the show, which must go on, polar vortex or not.