Thursday, September 3, 2015

Waking Up Early: Saratoga in the Mornings

Lately, I've been attempting to wake up early. You have to find time to write at some point in the day, and it might as well be five in the morning. Who's with me? No one? Yeah, I'm right there with you. This experiment of mine has largely failed, but it just reminds me of last year around this time when I was at Saratoga Springs, soaking in the wonders of Saratoga Race Course and, more beautiful still, morning works. Since I wasn't able to go back this year, I've been chronicling them on my Instagram feed since the meet started.

July and Kali...is that you?

So let's talk morning works. At Saratoga, horses have a few options. The biggest are the main track that sits directly by the grandstand, and the Oklahoma Training Track across the street. It's important to note that horses at Saratoga are all over the place. They're crossing main roads and they're in your backyard. The town presses up against training barns. It's cozy. It's green. It's beautiful.

Like every other horse sport, days start early. Mist is everywhere, the sun is barely touching the horizon, and coffee is consumed in large quantities. Horses arrive on the track in fleets, all wearing saddle cloths that brand them for a trainer. A WL on a horse's side is a D. Wayne Lukas trainee. MM: Mike Maker. The blue 007 in the white circle: James Bond. (Yes, really.) Some are less obvious. Saratoga puts out a saddle cloth directory every year to help you figure it out, but few horses come onto the track with their name emblazoned on their side. One clocker I stood next to told me that he figures out the horses he times by the saddle cloth and the horse's markings. I didn't ask what he does in the event the horse has no markings. (Tear out your hair in frustration? It seems like the next logical step.)


A fast work along the inside rail.

Just like riding etiquette in an arena, there's racetrack etiquette. Jogging horses (aka trotting horses) and returning horses stay to the outside, and they travel clockwise. Galloping horses go counterclockwise, and breezing horses get dibs on the inside rail. Breezes are fast gallops, near to racing speed, and are timed. Any breeze where the rider is pushing the horse gets a little H marked by the horse's time for handily, or ridden under encouragement. There are all sorts of training programs for horses that dictate how fast and how far a horse will work any given day, but generally there's one fast work per week. The rest of the time is spent walking the shedrow, jogging the track, or galloping what's called a two-minute lick. Stonestreet has an informative blog that covers the subject in more detail here.

Racetracks usually encourage the public to watch workouts. Saratoga offers breakfast at the clubhouse, and if you're at the Oklahoma Training Track you can just walk in and plunk yourself down at the rail. Exercise riders are incredibly gracious people, most of whom are happy to exchange bits of conversation with spectators and pose for photos. They're also out there yelling at each other and talking to their horses, like so many horse people I know (me included). A rider goes whooshing by at a slow gallop, calling for her horse to please change leads. After a second, the horse decides to honor her request and is given a singing thank you in response.

D. Wayne Lukas trainees jogging in company.
Before the Travers Stakes at Saratoga this year, 15,000 people showed up to watch American Pharoah gallop around the main track during morning works. It was thrilling to watch the videos posted from that morning, but I loved my quiet moments at the rail with my camera, getting this insight few people wake up this early to see.

So, waking up early? I should probably keep trying to do it. You have to write and edit sometime, right?

Right.

***
 Mara Dabrishus is an author and librarian at a small college in Northeast Ohio. Horse racing is her first great love, but for the past several years she's ridden dressage, learning how to spiral in, half halt, and perform the perfect figure eight. Her first novel, Stay the Distance, was released in March 2015. For more information, please visit www.maradabrishus.com

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