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Racing Returns Saturday, October 4



1600 Exposition

Weekly adventures around the track from Leighton Worthey continue with an education about what happens on race day . . .

Let's go for a name change on the column. Welcome to 1600 Exposition!

Rapidly, I'm learning when you write about sports, a lot of firsts often come your way. It seems a new person is met each time I enter the grounds, and I go home each night a man richer for the education and opportunities I discover. I hope to convey that sense of discovery to those reading and in turn, continue to help you see sides of harness racing that aren't covered nearly as often as they should be.

My latest adventure at 1600 Exposition Boulevard involved making a visit to the Nathalie Tremblay stable last Saturday morning. Nathalie and her crew have approximately a dozen charges in their care and the Tremblay family has been a fixture of California's harness racing landscape for better than thirty years. I enjoyed this close-up look at just what goes on in preparing a horse for race day.

I walked in at about a quarter of nine on Saturday to a very active scene. Two of the Tremblay horses sunning themselves in pens aside the stable rows were first to greet me as I passed. I'm no horseman, but I recognize happy when I see it. At the tack room, Nathalie was working with brand new equipment she'd just received, and while I'd certainly seen headgear for racehorses before, I had absolutely no idea just how many buckles and straps and slots and pulling and tugging and negotiation there was.

As I walked the row and talked with Nathalie and Dave Kuri, the two grooms there that morning, "Stretch" and Chuck, joined us and the four took many turns telling me bits of stories about the moods, needs, and wants of the individual racehorses. Some horses literally should not know that it's race day, for example, and just be taken along on their usual rituals. I know horses are well aware of their surroundings, but I didn't expect zero change in ritual to be a training strategy. Some horses do best when allowed to play a bit before work. Stories of wrapping, not wrapping, feeding rituals, checks, and rechecks. I learned about remarkable ways to take care of basic comforts, such as a mud-like substance with a volcanic ash base used to coat the underside of a horse hoof, with Dave mixing the product up before my eyes. There is a sense of constantly thinking ahead. There is also an impression that every choice great or small is steeped in day-to-day, even hour-to-hour observation. There is no one right way that works for every horse. On more than one occasion, I find myself saying out loud "I never knew!"

Through it all, there was a sense gained that much of training comes from simply having an experienced collection of loyal folks together who are in touch with horses and their given sensitivities. A recurrent theme in the conversations kept going back to continually being mindful of when they "just think something isn't right." Those words are rich with experience, time, and familiarity. When people in racing speak of the horses as their kids or their family, conversations like these add serious credence to the words.

The big moment arrived after we spent about thirty minutes around the shed row. The recently-retired Garland Bot Joefee, known amongst my four hosts as "Joe" was brought forward out of his stall to be the horse to give me my first journey in a jog cart. The horse ambled easily towards the small workout oval at the back of the property. While sitting in a jog cart, you become highly aware of every bump and pit in the ground, every small rock the tires touch. Senses become more alive as you realize an animal much larger than yourself is the real arbiter of affairs. Nathalie began to explain to me the correct use of the lines. As we entered the oval, I felt the same wave of excitement that recalled the day I learned to drive a car. The same chills on my neck, the same "go-time" feeling, yet also a moment in life that you'd like to hang onto with the same grasp you might use to ride a San Francisco cable car. "He'll walk the whole way around if you let him", Nathalie told me with considerable laughter in her voice.

I learned basic controls and was given the lines to start offering directions. Nathalie kept her hands loose on the very end of the lines to be safe. I found right away that the job of driving a horse has a seeming correlation to power steering on a large car, in that a little does a lot. A slight pull back on the right, your horse turns significantly starboard, and the same small tug to the left line sends the horse to port. Making a loud ticking or clucking noise calls the horse to speed up considerably from that walk. This was not an aggressive workout by any means. I'll assume our fastest quarter was forty seconds, and I'm probably being optimistic. It was highly likely at best I gained half of one percent of the skill needed to drive a racehorse well, yet the experience was no less remarkable.

When Joe's coat started to pick up a slight gloss, Nathalie knew that was the indication to bring the workout to a close. "Joe" was easily cooled down and Nathalie and I returned him to his home. Or so you'd think. Joe returned US. Nathalie held the lines without doing any steering to show me what she was sure would happen. Walking calmly the whole way, Joe took us through a lot, along a service road, made a couple left and right turns . . . just sauntering along as if to tell everyone "Yeah, I retired! But I still got it!" We arrived back to within fifteen feet of his stall, the closest possible spot he could take both himself and the cart we rode in on. Pulling off my helmet, I realized this was one rare time in the world of harness racing the word "rode" fits, and I lived it.

This was an experience I will remember the rest of my life.

- Leighton Worthey