Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Carefully curated musings (um, okay, rants) about the writing life, horses, bitterness and crushing career disappointment. Fun, right?

Archive for the month “November, 2017”

I Stare At Dicks

Yup.  That’s my new job.anime stare

I do a lot of staring at dicks these days.  Not so much vulvas, because those are covered by tails as a rule until such time as a mare decides to lift said appendage and squat.

I stare at the dicks of geldings and colts, and the general nether regions of fillies and mares, because I am now a Test Inspector (if there were truth in advertising, I’d be more honestly designated a Pee Catcher) at Woodbine racetrack.  And you do need to catch the pee, every time.

Equine body language is something you need to be familiar with, if you’re going to work in the Test Barn.  In particular the very specific body language which says, “I’m about to pee”, but also the body language which might telegraph that you’re about to get kicked or savaged by a horse for whom urinating is the last thing on his mind.  (That has actually happened very rarely thus far, because I am working with Standardbreds, who for the most part are nice horses to work with, and the handlers generally warn me if that’s not the case.  I hear the risk factor with the Thoroughbreds is higher.)

penisesSo, yeah, the staring part is something of a necessity.  It’s not perving, though of course with a topic like this I am going to take every opportunity to insert (sorry) tasteless and juvenile JPGs throughout the text … honestly, I kind of have to, because the Test Barn is a security area, so I can’t actually take pictures of what goes on there.  Or consume beverages.  Or bring in my purse.  I start every shift by taking a breathalyzer test, because the results of the drug testing are quite serious and all of the interested parties would like all the Test Inspectors to be Not Shitfaced, Thanks Very Much.

But let’s back up a bit, and explain the OCD approach to urine.  All three varieties of horse racing (Thoroughbred, Standardbred, Quarter Horse) in Ontario are very tightly controlled when it comes to substance abuse.  It’s never really a level playing field because there are always some chemists out there who stay one step ahead of the folks developing tests for every new noxious brew that someone comes up with to enhance a racehorse’s performance … but the regulations are strict enough, and the penalties for a positive test serious enough, that it discourages the majority of players from trying (or at least that’s the hope).  It’s not just a matter of making wagering fair for the bettors; it’s also a matter of health and welfare for the horses.  The illegal performance-enhancing stuff has the potential to take its toll on the equine athletes who aren’t given a vote as to whether to be under its influence. 

Take EPO (erythropoietin), for example — a drug also rather famously abused by long-distance cyclists in the 1990s (oh, Lance, where have all our heroes gone?) —  which forces the body to massively increase its output of lancered blood cells.  That can have a short-term performance-enhancing effect, but it also turns the blood to sludge, which can have lethal consequences, especially for horses on the diuretic Lasix (furosemide).  It can also backfire into severe anemia since the immune system starts to recognize and destroy EPO-laden blood.  EPO is difficult to detect, and a test for its presence in horses wasn’t developed till around 2004, by which point several sudden deaths were suspected, but never proven, to have been caused by it. Once the test became available, EPO more or less disappeared from the backstretch.  (Though let’s not kid ourselves, it was probably just replaced by something newer and even tougher to detect.)

So the nuts and bolts of the drug testing program at Woodbine are this:  at the conclusion of every race, the winner, and one other horse chosen more-or-less at random by the paddock judges, are sent to the Test Barn, which occupies the far end of the Standardbred paddock to which all the horses ship in each afternoon prior to the start of the evening race card.  There, the horse’s handlers are informed of their rights by friendly people like me.  (There’s a little speech we have to recite.)  If the horse has had Lasix administered before the race (that’s another tightly controlled program, and every horse on Lasix has to be so declared in the racing program so it’s transparent to the bettors), then the vet tech on duty does a three-tube blood draw minutes after the race, in order to verify that the amount of the diuretic in the horse’s system is commensurate with the amount that was officially administered (otherwise, some people would be tempted to top up, to the detriment of the horse).   I act as a witness/helper for the blood draw, recording the horse’s freezemark tattoo from the right side of the neck, putting coded stickers on the blood vials, getting signatures from everyone, and packaging up the total sample to send off to a central lab for testing.

Then the handlers are allowed to finish stripping off harness, bathe their horses, give them water, and walk them cool if they choose.  They can’t leave the Test Barn, however, without providing a sample.  So at some point after horses and handlers go walkies, they enter a stall, under my supervision, and then we let the staring commence.  Along with whistling.  Most racehorses are trained to associate a continuous, repetitive whistle from their handlers horse to peewith camping out to pee (or at least that’s what we hope as we’re standing there looking expectant with our cups and sticks). 

The whistling’s kind of annoying, frankly, and I think the horses largely just roll their eyes at it, but it’s part of the drill.

Some horses oblige almost immediately when they’re provided with bedding in which to take a leak (most horses dislike peeing on a hard surface like the wash rack, because they tend to splash their legs).  Some have to have a roll in the bedding first.  Some fidget and paw.  Some walk in circles.  Some lick the walls.  Some eat the bedding.  Some fall asleep.  The routines vary quite a lot.  But the gist is that they have an hour, from the time they check in, to produce enough urine to fill my little cup half-way.  If that doesn’t happen, then the vet tech gets called back in and another blood draw is done.  These horses are used to being pincushions, so the blood draw isn’t that big a deal, but it does mean that the handler has by that point been stuck with my charming company for a solid hour and would probably like very much either to a) get back to whatever other horses she has to handle that night, or b) load up and go home already.  So peeing is always the preference.  

Catching the pee is, in itself, something of an art form.  A surprising number of horses are shy, and will shut down if you make a big move towards them. So you have to sort of sidle up against their flank and sneak-attack them rather than brandish your stick like a scimitar aimed at their tender bits.  Mares have a talent for flourishing their tails in exactly the right way to totally obscure your view of the pee-stream, while reacting very badly to your touching their tails to get them out of the way.  (Mares, of course, are divas and easily insulted.) The other night I had a gelding who had ‘run down’ on his hind ankles and was basically hamburger.  He clearly thought that squatting was gonna be a bad idea, so he did everything in his power to avoid Assuming The Position while trying valiantly to relieve himself. 

We’re not supposed to editorialize as to the condition or soundness of the horses we’re sampling, but I admit, sometimes it’s hard to keep one’s mouth shut (especially when the handler is royally pissed off at the trainer about it and is looking for someone with whom to commiserate).  One of the more common things we can sorta make the handlers aware of, though, is when we get a urine sample that’s very dark:  that usually means the horse has ‘tied up’ to some degree.  

To cut down on the mystery a bit, each horse hasA veterinarian takes a urine sample during the demonstration of a doping test for horses in a stable in Riesenbeck, Germany, 09 January 2013. The German National Anti-Soping Agency (NADA) and the German Olympic Committee for Equestrian Sport (DOKR) demons a card on file in a big, old-school desktop filing cabinet, describing in intricate hieroglyphics his or her past performance in the pee department.  I’m still learning to decipher the codes from the other Test Inspectors, so sometimes they’re not much help … but they do at least give you an idea of whether the horse is a superstar who’ll whizz up a storm for you within two minutes, or whether it’s gonna be a long fucking night, and whether he prefers shavings or straw, being held or being let loose, Bach or Bartok.  We pull the cards as soon as we hear from the paddock judges which horses are going to be sent our way, and add new apocryphal notations afterwards. 

So once I’ve got a sample, it’s a matter of labeling it, sealing it up (the cups are persnickety and tend to leak so you have to put the lids on just so, and I still struggle with dribbles), stripping off your nitrile gloves, getting a bunch more signatures, and filing the horse’s card.  Everything gets triple-checked, and then checked again at the end of the night before the samples are tucked into their coolers to be overnighted to the lab, and one lucky TI each night has to stay after school to do that.  I suspect that newbies get that duty disproportionately often, based on current evidence, but fair enough, I guess.

So, you know, as jobs go, I’ve done worse.  It’s less hard on the body than shoveling shit, and the evening hours suit my screwed-up circadian rhythms.  I’m still fucking up little details here and there, but as it gets to be more routine my comfort zone is improving.  And it might just tide me over, financially, this winter as my teaching gigs start to dry up (either because my students have no indoor arena, have an indoor but are wimping out anyway, or are buggering off to warmer climes for the duration).  Gawd knows the writing biz isn’t showing any signs of rebounding.  So here I am, pee-catching a couple nights a week.  And it’s okay.

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Second Class Citizen, or, Why I Wasn’t at the Royal Winter Fair This Year

citizenSo there’s this big indoor horse show in Toronto every November (for the past 95 years, anyway).  I haven’t been covering it for the past 95 years, obviously, but every year from somewhere around 1989 or 1990, I’ve been there with my media accreditation, providing coverage of the Royal Winter Fair for one (or more) magazine or newspaper or website or another.

That’s a long time to feel like a second class citizen, but every year, this giant, hulking dinosaur that is the culmination of the horse show season manages to find a way to do that to the media faithful which, frankly, bust their asses to drive ticket sales to this monolith.

I think I’ve mentioned before that we swamp-dwelling freelancers don’t expect an avalanche of perks when we attend an event. We’re sure as hell not in it for the swag, and our expectations are exceedingly modest.  I can’t speak for everyone, but in recent years I’ve been attending events like this with the knowledge that I’m more than likely going to lose money on the whole deal, what with assignments having become as common as unicorns farting rainbows, and pay rates plummeting to the level of “exposure” or “we’ll pay you if your article gets shared more than 10000 times”.

We expect — in the case of the Royal Winter Fair, anyway — that we will drive insane distances, several nights in a row, in Toronto rush-hour traffic (second only to Los Angeles on the list of hellish rush-hour scenarios in North America, we’re ever so proud to say), fight tooth and nail for a parking spot, brutalize our feet hiking across kilometres of concrete, get our shins bashed by entitled breeders with double-wide strollers the size of a ’53 Buick Skylark, endure endless line-ups for overpriced food, be harassed by security every time we try to access or leave our designated media seating to line up for the washrooms, and file our stories well past midnight in a room yonks away from the show ring which doesn’t really have any work stations set up to accommodate us (and that’s if some bright spark hasn’t locked the frigging place up while we were getting our quotes in the after-class press conference).

But we at least hope to come away with something worth writing about, and a modicum of respect and appreciation for what we do.

Unfortunately, of all the horse shows I have covered over the past few decades — and there have been a few — I can recall none which treats the media with such utter contempt as does the Royal.  Overall, the show has gotten progressively meaner, cheaper, and less and less welcoming to the public over the past 20-odd years, enough so that most of us who’ve been around that long can wax nostalgic about the good old days, when there used to be comfy couches and (gasp) coffee and snacks in the media centre, when there were tables in the media seating at the show so we could write without having to hunch over laptops on our laps, when there was a media coordinator assigned to assist us in lining up interviews, not obstruct us and treat us as if we were constantly trying to rip off the show.

Of course, those were also the days when there used to be a hella good party going on at the end of most of the show evenings, sometimes with a live band, or at least a pretty good DJ — and since this was the pre-internet age, we generally didn’t have to file on the same night, so we had the luxury of staying for a drink and a dance.  I have partied with some pretty Big Name Riders at the Royal.  A friend of mine once hit Nick Skelton in the eye with a champagne cork.  And I even (ahem) did the Walk of Shame across the lobby of the Harbour Castle Westin early one morning, feeling like a total cliche, after an encounter with a yummy French showjumper.  There, the secret’s out.  (It was many, many years ago, folks …)

Once upon a time, the Royal used to kick off with a media breakfast, wherein we penniless scribes would gather for omelets and mimosas and a little preview of what to expect from the fair that year.  It was all very pleasant and civilized.  These days we can’t even get a cup of coffee … not that I drink the stuff, but sheesh.  (Full disclosure:  I think there might have been a few bottles of water in the media centre, hidden under a table, at one point — be still, my heart.  Not that I was offered any.) 

One of my perpetual pet peeves over the years has been the total lack of regard for the media’s struggles with parking.  There’s an underground parking garage at the Exhibition grounds, which for the duration of the fair has a large designated VIP area which is typically three-quarters empty.  Yet the Powers That Be on the RWF board can’t find it in their parsimonious hearts to offer up half a dozen lousy parking spaces for the media??  I have brought this up on a number of occasions, and have been told every time that it was out of the question.  Instead we fork out $17 (last I was there — it’s probably more now) each night for the privilege of going round and round the outer reaches of the garage, sucking in carbon monoxide and searching in vain for a safe place to leave the truck.  More than once I have ended up missing the class I was supposed to cover.  

ain't nobodyLast year, my fed-up-ness all came to a head.  The previous media coordinator for the horse show, a lovely woman who is a friend of mine and did all she could to accommodate my needs, within the constraints (shackles?) applied by the fair board, was let go under somewhat mysterious circumstances, possibly to do with an excess of honesty … and replaced with a woman who has her own public relations agency and clearly was more interested in advancing her own agenda than the show’s.  We’ve known each other for a couple of decades, at least, and she’s well aware that I freelance for many different outlets.  Yet she re-structured the media accreditation procedures so that, in essence, you had to re-apply for it every evening of the show, with no guarantee that it would be granted, nor that anyone would actually be available to hand it to you when you arrived.  (I spent well over an hour and a half chasing people around the trade fair outside the horse show coliseum on the first night I attended last year, in order to finally secure my pass 40 minutes after the class I was there to cover had concluded.  Fanfuckingtastic.)   In addition to just being a giant pain in the ass, this has the effect of making it very difficult to promise an editor you’re going to be able to deliver anything.

In addition to that, she sent me an email, three days after the show began, to inform me that she had ‘checked’ and that I actually didn’t work for the Chronicle of the Horse, the magazine for which I was writing last year, and that as a result my accreditation had been summarily revoked.

I stared at this email for a while, I admit, before I fired off an indignant reply that said, “Um, you do understand what a FREELANCER does?”  Of course I don’t work for the fucking Chronicle.  I never have.  Frankly, I was absolutely furious:  my entire raison d’etre last year was to find stories the Chronicle thought were worth publishing, and instead of facilitating that, they were playing insulting head games with an established journalist who had been helping get bums in seats for literally decades.  Are. You.  Fucking.  Kidding me??

Eventually they backed down — and at the close of the press conference for the big World Cup class that night, one of the Royal’s minions slunk up to me and asked, semi-apologetically, “We all okay?”  Well, that’s a big honking NO, honey.  We are not.

And here’s the rub:  I didn’t actually find anything last year, in the end, that the Chronicle wanted to publish … because the Royal has become massively irrelevant.  Where once they wanted reports on at least all the major showjumping classes (two Grands Prix, the now-defunct Nations’ Cup and Puissance classes, the Canadian showjumping championship, and various and sundry Table As and Table Cs), the dressage night (once a World Cup qualifier, now nothing more than an invitational demo night for local riders), and the indoor eventing, the interest on the part of American editors has shriveled down to a request for a short (600 words, max) report on just the Wednesday night Grand Prix (which McLain Ward tends to win with frightening frequency) in 2015, and nothing whatsoever on the final night Big Ben Grand Prix or anything else.  In 2016, I was told that the ‘timing wasn’t right’ (the Chronicle is a weekly) but that they would like me to attend and see what sort of feature stories might come out of the fair.  Okay, it was enough of an excuse for me to show up on a couple of nights.

But the thing is:  there really wasn’t much with which to titillate my editor.  I sent her three ideas, and was told: meh, meh, and ‘interesting but we just did something similar to that’.  And that has been more or less the response of all of the other editors, whether Canadian, American, or European, with whom I’ve been in contact over the past couple of years:  the Royal is irrelevant.  

And no wonder, given the choices the fair board continues to make.  For instance, here’s one of the big features of the fair this year:  Goat Yoga.  

FFS.  Really?

Last year, it was bunny jumping.  As in, little courses of verticals and oxers that children (mostly unsuccessfully) tried to persuade their pet rabbits to hop over.  Christ on a cracker.

If there’s something good happening at the Royal, you can pretty much guarantee that the fair board will squash it in favour of something monumentally stupid.  It’s a pattern I’ve observed for over 20 years.  The ‘fair’ portion of the show — you know, the agricultural part, the “once a year, country comes to the city” part, where you give prizes for sheafs of wheat, homemade preserves, butter tarts, and the fanciest Red Island Rock

butter turkey

This is a turkey sculpted from butter.  Pretty much says it all about the Royal.

hen?  Now relegated to a forlorn, far-off corner somewhere near Scarborough, and consisting basically of two misshapen giant pumpkins and an extra-long corn stalk.  The butter sculptures done every year by students from the Ontario College of Art and Design?  Tucked away in a temperature-controlled trailer somewhere beyond the cattle barn where few fear to tread.  They don’t display prize-winning sides of beef or lamb anymore, either — city peeps be squeamish about that sort of thing.  But hey, you can get six fake pashmina scarves for $45 in the trade fair, not to mention an idiotic wooden walking stick with a Psalm burnt into it, (ideal for whacking your fellow pedestrians in the shins) from some insipid, ever-present gang of proselytizing pseudo-Christians.  

Oh, and apple dumplings and potato rosti, which I do legitimately miss.

On the whole, the show is a shadow of its former self.  So much so that the ‘mink and manure’ set doesn’t much bother with the formal wear that used to be de rigueur for the evening classes.  (I think I was one of the only members of the media left who made some effort to observe the ‘black tie’ requirement for the press in the evenings — mostly because it’s a novelty for me to be able to break out the girl clothes and the sparkly heels.  My feet always regretted it acutely, but I do like swishing around in taffeta every now and again.  The few journos from the Toronto dailies who still show up tend to settle for scruffy cords and pilled sweaters.)  

royal people

Royal people.  One of the little joys was always watching for the fashion gaffes … of which there were many.

 

Most telling, however, is the fact that this year, the Royal Winter Fair was scheduled at the same time as the National Horse Show in the US (once held in New York, but moved a few years ago to Lexington, Kentucky).  Back in the day, there was an end-of-season indoor circuit, starting with the International show in Washington, DC, then the National, and culminating with the Royal — and all three had Nations’ Cup classes, which made it attractive for European showjumping teams to fly over and do the three shows.  In 2017, the Royal is such an anachronism that even the American riders (never mind Europeans) don’t care about it enough to schedule around it.  That has to have a serious impact on entries, and not only in the jumper divisions.

The end result is that none of my former markets have any interest in coverage of the

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is stressing this kid out to the point where he/she is undressing ...

Something about these lumpy pumpkins is so profoundly disturbing that children are disrobing.  I don’t profess to understand it.

Royal Winter Fair anymore.  And that makes my attendance there not worth my while, given that (contrary to the belief of the fair’s Powers That Be, which continue to insist I am ripping them off by my mere presence) I stopped having fun at the fair about 15 years ago.  Apart from bargain turn-out halters from the trade fair (which I can now get just as easily on-line, without coughing up $50 in gas, $17 in parking and $27.50 for admission, if I were to pay admission without a press pass), there’s little incentive … and to be treated as dismissively and insultingly as I was last year was the icing on the sagging cake.  

So no thanks to the Royal.  It can circle the drain without me.

 

 

 

 

 

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