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 category “Thoroughbred racing”

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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The Yearling Whisperer

The search phrase that apparently brought someone to this blog last week was, “What is Karen Briggs doing now?”cheshire-cat-300x240

I can take a hint.

It’s possible, of course, that the searcher was desperately seeking info on my doppelgänger Karen Briggs, a jazz violinist of colour who toured with (yeek) Yanni.  Or perhaps Karen Briggs, the British judo champion who won numerous European championships in the 1990s.  All three of us were born in 1963, which probably multiplies the potential for Google to scramble us, and who knows how many others — my own occasional self-Googling, undertaken in a now-mostly-futile attempt to keep a lid on my copyrighted material, also turns up an uber-religious American military wife whose interests include crochet and semi-automatic weapons, the drug addict daughter of British actor Johnny Briggs (of Coronation Street fame), and a math professor at the University of Northern Georgia, and that’s just the first couple of search engine pages.  If you want to find me as opposed to them, the best approach is to add the word “horse” to my name, et voila.

2014-yearling-saleLast week, you could also have found me down at the back end of the backstretch of Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, in the barns adjoining the sales pavilion, where I was working the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society’s annual yearling sale.  It’s a once-a-year opportunity to put a little extra cash in one’s pocket, if one doesn’t mind 16 hour days that start at 3:30 in the morning, being barked at and condescended to, and being bashed against the walls by huge, hulking, terrified, and often testosterone-addled yearling Thoroughbreds.  By which I mean, it’s not for everyone.

This was not my first rodeo — I’d worked the sale previously for the well-regarded Park Stud, before I made a random, semi-complimentary remark about former Woodbine Entertainment Group CEO, David Willmot, which evidently rendered me persona non grata with the boss lady.  Teach me to say nice things about people.  Never mind — I hated their forest-green-and-pink polo shirts anyway.  Terrible colours on me.

This year, I’d been recruited, via the Interwebz, by a smaller operation called Willow Ridge Farm, which had 12 youngsters entered in the sale, half of whom they’d raised themselves, and half of whom they had prepped and were selling on behalf of other owners.  Five had been deemed worthy, by virtue of their pedigrees and conformation, of being included in Tuesday’s Select Sale, while the other seven entered the auction ring the following evening in the Open Sale session.  (Select Sale yearlings generally fetch higher prices, though that’s not always the case — two of Willow Ridge’s Open entries went for just about as much as the two Select yearlings they’d pinned their hopes on.)

The drill with working a yearling sale is this:  the horses ship in to the sales facility several days ahead of the actual auction.  Buyers, some serious, some tire-kickers, catalogues in hand (the catalogues having been published weeks in advance, which means the yearlings have been entered into the sale months ago), cruise up and down the shedrows behind the sales pavilion during those preview days and ask to view the babies whose pedigrees they like.  Farms consigning yearlings generally hire on extra hands to help show those yearlings to their best advantage.  The job description includes:

* enough confidence in horse-handling that you are not intimidated by surprisingly large, totally spun baby horses with raging hormones and tenuous (if any) manners

* the ability to muck a straw-bedded stall with ruthless efficiency in the pitch black of pre-dawn, onto a tarp which you then drag the length of the shedrow and tie up in a neat bow (which, depending on the age of the tarp and how torn the corners are, can be an art form in itself)

* an extensive knowledge of making horses pretty with hot towels, brushes, scissors, hoofpicks, sponges, peroxide, and enough silicon hairspray to lube an entire Pride parade

* really long arms, with which to gently but insistently insert Chifney bits (brass rings with halter clips, used for extra control) into the mouths This be a young horse wearing a chifney.  Getting one in said young horse's mouth is a Special Skill.of the afore-mentioned, neck-craning, spun babies, often dozens of times per day (a casual indifference towards having your thumbs chomped helps here too)

* a tolerant stomach which can function on greasy peameal sandwiches and bad tea for five days straight

* steel-toed boots and quick reflexes, the better not to get stepped on, kicked, bitten, squished, dragged, or otherwise humiliated

* a talent for cleaning up tolerably well — the standard uniform for showing yearlings being a polo shirt representing the farm or agency, and stupidly impractical khaki pants, which you change into after you’ve done all the before-dawn dirty work (this was not the first time I’ve used a mane comb to pull the tangles out of my own hair)

* the ability to run on three hours’ sleep for extended periods of time and stay polite about it

* and of course, the proverbial patience of the saints.

The consignors and agents at the sale have a lot at stake — for many of them, the proceeds from the annual yearling sale represent their whole year’s earnings, or nearly so.  (There are two other sales, a Winter Mixed Sale closer to Xmas which offers weanlings, broodmares, stallions, and horses of racing age, and another in the spring for two-year-olds in training, but for most the yearlings are the money-makers.)  Therefore, they are stressed-out, even more so because the racing industry in Ontario took such a kick in the teeth from the provincial government back in 2012 and the last few sales have been, frankly, bloodbaths.  Hence, they are demanding, short-tempered, and also not paying anywhere near what they used to for the labours of the extra hands.  Once upon a time, or so I’ve been led to believe, $250 a day was the usual rate, with bonuses given to the handlers of any horse who sold for a particularly good price.  Hotel rooms close to the track were generally offered as well (not that that has ever been useful to me — since I have horses of my own at home to care for, too, I’ve always had to do the 60 minute drive back and forth).  This year, I was lucky to get $15 an hour, and the number of hours I expected to work, versus what I was actually offered, worked out to about half the earnings I was hoping for.  But in my current state of employment beggars cannot be choosers.

One of the toughest things for me personally at the yearling sale is the condescension.  I have more than 40 years of experience handling horses.  Old ones, young ones, baby ones, studdy ones, rude ones, dangerous ones.  I feel fairly confident in saying that I know my shit.  Now, I get that the Thoroughbred racing world is just slightly off-centre from the world of performance horses, showing and eventing, and I get that everyone has their own preferred way of doing things, from how to spray the Showsheen into a tail to how to attach a leadshank.  But I have played in the Thoroughbred sandbox as well as the Standardbred (ahem, not that that gets me any respect with the TB racing folks, but that’s another stupid story).  And I daresay I’ve made more horses pretty for show than the average backstretch worker.  So being treated as if I’m a newbie who doesn’t have a clue … it chaps my ass, a bit.  Why should I bother wearing khakis that are only going to get filthy, if you’re going to hide me in the back of the shedrow and not let me show the horses?  But hey.  For the space of five days I can bite my tongue and find another tangle-less tail to comb out.  Again.  Even though the poor beleaguered baby horse is just begging to be LEFT ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES FOR THE LOVE OF GAWD.

"Hey Denise.  Look.  Humans coming.  Lots of them." "Oh, relax, Lorraine.  I'm sure it's fine.  They probably just want to feed us."The thing about the yearling sale is that I really, really feel sorry for the poor baby horses, so my priority is making their lives just a little bit less hellish, if I can, for the period of time that they are trapped in a stall in an unfamiliar environment, being poked and prodded and stressed to the max even before they enter the actual sales pavilion, which is noisy and crowded and a whole ‘nuther level of utterly terrifying, ulcer-inducing hell for them.  There are deep and abiding levels of stupid here in the way Thoroughbred yearlings are traditionally shown and sold, levels that make me think there must be a better way.  A couple of months ago, these poor kids were minding their own business in grassy fields somewhere.  Other than having been taught to lead and (sometimes) pick up their feet politely for the farrier, the demands made on them had been minimal, post-weaning.  Then suddenly they get whisked into the barn, confined for long periods of time, groomed and grained and transformed from semi-wild yaklings into some semblance of presentable … and after a few weeks of that, they’re all stuffed into trailers (almost invariably for the first time ever) and hauled into an urban environment where low-flying planes howl overhead about every 90 seconds (Woodbine being about a minute and a half from Toronto’s yearlings2Pearson International Airport and right on the flight path for take-off and landing).  Tragically, it only gets weirder and scarier for them after they leave the sales barn, post-auction.  They’ll move to somewhere new, with a whole host of unfamiliar people, and most will shortly begin their training in earnest:  girths and bits and someone on their backs well before they’ve turned two.

I am emphatically not one of those horsepeople who bemoans the cruelty of the racing industry.  I’m well aware of the economic necessity of things being done the way they are, that the performance horse industry in Ontario only exists in what health it does because the racing industry is there to anchor it, and that the majority of people involved in racing are compassionate horsepeople who love their animals and want to do right by them.  Furthermore, racing is a fantastic proving ground for the horses I myself want to buy and compete.  If they have survived the track with legs and brains intact, they are wonderful prospects for what I want to do.

But still.  For a yearling, it’s a lot.

Even the culture of showing the babies is a bit stupid.  The more popular yearlings in the catalogue might be dragged out of their stalls to be shown to potential buyers dozens of times a day.  Granted, they only have to walk up and down and stand quietly for inspection (the odds of either actually happening varying wildly depending on the colt or filly, what other stupid things might be happening in the vicinity at the time — like, say, an ill-timed garbage truck dumping its load 50 metres away — and the patience of the handler), but there’s this culture that says if you’ve requested to see a horse, you get to stare it on your own, and anyone else who might be interested has to wait his or her turn.  What harm it does to examine the horse at the same time as someone else who’s presumably making his/her own notes in his/her own catalogue, I can’t imagine, but it is somehow important to put the horse through more stress in order to cater to this fuckery.  It’s even worse when you’re asked to “show all” — which for me this year, meant dragging all 12 yearlings out of their stalls in order of their assigned hip numbers (and bloody quickly, too, doesn’t do to keep the client waiting), and then potentially doing it all over again three minutes after I’d finished.  Seems to me you could schedule shows of all the horses you’re offering at particular times, like, you know, a tour at the Ontario Science Centre:  viewings at 12:30, 3:00, and 5:30, and it’s show up then, or be SOL.  Not that the ideas of a lowly stall-mucker are likely to be given any currency.

Some of the yearlings handle it remarkably well.  Some, not so much.  The horses Willow Ridge had raised themselves were, for the most part, well-behaved, though a couple of the colts were typically testosterone-riddled, nippy and rude and one would be unwise to turn one’s back on either of them.  Par for the course.  One filly was sunshine and roses one minute, an ears-pinned banshee when she’d had enough of humanity; she was the one who crowded me up against the wall and tried to drill me in the head, only as I say, not my first rodeo and I got out from under her, amateur that she was.   Another elegant little chestnut filly I’d been warned about, turned out to be a sweetheart as long as you did everything in slow motion with her … a third, dark bay with chrome, just wanted to be cuddled and reassured, and out of the 12 was the one I’d have wanted to take home with me.

The consigned horses who came from elsewhere were all over the map, too.  There was a filly who’d received practically no handling, but plenty of sedatives, most of her life up till that point.  Sadly, she had to remain on chemical assistance during her time at the sale because she started to melt down in withdrawal otherwise; I hope whoever bought her gives her some downtime in a field to get clean before her education begins.  On the other end of the spectrum was a big, burly colt who clearly had been beautifully brought up.  He had lovely manners for his age, wasn’t aggressive in the slightest, took everything in stride, and was quickly nicknamed “the Dude”.  He might not be able to run his way out of a wet paper bag, but he’ll make an outstanding riding horse for someone someday.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Photo by Dave Landry.

Some youngsters learn fast in the pre-sale and sale environment, becoming more and more comfortable with the routine as the days pass, and easier to handle.  Others get, well, fried.  By the time the actual auction rolls around, the professionals take over to get them in the sales ring.  I found out a few years ago that there are actually professional handlers who do nothing but go from sale to sale, being hired to grapple with yearlings in the sales ring and make it look easy.  I had no idea, until then, that this was a thing, and I’m not enthusiastic enough about life on the road to do it myself, but if you like hotel rooms and being jerked around, then I gather you can make decent money doing it …

In the end, a couple of Willow Ridge’s horses sold for the kind of money they’d been hoping for, a few went for disappointingly less, two were pleasant surprises, and three who had reserves placed on them didn’t sell at all.  Overall, however, the sale was up about 50% from last year, which is outstanding news for the industry, even if no-one exactly feels like it can trust the provincial government’s current short-term commitment to the Ontario breeding program.  Once you’ve had the rug pulled out from you once, it’s rather difficult to expect the footing to remain stable ever again …

As for me?  Helped a couple of the new owners load their purchases onto trailers, wished all of the babies good homes and good luck and tried not to think too hard about the alternative — even after five days, I get invested (though it’s difficult to follow their careers when none of them exhausted-by-stupid-peoplehave names yet).  Pocketed my cheque, and staggered home to wash the khakis and sleep for a day and a half.  And I’ll probably do it again next year, because I’m told it’s kinda like childbirth:  if you really remembered what it was like, you’d never do it again, but a year from now the exhaustion and the abuse will have faded from my memory.  It’s possible.

 

 

 

 

A Wynne Lose

Normally, I don’t use this blog to highlight local politics.  How relevant is it going to be, really, to a Gentle Reader in St. Vincent (I got two hits from the island a few days ago — hi guys!) or Croatia (where I seem to have a regular reader or two)?

Here’s why I’m making an exception.  I make at least a percentage of my living, writing for racing magazines.  I cover both Thoroughbred racing and harness racing (which is why I like the banner photo at the top of the blog — Standardbred racing under saddle, while only a novelty thing at present here in North America, strikes me as a fun hybrid that more-or-less sums up what I do.  Neither fish nor fowl, in other words).  I’ve even dabbled in Quarter Horse racing coverage, also a fringe activity here in Ontario, and Trottingbred pony racing in Bermuda (harness racing with the added benefit of cute ponies in lots of outrageous colours!).   I’ve worked at the track, done lots of exercise riding, and most of my own mounts are refugees from the racing industry.  All of which to say, I’m invested.

I’ll make the background to the following article as brief as I can manage.  Some of it you can glean from the article itself:  my home province of Ontario once had a sweetheart deal, a win-win-win, with the provincial government, in which its 17 racetracks accommodated rooms full of pinging, flashing, gurgling slot machines, in exchange for a percentage of the revenue, which they invested in purses for racing.  In exchange for hosting another gambling option which essentially cannibalized its betting revenue, the racetracks got fatter purses, which attracted better quality horses, made it possible to offer world-class stakes races … and the local municipalities which hosted each racetrack also got a share of the cut for infrastructure, road improvement, whatever.

The Ontario government made out like a bandit on this deal, too, to the tune of $1.1 billion a year — about a 70% return on what it gave the racing industry.  This was money which was available to be invested in health care, education, roads, parks, anything our little semi-socialist Canadian hearts desired.

The Slots At Racetracks program came about because most Ontario cities didn’t want slots parlours in their urban centres.  Racetracks, which tend to be located on the city fringes or in rural locales, were ideal — and they already had the electricity, the parking lots, the washrooms (and the property taxes) that the body which governs gambling, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming corp (OLG), didn’t want to invest in.  It was so wildly successful that in the 14 years since it was instituted, Ontario became one of the most envied racing jurisdictions in North America, particularly on the Standardbred side.  The Ontario Sires Stakes program was the envy of the continent, stallions were flocking in to stand at stud here, we had the richest harness race offered anywhere (the $1.5 million Pepsi North America Cup, for three-year-old pacing colts), and basically the whole thing was bad-ass, apart from the fact that actual interest in live racing, from a spectator’s point of view, has been waning for a while.  Empty grandstands have been more the norm than the exception, and yes, that needed to be addressed … but in terms of the quality of the product, the contentment level of the horsepeople, and the health of the breeding industry, there was little to criticize about Ontario racing.

But we have a provincial government which has managed to bury itself in debt, with one snafu after another.  Obscenely expensive power plants which get half-built and abandoned — check.  An air ambulance service which purchases dizzyingly over-priced helicopters which don’t even allow EMTs enough room in which to perform CPR on the hapless passengers — check.  An eHealth system which gives its CEO an outrageous salary and Prince-Rainier-style perks, and delivers practically nothing — check.  I could go on.  So long story short, they’re buried in scandal and up to their yin-yang in deficit, so they have to be seen to be cutting something.  And DSC_4859 crowd4horseracing … well, it doesn’t have very good optics anyway, right?  It’s seedy and corrupt and they break down all the pretty horses, and no-one’s really going to miss it.

So without any consultation with the 55,000-odd people who make a living, either directly or indirectly, from racing in this province, nor with any of racing’s governing bodies, nor anyone in the Ministry of Agriculture who might have known squat about racing, they yanked the rug out from under the industry in February, 2012, by announcing they were cancelling the SARP program and instead would be investing in building huge, foreign-owned full-service casinos in urban locations across the province.  Never mind that the existing five or six casinos in Ontario all lose money.  It’s going to be a much better strategy, and we’re tired of “subsidizing” horseracing to the tune of $345 million a year which is taking money away from hospitals and all-day kindergarten for our wee ones.

It was a shameful degree of spin which elicited howls from the racing industry right from day one.  Suddenly discretionary spending on slots machines, a portion of which went to racing, had become the Ontario government propping up our game.  The word “subsidy” was gleefully seized upon by the mainstream media, and racing instantly became the bad guy, taking flu shots from the tender little arms of babes.  And never mind that by hosting slots parlours, racing contributed billions to exactly those programs, far more than was invested.

Not to mention never mind the grooms who are in the barn by 6 a.m. every day, shovelling shit and hosing down horses and cleaning harness, and then packing up the trailer most afternoons and driving for hours in order to race into the late hours of the night … all for staggeringly less than minimum wage.  Those are the real faces of racing, folks, not the Frank Stronachs of the world.

Anyway, you can imagine the fallout.  Basically, without the SARP, Ontario racing was a dead duck.  The fall yearling sales were a bloodbath.  Stallions who had barely set up shop, packed up and left again.  People started giving horses away right, left, and centre, or shipping the less productive ones for meat.  Cases of neglect multiplied as people ran out of money to feed their horses.  Drivers and jockeys headed south of the border where they could be better assured of making a living.  And Windsor Raceway, once one of the most vibrant harness racing ovals in North America — and a place where I worked as a groom, back in the day — locked its doors and became a ghost town, with others soon to follow.

Fast forward almost a year and the Liberal premier who wreaked all this havoc has resigned and slunk away.  The new leader of his party, Kathleen Wynne, has been in power a couple of weeks.  As she had also taken on the portfolio of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ontario horsemen hoped against hope that she had some interest in rural Ontario and in the entirely avoidable plight of racing industry participants.

So when there was an eleventh-hour announcement late this week, of an “invited media only” press conference to be held at one of Ontario’s racetracks on Friday, with the shiny new premier …. well.

Below is my report of the gulf between dreams and reality.  The decent thing to do would have been to admit the whole plan had been ill-thought-out and a huge fucking mistake, but one can’t expect expressions of culpability from politicians, I guess.

I wrote this piece for the United States Trotting Association, for whom I crank out an irregular column on Canadian harness racing news.  (Search my name on the site if you’d like to read some of them.)  But the USTA preferred to go with the more diplomatically worded press release.  Hence, this article has no home.  Rather than have Friday be a completely wasted effort on my part, I present it here, for what it’s worth.

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FROM THE GREAT WHITE NORTH:  SAME NEWS, DIFFERENT DAY FOR ONTARIO

big-revealWith the surprise announcement on Thursday afternoon (March 7, 2013) of a press conference to be held the following day at Elora, Ontario’s Grand River Raceway, with new provincial premier Kathleen Wynne, the hearts of Ontario horsemen got an unexpected jolt.

Within hours, the rumour mill was hinting that perhaps the ruling Liberals had finally crunched the numbers, and realized that their decision, a year ago, to summarily cancel the wildly successful Slots At Racetracks program (SARP) which had pumped $345 million per year into the racing industry and $1.1 billion into provincial coffers, had been … well, stupid.

Local news outlets reported that SARP was about to be restored, ending 12 months of anxiety, uncertainty, and anger for some 55,000 people whose livelihoods hung in the balance.

Alas, wishful thinking couldn’t make it so.  The news delivered from the well-lit podium on the second floor of the Grand River grandstand, did almost nothing to dispel that uncertainty.

Premier Wynne, who took over the Liberal leadership from the retreating Dalton McGuinty a month ago, also took on the portfolio of the Minister of Agriculture … so the concerns of rural Ontario have clearly been on her mind to some degree.

But she continues to buy into the essential fallacy created by her predecessor, and perpetuated by the three-member “Transition Board” appointed to assess the state of Ontario horseracing after the decision had been made to pull the plug, that racing was not sustainable in this province as it stood, that it was in need of shrinkage, and that the revenue-sharing agreement which was carved out 14 years ago to compensate racetracks for hosting slots parlours, was a “subsidy”.

In fact, Ontario stood until a year ago as one of the most successful racing jurisdictions in North America, if not the most successful.  With an exemplary Sires Stakes program and 17 tracks, many of which operated year-round, Ontario was a racing destination that was the envy of many.

The Liberals have apparently never heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  And a year later, the damage has been done.

Wynne’s speech on Friday, March 8 to the media offered little more than a photo op of her cuddling with two ‘ambassador’ horses from the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society.  In terms of substance, there was little.  She assured her audience that Ontario racing will survive, but will have to become smaller, delivered some platitudes about how rental agreements (to keep the doors of the existing slots parlours open) have been reached with most of the surviving 14 tracks, and that “transition agreements” had been reached with five of them – six, if you count Woodbine and Mohawk as separate ovals (they are both owned by the Woodbine Entertainment Group).

Some of the other Ontario racetracks are still in negotiations, with Rideau Carleton (in Ottawa) and the now-shuttered Windsor Raceway refusing to play ball.

Wynne steadfastly refused to talk money, deflecting repeatedly when asked by the media whether the transitional funding – now truly a government subsidy – would approach previous levels provided by the revenue-sharing agreement.  And the timeframe of three years she provided for these transitional agreements, does nothing for Ontario breeders, who work on a five-year cycle and have been perhaps the hardest hit of all the industry segments.

“We are continuing to work with the transition panel, to integrate racing with the provincial gaming strategy,” she reiterated, to the dismay of most of the racing media who understand that the ill-informed transition panel is a big part of the problem.

“And we want to ensure racetracks have access to revenues from new gaming applications.

“We want to make sure that there aren’t enormous unintended consequences as the industry evolves,” she concluded.

While it’s of some small comfort that the government now recognizes there might be consequences, one can’t help but feel as if they pulled the plug and only now are making a half-hearted effort to save the baby who is circling the drain with the bathwater.  The consequences are here, unintended or not, and Friday’s non-announcement, unfortunately, will do virtually nothing to change that.

Recipe for an Instant Bestseller

Apparently, it is this:  take one downtrodden horse, preferably from humble and/or cruel beginnings.  Tell how he came to be a superstar a) racehorse b) showjumper c) cavalry mount d) ooh, has anyone done a reining horse?

Evoke lots of emoting, dig up a few hysterical (er, sorry, historical — family joke) photos, rake in the cash, pack for the book tour, and wait for the movie rights to be optioned.

This recipe has been working since the days of Anna Sewell, but in recent eons true stories (or, at least, those “based on a true story”, such as Hidalgo, which in actual fact was NOT based on a true story … Google is your friend) have been all the rage.

Even people who don’t ‘get’ horses seem to flock to movies like ‘Seabiscuit’, ‘Phar Lap’, and ‘Secretariat’.  Now, for the record, Secretariat had anything but humble origins, despite the movie’s attempts to play up Penny Chenery’s supposedly desperate state of affairs.  Still, he was pretty damn impressive and it’s a good tale.  I remember getting quite a thrill out of seeing Secretariat win his final start at Toronto’s Woodbine racetrack, when I was 10.  I certainly don’t begrudge anyone retelling his life, however many goofy liberties might have been taken.  From my selfish perspective, anything that encourages interest in racing might indirectly score me another gig or two.

And Seabiscuit … loved the book, loved the movie.  Bear in mind that I usually loathe horse movies, because the researchers can’t seem to get the most basic details correct.  I mean, it’s not like this stuff is all that obscure, people … horses may not be daily transportation in most parts of the world anymore, but riding and driving are still practised by literally millions and millions of yobs worldwide, so you wouldn’t think it would be all that impossible for the writers to find someone with whom to consult, who knows what the parts of a saddle are called, or can tell a bay from a chestnut or a stallion from a mare.  (Sheesh.  Lassie may well have been played by boy collies, but most horses don’t have quite that much hair camouflaging their naughty bits.)  I mean, it’s just cringeworthy.

Did anyone see that movie supposedly about the sport of endurance racing from a couple of years ago?  I could only stomach about three minutes of it on The Movie Network, so can’t remember what it was called, but it featured endurance riders in tweed caps and elbow patches clumsily tally-ho’ing through the woods (because of course they had cast people who couldn’t ride their way out of a wet paper bag) on Quarter Horses with picture-perfect Western pleasure headsets.  (Is peanut-rolling the ideal way to navigate Cougar Rock, I wonder?)

And then there was ‘Sylvester’, which suggested that getting around a Preliminary cross-country course could catapult one onto the United States Equestrian Team (though there was some lovely footage of Kim Walnes and The Grey Goose to make up for that ridiculous conceit) … and maybe worst of all, ‘International Velvet’, that celluloid gem of 1978 which springboarded off the theory that The Pie, of the original National Velvet fame, had produced offspring, when anyone who has ever read the original children’s book (everyone has, right?) knows that The Pie was clearly described as a gelding.  (And, ahem, a spotted one, hence the name, The PIEbald — Hollywood got that one wrong, too, while they were busy casting Liz Taylor and Mickey Rooney.)

Sorry.  I digress.  Loved Seabiscuit.  The movie was (for the most part) well done, to my shock, and Laura Hillenbrand researched her book meticulously, which gave it a depth and colour any number of other horse books have lacked.  Still, once upon a time Laura and I were contemporaries, of a sort … both freelance writers who churned out copy for Equus magazine, though I sincerely doubt I was ever on her radar.   It was simultaneously heartening and disheartening (if you know what I mean, Laura?) to see her career launched into the stratosphere with that book.  You know?  90% ‘Bravo’, but with 10% ‘Wow, I hate you just a little for that’ in the mix.

So now I am reading “The Eighty Dollar Champion”, which is the story of Snowman, a draft cross gelding who was rescued from a knacker’s van and went on to be a top US showjumper in the late 1950s — or as the cover says, “SNOWMAN, the Horse That Inspired a Nation”.  (Well!)

I’m a little too young to have witnessed Snowman’s story, but I knew the basics of the yarn, and it’s one of those things that I am now kicking myself for not having seized on as the basis for an Instant Bestseller.  Elizabeth Letts beat me to it, dammit.  90% ‘Bravo’, Elizabeth.  (I hope I have made up for the other 10% with the link to your website!)

I am only 31 pages in on The Eighty Dollar Champion (hey, I just got it for Xmas, and it’s been a little busy, okay?) so this will not be a book review.  Plenty of other people doing that, I’m sure … heck, to plummet down another tangent, I seem to be the only horsey blogger who hasn’t done a movie review of ‘War Horse’, either, for the simple reason that I haven’t seen it yet.  Though maybe this week I’ll accomplish that, wadded tissues in hand.

If I were to quibble, and yes, I will, I do have to remark that I’ve already come across a couple of eensy weensy things that rankle about the text I’ve perused so far — considering that The Eighty Dollar Champion comes from the Very Considerable Publishing House of Ballantine Books.  Before I was 20 pages in, I spotted the first typo — “story” describing a multi-level building.  Yeek.  (Oh, please, if you don’t know what it’s supposed to be, see earlier in this post.  Here’s a link for chrissakes if you’re really that helpless.)

Soon after, there was another one — draft horse breeds described as Belgian, Percheron, or shire (lower case).  Visions of hobbitom immediately danced in my head, but a capital S surely is required to describe the towering breed of horse with the lovely but high-maintenance feathering on its legs?

And there have been some other little bits of phrasing that don’t quite sit right.  Page 25:  “… and the United States brought home the team silver medal in dressage, the demanding equestrian sport sometimes called “horse dancing”, which was normally ruled by the Europeans.”

Horse dancing?  In what universe?   At best, it might sometimes be compared thusly (see the semi-viral video of  Blue Hors Matine remixed with L’il Kim — bringing dressage to the masses!).  But I don’t believe I’ve ever actually heard the phrase “horse dancing” in general usage.  Small mercies.

Yes, I am being an extraordinarily nitpicky wench, but I am always a copyeditor, and always a horseperson.  None of this, my readers will be swift to note, I blame on Elizabeth, who I do not know but am sure is an extremely accomplished writer to have landed a publishing agreement with Ballantine.  I can just imagine her wincing and reluctantly acquiescing as her non-horsey editors took their vicious red pens to her copy, trying to keep her eyes on the larger prize — a prize which after all, includes bringing the aged Harry de Leyer, long known as the Galloping Grandfather, back into the limelight for a bit, and that’s just fun, isn’t it.

Yes, you have to have a bloody thick skin when you’re a writer.  Gawd knows I’ve had more than my share of editors have their weird and inexplicable ways with my copy as well, and I’ve learned that the important thing is them spelling my name correctly when the invoice goes to Accounting.  So I do not fault Elizabeth for the errors I’ve encountered in this first 31 pages  … I just wonder how many others made it into print in the remaining 298, and have to ponder whether the standards haven’t slipped just a smidge in the non-fiction division at Ballantine.  In which case, you’re up to 95%, girlfriend, purely in empathy.  And I’m still going to really enjoy the rest of the book.

I think my skin is tough enough to survive the Bestseller Experience.  I just have to come up with a heretofore-unexploited Downtrodden Horse with a Heart of Gold.  Preferably, one whom we can insert into an interesting epoch with quaint historical costumes, to add depth to the tale… but not one so ancient that there are no historical records available to dig through (sorry, Bucephalus).  One that Hollywood can have its merry way with as long as they spell my name correctly on the cheque.

One that, post my editorial critique, will no doubt NOT be published by Ballantine.

Suggestions, as always, welcome.  I’ll get straight on it.

Disease of the Week

I write a column on equine health for the Canadian Sportsman, a harness-racing magazine with a relatively storied history (it claims to be the oldest continuously-published magazine in the Great White North, though its mandate, as the name indicates, may have veered slightly from the original concept).

Following the example of the Sportsman, my column has run continuously over the last 286 issues. It would have been more except prior to that (um, 1998?) no-one had asked me.

The Sportsman used to publish on a biweekly schedule; a couple of years ago, it throttled back to every three weeks. Still, that’s a fair number of issues. I know, because I’ve lugged the archives along with me every time I’ve moved, which has been fairly frequently over the past five or six years.

Oh, for an intern who could scan all of these colourfully oversized magazines and save my columns as PDFs on one nice, neat external drive …

Anyway. One of the issues (publishing pun, sorry) with writing an equine health column for nearly 300 editions is that you start to worry about running out of Diseases of the Week to write about. Go ahead, ask me. Colic? Did it. Laminitis? Oh yes. Salmonella, equine protozoal myelitis, rhodococcus pneumonia, equine herpes virus, rabies, palmar foot pain (ex-navicular syndrome), equine polysaccharide storage myopathy, sarcoids, botulism, alopecia …. uh-huh.

The only ones I can’t write about are the ones that are unlikely ever to affect racehorses, which are of course the Sportsman‘s focus. So maladies of draft horses and minis are, sadly, excluded. Awww.

If my latest column strikes you as scraping the bottom of the barrel with “cholangiohepatitis”, well, there might be some small truth to that. But it’s a real disease. Was even in the news this past spring. Look it up. (Hint: Search “Uncle Mo“.)

Fortunately, horses are endlessly self-destructive critters, so there’s almost always something new and weird coming down the pike. Or artery. Or colon. Whatever.

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