In 2007 and 2008, I was the communications coordinator for harness racing at the Woodbine Entertainment Group in Toronto. I was on the front lines of the upper echelons of the sport, attending some of the richest stakes races in North America, and it was through that lens that I got to witness a truly extraordinary equine athlete — an Ontario-bred pacing colt named Somebeachsomewhere.
If you have any sort of Standardbred background, the name (however unwieldy — it came from a country song, I’m told) needs no introduction. If you don’t, let me put it in perspective for you: this horse was harness racing’s answer to Secretariat. Not just the horse of a generation, but of a lifetime — and owned by a small collective of car dealership owners and assorted friends from tiny Truro, Nova Scotia. Gawd, it wrote itself.
I watched this colt burst on the scene in Ontario as a two-year-old, winning the Metro Pace like a tornado. Even then, he was a bruiser, almost twice the size and bulk of his juvenile competitors, and his gait was effortless. There was a sense of enormous power that just rippled off this horse.
I watched him win the Pepsi North America Cup, then a $1.5 million dollar mile, the following June. I interviewed his trainer and part-owner, Brent MacGrath, and his driver, Paul MacDonell, a couple of dozen times at least, and wrote about the horse almost weekly, either for WEG (which was riding the wave of his career with everything it could muster, given that Mohawk — WEG’s “summer” track just west of Toronto — was more-or-less Beach’s home oval) or for other publications like the Canadian Sportsman,Trot, orHoof Beats, the US Trotting Association’s magazine.
If you click on either of the links above, you’ll get a complete synopsis of the horse’s career. (There was tons in the Sportsman, too, of course, but that archive, alas, is no longer with us.) He lost only one race — the $1 million Meadowlands Pace — to Art Official, but the effort was so valiant that it only enhanced his reputation. Towards the end of his three-year-old year, MacGrath sent Somebeachsomewhere to Kentucky to the Red Mile — renowned for being the fastest track in North America, if not the world — specifically to chase the world record. Watch how effortlessly Beach paces a 1:46.4 mile to smash the record for three-year-old pacing colts and equal the world record for any horse of any age:
Now, a horse like this almost never gets to race beyond his three-year-old year. He was simply too valuable to risk breaking down on the racetrack. So off went Somebeachsomewhere to stand at studin the United States. Click on that link for stats and video of some of the more prominent of his progeny. None have dominated the sport quite so completely as their sire, but many have been damned impressive (one son, Captaintreacherous, captured the 2013 NA Cup), and as far as we knew, the best was yet to come.
Unfortunately, the news came on Sunday, January 14th, that The Beach had been euthanized thanks to the discovery of large cell lymphoma in his intestine. The stallion was 13, and there had been only a brief mention of health issues in the news prior to this, back in November. To say his death was unexpected is an understatement.
The photos at the top of this post have never seen the light of day before … they’re shots I took of Beach and his trainer and biggest fan and promoter, Brent MacGrath, warming up on the track at Mohawk in the late afternoon, before the 2008 North America Cup. Hard to believe that’s a three-year-old.
Most years, one or two horses emerge in the ranks of three-year-old trotters and pacers to dominate to some degree. But we’re not going to see the likes of Somebeachsomewhere again. I’m grateful I got to be a small part of that ride, which I’ll always consider to be one of the highlights of my media career.
A few more photos I found in my archives, from spring, 2008. The other colt with Somebeachsomewhere is Deweycheatumnhowe, who was just as dominant that year on the trotting side of things. I think I was one of only two photographers to get some shots of the two of them in close proximity. It really was an extraordinary season.
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.)
So, 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.
TakeEPO (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 red 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 with 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 thehorse has ‘tied up’ to some degree.
To cut down on the mystery a bit, each horse has 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.