Across the misty green of Hialeah's dawn tranquility come occasional volleys of half-serious cussing. "You'll never learn, will you, you stubborn devil!" cries an exercise boy with real exasperation as he tries to keep a frisky young colt from running out on a turn.
A groom leading another youngster carefully down the center of the stretch takes a solid hold on the lead rein as some older horses breeze by. Then he mutters, "Man, you gotta learn some manners like them big boys before I'll ever let go of you."
And so it goes early in the morning—before the bettors come to bet, before the sightseers come to see. The early morning at Hialeah, and, for that matter, the early morning at every race track in the world, is a time for work, for training and for schooling. It is a time for trainers to group near the clockers in the lower grandstand where these professional horsemen compare information learned from experienced eyes and from a hundred steadily ticking stopwatches.
But, possibly more important than anything else, early dawn at Hialeah rings a school bell for hundreds of the year's new crop of two-year-olds who have come from many states, fresh and cocky, for their first lessons in the art and science of thoroughbred racing. Behind them—as yearlings on the farm—are the memories of the first saddle and the first lessons in manners and discipline. Now the classroom is the Hialeah track itself, where the two-year-old of 1955 steps out in surroundings which look as bewildering to him as they once did to such other Hialeah-trained horses as Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Citation, Dark Star and—more lately—Nashua.
Before he hopes to get into his first three-furlong "baby" race, the young winter visitor has lots to learn. In fact, before he learns to run amidst the heavy morning traffic, he will often be made to stand quietly close by the infield rail as dozens of horses breeze by, their exercise boys whooping and cussing and calling their mounts every name imaginable—except the ones officially given them by The Jockey Club.
When the time is ripe, and when the youngsters acquire peaceful running habits and a high degree of responsiveness to the commands of the exercise boys, the two-year-old goes into the last—and often the most exacting—test of all: learning to break from the starting gate. Recently, as Bill Winfrey watched a set of Alfred Vanderbilt's two-year-olds walk suspiciously toward the yawning jaws of this monstrous electrical contraption, he aptly summed up the sad future of many a racer. "If they're no good at the gate, they're not likely to be good at anything."
LESSONS CAN BE PAINFUL
At Hialeah's early-morning starting-gate school, supervised by Starter George Cassidy's chief assistant, Harry Palmer, it usually takes three weeks and some 12 to 14 looks at the gate before a two-year-old is cleared for racing. Sometimes these lessons are learned the hard way—with considerable assistance from such persuaders as whips, ear and nose pinchers and some effective rough language. But eventually, as Teacher Palmer puts it, "even the real spooky ones come around."
After a youngster has walked around the gate, he will be walked through it several times as his rider lends encouraging words. Finally he is carefully locked within the seven-foot by 28-inch barred prison. Following a series of walking starts, it's commencement time: a piercing bell, gates flung open and a mad scramble to "dig in."
GRADUATION TO COLORS
Duck call, a little brown two-year-old filly, is typical of the juveniles trained at Hialeah. To judge from her bloodline heritage (Duck Call is by Devil Diver out of Old Melody 2nd), her Greentree Stable Owners J. H. (Jock) Whitney and Mrs. C. S. Payson may rightfully expect they have another future stakes winner.
But even the well-bred must go to school, and Duck Call had a full course. Then, at the end of preliminary training, Duck Call met her jockey—contract rider Ted Atkinson. Together they went through a final workout, got in a last practice break from the starting gate. The next day came the first race; three furlongs against 12 other first-time starters. Duck Call got a fine start, finally finished second to earn a modest $700 as part payment on a long-time room-and-board bill. Jockey Atkinson's verdict: "She's tiny, but she's as nice as she can be in every way."