Wherever thoroughbreds race, two worlds exist side by side, the big, blowsy public life of the afternoons on the main track and the quiet, earthy and mostly unseen routine that begins in early morning at the barns. Here is that less visible face of the sport, the backstretch, which recently has seen the biggest change in what was once a man's game since Tod Sloan shortened his stirrups—girls. They are everywhere.
Day on the backstretch breaks before dawn as the lights go on, one by one, in the stalls under the shed rows. The sounds are of water from the overnight buckets splashing on the ground, the barking of a distant dog, the rustling of straw and murmurs of the language that backstretch people use to tell young horses that all is well, that it is just the 'ginning of another day. Grooms, hot walkers and exercisers, under the direction of trainer and foreman, minister from morning until night to the needs of that strongest, swiftest and most fragile of athletes, the thoroughbred racehorse.
Currying Favors And Winning Ways
Hattie Lukes rubs four horses. From six in the morning when she empties the water buckets until five in the evening when she sweeps the hard earth in front of the stalls for the last time, she is their provider, their handmaiden and their solace. Most grooms on the backstretch at the Atlantic City Race Course make $125 a week, but Hattie's boss, Don Combs, a public trainer with a stable of 16 horses, pays her $150 because in his opinion "she's just tops."
Three years ago Hattie had never been near a horse. She was a presser in a dry-cleaning shop in Monmouth, N.J. when she took a day off to visit a boyfriend who was working for Combs. That was the end of her career in pressing. She started in thoroughbred racing the way almost everybody on the backstretch does, as a $75-a-week hot walker. She was stepped on and bitten as she led Combs' horses around and around under the corrugated metal roofs of the shed rows, cooling them out after a morning work. "But then I'd come back the next morning and there they were in their stalls, looking helpless and needing somebody to take care of them, so I stayed."
Hattie is 26 now. She is tall, about 5'9", and slender, but strong enough to lug a bale of hay or shove aside the hindquarters of a 1,200-pound thoroughbred when necessary. Her spirit shines out of her friendly face and reverberates in her laughter. She laughs at everything.
By 6:30 when the hot walkers and the exercise boy arrive, yawning and huddled into their windbreakers against the morning cold, Hattie has the first of her horses, a 5-year-old named Papago, tacked up and ready to go to the track. She has already emptied the water and feed buckets from the night before, separated the wet and dirty bedding straw from the rest and hauled it to the concrete muck pit between the barns. She has removed the leg bandages and wiped the dust from Papago's coat, combed straw from his mane and tail, picked out the mud and muck that have accumulated on the bottom of his feet, saddled and bridled him and led him outside the barn to where Joe Jennings, the exercise boy, and Combs are waiting. Combs gives his instructions—a mile-and-a-quarter gallop on the main track. Hattie gives Jennings a leg up and Papago moves onto the road.
Back in the stall Hattie scatters powdered lime on the floor to keep the smell down, tosses the remaining straw with a pitchfork and shakes out fresh straw on top of that, scrubs out the feed and water buckets, hangs fresh water on the wall and, finally, sweeps in front of the door.
Papago's stall is ready now and Hattie moves on to her next horse to begin the routine again. "Here's Change Purse," she says of a bumptious 2-year-old a few stalls down the row. "He spoils my day. Onetime he bit off the light bulb. Didn't you, Change?" she says softly.
Soon Papago is back and Jennings is off on another horse. Hattie slides the saddle down and Cheryl Anderson, a small blonde hot walker, joins the parade around the barn—eight or nine laps in 35 minutes. "I'm 27. I used to rub them, too," says Cheryl, "but it was too hard for me, lugging water buckets around. I'm just not big enough."
Hattie swabs down Papago with a bucket of warm water and pine oil, soaps his tail and mane and hoses the suds away. She rubs him dry, combs out his mane and tail and, back in his stall again, kneels in the straw to rub his legs with alcohol. Next she wraps his legs in padded bandages and paints his hooves with an oily dressing to keep them from drying and cracking. "You don't need to do this every day, but I do because it makes him look so pretty," she says. She hangs a water bucket and a hay rack on hooks outside the stall door and Papago begins to nibble and watch the world go by. Hattie moves to her other horses, chatting, laughing but always working.
"Warbucks here was laid up three or four months," she says, "but when he came back in Arkansas he won his first race by six lengths and paid $48.60. I only bet our horses, a $6 combination every time one of them runs. I've saved me enough for a down payment on a house in Florida."
At 10:30 Earl Louis, the 33-year-old assistant trainer and stable foreman, wheels around a cartload of oats mixed with sweet feed, stopping at each stall while the grooms scoop out two quarts for each horse, hang the feed buckets and close the screens. One last sweep, a spritz or two from the hose to keep the dust down and then lunch across the road at the Frenchman's Kitchen where a sign warns, "Eat Your Betting Money but Never Bet Your Eating Money."
Afternoon is the slow time. There is still a 4:30 feeding to come and a little more mucking out to do before the horses are bedded down. There is water to be changed and tack to be cleaned and bandages to be washed and hung up to dry and more raking and sweeping, but before all that there is also time to sit in the sun at the end of the shed row and gossip and have "a cool one." There is even time to take a nap on one of the cots in the tack room.
It is 1:27 when Hattie leans back against a wadded-up pillow and pushes her shoes off with her toes. She opens the Racing Form, but before long she rolls over facing the wall. A voice from a loudspeaker breaks the midday silence of the backstretch.
"The horses are approaching the starting gate. It is three minutes to post time."
Hattie Lukes is sleeping.