In the annals of strange summer jobs held by teenage girls my high school stint as a “hot walker” at the racetrack from age 16-19 must rank near the top. It’s not unusual for girls to go through horse-crazy phases. My particular version of it, however, was perhaps less horse than a little bit crazy.
When I was 16, through a specific sort of teenage perseverance (which mostly involved ignoring concerns about whether the backside of the racetrack was an appropriate place for a teenage girl to spend the summer) I landed a job “walking hots,” (translation: walking hot racehorses till they cooled down from their workout) the lowest rung on the racetrack ladder, and easily the most fun job I’ve ever held.
Up until that point, my childhood devotion to the sport of horse racing owed itself to the rather strange combinations of Walter Farley’s ‘Black Stallion’ series, which I collected religiously, and the back pages of my father’s Sports Illustrated, which succeeded in firmly planting those stories in real life. Other 11 year old girls I knew, when they obsessed over sports at all, usually harbored dreams of figure skates and gymnastic ribbons. To the best of my recollection I was the only kid in my class who could recount the racing record of every Triple Crown winner in history — along with jockeys, trainers and owners — and happily dashed inside on a spring afternoon to catch the Kentucky Derby post parade.
It’s strange to love a dying sport.
Even so, it was a far stretch from the back pages of SI and the F shelves in my local library to the actual racetrack; a trip which perhaps only makes sense in light of the fact my suburban family did not travel: tales of the strange, diverse, victorious, and sometimes brutal world of horseracing I read about came to represent everything the circumscribed world I lived in was not.
Once more popular than baseball — in 1938, 40 million people tuned into the listen to the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral — the sport of horseracing gets a brief shot a reclaiming a portion of the public imagination once every year for about five weeks. Beginning with the running of the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May and culminating with the Belmont Stakes in New York just over a month later the country goes a little bit horse crazy: people throw Derby parties and serve mint juleps, men wear suspenders and ladies wear fabulous, ridiculous hats. It’s like Halloween for glamorous nostaligists, laced with the irresistible chance of actual fortune. Add to that the glory of a running horse and it makes for a powerful combination. This is especially true when there is a chance of a Triple Crown winner, as there is this year; if California Chrome wins the Belmont on Saturday he will be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
I love horse racing all year round. It’s strange to love a dying sport, especially one that has become so widely loathed in recent years. Even though it remains a multi-billion dollar industry, these days it often feels like the sports fan equivalent of wearing fur or attending the bullfights. But at least I come by it honestly. While all my friends went off to their summer camp counselor positions, or to work the concession stands at the local amusement park, I would get up before five, drive my parent’s decrepit Oldsmobile 45minutes to Woodbine Racetrack just west of Toronto, and spend my mornings walking fractious million dollar horses in circles around a barn until they were cool enough from their workout to return to their stall. I am sure there were people working there at the time who treated their horses less than ideally, but I never encountered them. The people I knew, some of whom were working their way through Vet school, or up the ranks to the more lucrative position of trainer, many of who were immigrants with little English and cloudy pasts (one was rumored to be wanted for murder in his home country — a shocking revelation to a teenager accustomed to usual suburban neighborhood gossip) loved their charges like children. Even the ones that ran badly, time after time.
There was a barn-wide debate when I first arrived over whether I was a virgin.
It would quickly become apparent that I was the youngest person working at the racetrack by about 15 years, and if not the only woman, one of very few. The racetrack, to put it mildly, was late to the idea of equality: women were not allowed to work on the backside until well into the 1960’s. And while women owners are not traditionally uncommon in racing — Penny Chenery bred and owned Secretariat — women were not permitted to ride racehorses until 1969 when Kathy Kusner, a U.S. Olympian equestrian, sued the Maryland Racing Commission for a jockey’s license under the Civil Rights act. The first licensed woman to actually compete in a race was Diane Crump, and she required an actual police escort to reach racetrack safely. To date only four women have competed in the Kentucky Derby. Even the famed Derby Day tradition of oversized hats is rooted in archaic ideas of femininity. While researching a piece for mental_floss magazine Wendy Treinen Dir. of Communications at the Kentucky Derby Museum told me that when Derby began in 1875, hats were proper attire for a lady in public and remained so through the early 60s at the track. The tradition stuck, and then grew. Literally.
Ratios had changed somewhat by the time I arrived; even so I was treated more with deference than anything resembling equality. I had been hired by a journeyman horse trainer who ran a steady, if not flashy, business; he wasn’t against women in his barn, exactly, he just expected them to be ladies. I was not, for instance, allowed to drink a beer without using a glass. Ever. Ladies used glasses. (That I was only 16 never seemed to be an actual concern.) I was at all times the recipient of a lot of attention. Not the lecherous sort, per se (though I do recall there was a barn-wide debate when I first arrived over whether I was a virgin) fascination might be a better word. For a long while people seemed mystified by my presence, as though I were some sort of museum piece. A number of people assumed I was the daughter of a rich, (presumably) misguided owner. I began to understand I was not the norm (a entirely different sort ‘not normal’ than one usually experiences as an awkward teenager) and was forced to get comfortable with that or quit the track altogether. It turned out to be a useful early lesson in the power of not fitting in.
I was not, for instance, allowed to drink a beer without using a glass. Ever. Ladies used glasses.
Later, once I became accepted as just another racetrack oddity — a if nothing else, the racetrack is collection of oddities, rich and poor, trying to game the odd behavior of highly valuable horses — I was looped into the extracurricular routines as well. In the long quiet afternoons when none of our horses were racing I was taught to play poker by a groom named Bobby using pennies from a big jar he kept in the tack room. On race days the exercise riders would hand me rolls of fifty and hundred-dollar bills to go place bets for them—if they made big on their win they’d slip me a few bills back. Triumphant owners would throw parties at the barn, shipping in ice-filled tubs of champagne and stacking platters of ribs and steaks on various picnic tables. Losing grooms would borrow cash from me (what did I need it for, after all, I had no expenses beyond trips to the mall) to feed themselves until their next payday or winning bet, whichever came first. It was my first introduction to the real power of money; the having and the not having.
I was, for those few summers, dropped into lives I would never have crossed if I’d hewed to my carefully contained suburban upbringing. It was a life built on a meticulous routine, which provided the only shred of certainty in a profession which chased fortune and thrill as a business model and whose survival was almost entirely dependent on chance. In hindsight it felt a little bit like living in New York City, if you substituted fame and power for horses.
I still go to the races from time to time. But it is a sport for another age when horses were more of a daily reality and not exotic creatures owned by the very rich and cared for by the very poor. Which can make me sad. Where else, in this increasingly virtual world, do we get the chance to let it all ride, even for the briefest moment, out in the wide open, on the skill and the heart and the thrill of another creature. In what other place can a person be so inescapably reminded that life can turn on a dime and then turn right back again.