Getting into the game, great new books and how many grooms should you have?

by Ron Gurfein

A little venting before I get to this week’s questions. If you want a decent turnout at your funeral DO NOT die on a weekend. My good friend and longtime farrier Dennis Payne (blacksmith to almost every good horse I trained including three Hambletonian winners) recently passed. As I write, it has been 72 hours and the USTA website has no mention of it, no funeral arrangements. Thanks to Facebook I was at least made aware that he had died. RIP my friend.

Brock Stable asks: How do people get into the business?

There are a lot of different ways to get into harness racing, but no matter what avenue you chose the first and most important step is to find yourself a competent trainer. This is not a simple process unless you already know someone that can guide you. The major problem with trainers today is lack of communication. This is not an easy business to begin with, but if a trainer is not in tune to your individual goals and desires it is more of an uphill climb than necessary. I would be more than happy to assist you in finding a capable guy or girl in you area.

To me, with the purse structure the way it is now, I would say you first venture in racing should be to purchase or claim a horse. Properly done, in a week or two you are at the races watching your horse compete. I love the yearling game, but I think for a new owner it takes too long and costs too much to feel the fun of the sport. Although buying or claiming can be dangerous, a good trainer will understand it’s not so much what you are buying, but whom you are buying from that is important. In areas with casinos and slot machines bolstering the purse structure, the purses are so high at many of these tracks that with a good claim or buy you can earn back your purchase price in a matter of weeks. Buying a yearling is a more difficult road to take although the upside is far greater. It is the difference of risk, reward and time. If you need more information please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, but please don’t ask my opinion about an individual trainer as I refuse to discuss the people I have shared my life with for more than five decades.

Peter Northrop asks: Have you read any new books lately that you would recommend?

I recently finished The Woman in the Window, truly one of the best novels I have ever read. I put it in a class with Gone Girl one of the best-reviewed stories in a long time. I think it’s the first novel written by A.J. Finn, which to me makes it even more incredible. It’s the story of an agoraphobic (fear of being outside) woman, who thinks she sees a crime committed while looking out her window into her neighbor’s house.

The story is phenomenal, the plot mesmerizing, the characters unforgettable. It’s so good I could not put it down till I finished it. I read that Fox is making it into a movie, not that any movie is as good as the book (ie: Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train). Anytime I read a special book that I think my readers will enjoy I will post it here.

Bill Bigler asks: Does it make any sense to you that owners pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for horses and that some trainers will have one groom to five or more horses? In my experience grooming, it’s very difficult for a groom to give the proper attention to a horse when taking care of so many.

For the most part you are right, but there are so many differences in the sport, there are many factors to take into consideration. The most important problem is there is not much in the line of good help available. The caretakers of my day are long since gone. I honestly believe that the average time a groom spends with a horse today is less than 25 per cent of the time one of my help spent in 1970. Plus the fact that if he or she quit there would be five waiting to take the job. Walk down any shedrow today, few horses wear stall bandages, there are two water buckets and by 11 am a mess in the middle of the stall. That’s just plain lazy.

In the earlier days when the colts would ship south after the sales we would bandage all four feet because it would be more that 24 hours on cross ties and they were unable to tear them off during the long ride. This was an easy way to break them to stall wraps. Not only stall bandages have become a thing of the past but also there are so many other short cuts.

Three bucket baths have given way to a hose, hot water to cold, forshners hoof packing to oil or maybe mud, feeding four times a day, stripping your stall to the ground every day, curry and brush followed by a dry towel rub, Tuttles in the rinse water, blue lotion, pink lotion, Reducine, almost all things of the past. With a good groom the incidence of soft tissue damage was so small because the legs were so tight they were almost unbreakable. More short cuts warming up to race, trainers always warmed up before a race. Now for $10 you get a “warm up guy” sitting behind your $250,000 horse who doesn’t know the idiosyncrasies of the animal and thus could not know to scratch him if he warmed up sore. This is an accident waiting to happen. But this is how it is.

Too many horses go along with all the other shortcuts that have come to be. One thing I know for sure, most of the grooms I see today are from the old school and are capable of taking care of five, including you who are by far one of the best I have ever seen. I will have to add Lisa, Meegan, Marita, Emma and Christine to my best caretaker list. Remember this, its better to have a great groom taking care of too many than a bad groom taking care of one.

Andrew Coulter Betts asks a very timely question. How would you handle getting your stable back in race condition if something like the quarantine situation in PA and OH happened to your barn? Some stables are looking at 21 to 28 days without being able to leave their stalls.

I truly feel badly for all the horsemen that are affected by this widespread quarantine. Unfortunately, I went through a similar situation after shipping to the Meadowlands from Sunshine Meadows in 2004. Dr. Paul Nolan had routinely vaccinated my entire barn for Strep equi (strangles). In a very rare case, one of the horses exhibited swollen glands and my entire barn was under quarantine for 30 days. I was, however, able to jog and train from 6 am to 8 am, when they kept the track closed to all horses but mine. I realize that your situation being confined to your stalls is far worse, but remember this; horses are far more resilient than we think. They can overcome many horrid situations. Be thankful it’s not stake time and you lose all that conditioning.

Make sure you monitor their weight and cut back on feeding when there is excessive weight gain, which there most definitely will be. However, with today’s hard training methods, a little weight gain will probably help most of them.

I consulted Dr John Cummins and his take on the matter was interesting to say the least. He thought that my situation with the strangles should have had a more severe quarantine and the virus travels faster and further than the Equine Herpes. He said my horses should have been confined to their stalls. On the other hand, John thought that the Equine Herpes virus was short lived in the air and that the horses exposed that were under quarantine should be able to jog and train in the afternoon with little chance of a problem.

I just read that the Blooded Horse Sale in Delaware, OH has been cancelled due to the EVH. That doesn’t bode well for a quick resolution of the problem. I am hoping for the best for all the horseman affected by this quarantine.

I would like to thank all of you for your kind words, especially my Facebook friends who always come to the rescue when I need new material. For the ladies, and the guys who like to be pampered, a new spa has opened in downtown Boca Raton. At the request of a friend who asked a question about it I will attempt to review it and include photos and maybe some bargains for my followers in my next column. Have a wonderful week.

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