of a part time Hot Walker
went away to school and I went away to the race track. I had always
wanted to know what is was really like so I decided to go there and
walk hots. I found a basement apartment right across Hempstead Turnpike
from Belmont, where the furnace roaring on and off kept me awake most
of the night until I got too tired to hear it anymore. My land lady
did not rent to hot walkers, so I did not own up that I was going to
Earlier I had had
a filly, barn name of Polly, with Allen Jerkens, He was my hero then
and since he continued in that role, I hoped I could walk hots in his
barn. I got lucky. I think Allen is always one who likes to give others
a chance and he gave me one ( maybe it helped that I worked for free).
We had also shared what was at least to me one of life's memorable moments
- one of those brief instants of pure joy which you never forget. The
filly he trained and which I had foaled, raised, broken and loved won
a little stakes race. For me it could have been the Kentucky Derby,
for Allen it must have been what it was - a tiny restricted stakes.
When I came down to the winners circle to greet the filly as she came
off the track, Allen was there already and often he does not come to
the winners circle. I had tears of happiness in my eyes. He gave me
a bear hug and that really squeezed out the tears. He said "This
is what it is all about". I just sobbed. When I looked at him,
he had tears in his eyes as well. Then the filly came back and all of
our attention went to her and the moment was past but never never forgotten.
I can feel it still.
Walking hots for
Allen Jerkens, THE CHIEF, starts soon after 6:30 AM ( not an easy hour
for a night owl) when the first set comes in from the track. It can
start earlier with a horse who is only going to walk the shed row that
day. A large blackboard just inside the door of the barn states the
schedules of all of the horses in the barn: some would work, some would
gallop, some would gallop with a pony, some would walk the shed row.
Often things would change when Allen saw the horse moving out of its
stall. He would decide on a different regimen for that horse that day
based on how it was moving and acting or maybe just by the look in its
Mel, who had been
Polly's groom took me under his wing. He was an enormous man. He told
me which horses I might not want to walk and which were easy. He pointed
out a few people (not in the barn) I might want to avoid. He pointed
at something on the ground near the dormitory and I learned what a crack
vial looked like. He told me that the only thing I needed to know to
walk hots was how to turn left, He showed me how to rake the aisle.
He showed me how to keep the attention of a feisty colt when he was
having his bath.
Hot walkers are
the lowest form of life on the backstretch. The trainer reigns supreme,
followed by his assistant trainer(s) then exercise riders and grooms
and finally hot walkers. Grooms commonly care for 3 horses and that
includes all care. Hot walkers just walk hots - any hot horse for any
cool groom. The groom tacks up the horse and gets him ready for the
exercise rider to take to the track. While the horse is out of the stall,
the groom cleans the stall and re beds it. The work schedule is usually
arranged so that the groom has time to clean and prepare one stall before
it is time to tack up the next horse in his care. The hot walker waits
for the horse to return, sometimes if the horse tends to tie up, it
is untacked at the walk. Other times it is untacked in the stall, a
cooler is thrown over its back and then it is up to the hot walker to
walk it around the shed row until it is cool - usually a half hour or
so of walking. A bucket of water is hung by the groom across from the
stall and every few laps the horse stops to drink a few sips. The hot
walker yells "hold back" and the train of walking horses halts
while that horse drinks. Walking is easy sometimes - just traipse around
the shed row turning left whenever there is a corner. Other times you
have a colt who is on the muscle from his work and is trying to eat
you alive with every step. Part way through the process the horse gets
a bath from his groom and also gets time in his stall to pee. Peeing
seems to go hand in hand with working. Whistling in low repeated notes
is the cue to the horse that it is peeing time. If he wins a race or
goes to the "spit box" (detention barn) for any other reason,
for blood and urine testing he is also required to pee and you hear
this low whistling continuously there, People's lips must get tired.
Allen's old barn at Belmont, the back of the shed row faced the training
track and you could watch horses galloping or working as you walked
down that side. If it was a warm sunny day the whole procession sometimes
moved out of doors. Where other trainers had flowers and elaborate gardens
and benches in front of their barns to impress owners, Allen had a sand
paddock and a walking ring for his horses.
demanded that the horses' welfare come absolutely first at all times.
I can remember the first time I sensed an awed silence in the barn and
the sense of multiple disappearing acts with everyone running for cover.
Someone had forgotten to wash a girth cover and there was an Allen explosion.
I learned a few new swear words! I also learned that the horses' well
being and comfort was paramount with Allen and woe be to he who forgot
the end of the morning, all horses are finished and it is nap time until
mid afternoon. Unlike many trainers whose horses are up in stalls until
the next morning, Allen has a partial crew come in every afternoon to
get many of the horses out again. Some take turns in the sand paddock.
Some go for a walk and a graze on the backstretch. Some just walk the
shed row again. Some even get an exercise rider on bareback to walk
around the yard.
racing that day get out on the track in the morning for a little light
exercise so as not to disrupt their routine. At race time, the groom
takes the horse to the paddock the hot walker goes along to carry equipment
and to be ready to walk the horse in the spit box if that is needed.
Allen is there to saddle the horse and chat with the jockey. Allen's
wife Elizabeth is there to graciously deter owners from bothering Allen.
the late afternoon after racing is done or if there are no horses in
that day, Allen can often be found leaning against his barn reminiscing
and talking horse talk to an admiring audience. He was also usually
up for a spot of touch foot ball. Although always dapper in the paddock
in full regalia including a hat, Allen relaxes his dress code at the
barn. Afternoons at Saratoga could often find him bare chested in shorts
with his signature black socks and shoes.
to think of him that way or moving along from horse to horse with the
afternoon feed giving carrots or grass (once he pulled over on the expressway
to pick grass from the median and was accosted by a member of the NYPD).
Often he gave horses whole clumps of grass with roots and dirt attached
so they could get minerals. I never quite knew where they came from.
Did he maraud in the night - was his own lawn a wasteland? I believe
he may have a hydroponic grass grower in his shed row now but maybe
I am making that up or I dreamt it. I know if he could, he would.
cheers to Allen.