Tuesday, April 15, 2008

They're OFF at Oklahoma! April 15,2008

Posted on Tue, Apr 15, 2008 Zoom + | Zoom -
Let the training begin
Horses arrive for spring training at the Oklahoma Training Track
By PAUL POST, The Saratogian

Spring training gets underway today at the Oklahoma Training Track. Monday was move-in day at the track. Numerous totes are stacked outside Barn 54. (MATTHEW TURRI/The Saratogian)SARATOGA SPRINGS — Hugh McDonald has transported horses all over the world, from Dubai to Japan.

Monday morning was no different for the Syosset, Long Island, resident who got up long before dawn to get ready for a job moving horses from Belmont Park to Saratoga Race Course in anticipation of today’s Oklahoma Training Track opening.

Gary Contessa, a leading New York trainer, shipped 80 horses upstate, where they are slated to work out from 5 to 11 a.m. today.

“I’ve been around them all my life,” said McDonald, owner of Fox Lair Horse Transport. “My father was in the business. My grandfather was a dealer.”

One time, he accompanied 11 thoroughbreds on a flight from Florida to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. One of them was Secretariat, another Riva Ridge.

“I treat cheap horses the same as expensive ones,” he said. “You’ve got to be very careful driving. You can’t be hitting the brakes. If they’ve got hair on ’em, I’ll take care of them and love them.”

Monday’s new arrivals included a group of 2-year-olds, each trying to become another champion. A brisk wind whipped dust through Horse Haven, where Contessa has seven barns full of horses, another sure sign of spring and a reminder that track season isn’t that far off — 99 days to be exact.

“Over the next two weeks, there will be about 975 horses in Saratoga,” said John Lee, New York Racing Association spokesman.

The big horse vans rolled in not just with animals, but all kinds of equipment — bridles, saddles, hay nets, rakes, wheel barrows and dozens of green feed buckets.

Fifteen grooms and an equal number of hot walkers also made the trip north, moving into training track dorms where they’ll be spending the next several months. The scene looked like a college campus on Labor Day weekend, with personal belongings ready to be moved in — bicycles, refrigerators, TVs, mattresses and bed springs.

“All the staff that was at Belmont is moving up here today,” said Melvin Winney, one of Contessa’s assistant trainers.

Today, they’ll be up at 4 a.m. to clean stalls, water and feed horses. Each groom is assigned a handful of horses and they hit the track in sets at different predetermined times.

Contessa still has 40 horses at Aqueduct, about half of which will eventually make their way to Saratoga.

“I only train in New York,” he said. “I ship to race at other tracks, but I don’t train anywhere else.”

He was the first trainer to move horses north, because his Belmont Park barn is used for a race-day drug testing program and the Belmont spring and summer meet is scheduled to start April 30, Winney said.

The process of getting horses ready for transport began Sunday. Meanwhile, workers in Saratoga Springs got stables ready with fresh supplies of hay and straw.

A year ago, no one knew who would be running the tracks as NYRA faced challenges from three other firms seeking the next racing contract. In February, NYRA threatened to close its tracks, possibly throwing people out of work, because the franchise situation still hadn’t been resolved. Now, it’s got a new 25-year contract to work with, which becomes effective as soon as its bankruptcy situation is resolved.

Today’s Oklahoma Training Track opener is one sure sign that there will be a 2008 Saratoga Race Course season after all. There’s an unmistakable air of excitement when the horses arrive back in town, while for those who handle them, it’s all just part of the business.

“For us, it’s a career, it’s a job,” Winney said.

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