I’m back from my quick field trip to the States, and for the first time left feeling encouraged about racing in America. I have two friends that train off the farm in the Winter Haven, Florida area, and while I was there they each had a runner at Tampa Bay Downs, which was one of the more horse-friendly backsides I’ve seen. The barns are nicely spaced and there is actually a fair amount of green around. Round pens are available for turnout.
The highlight of the trip had to be the race of a good old campaigner called Ide be O for Ten, who is actually two for 98. Ide is 10 years old, and his owner wants to retire him when he hits 100 starts, sound and medication-free. The day I was there, Ide ran a very credible third, and I’ll bet he manages to get up for a win when that 100th start comes around, which won’t be long. He’s trained by Janet DelCastillo, who wrote a book called “The Backyard Racehorse” that shows it is possible to succeed as a small trainer not stabled at the track. Ide was the only horse in the race not on Lasix (he wasn’t on anything else, either), and it was quite a thing to see old Ide barreling up the stretch.
Two days later, we got to see Ellie Crowder’s Major Parker running his second race back after a long layoff. Ellie bred Major and lost him in a claimer when he was five, already a two-time winner. The trainer who claimed him assumed he could do better than Ellie by pumping full of all the medications Ellie didn’t use. Instead, the horse burned out, bowed a tendon and dropped down to the ranks of $4,000 claimers, which is how Ellie got him back. Ellie game him two years off, then let her grandchildren ride him over the summer. I rode him two days before he raced, and he cantered up Janet’s sandy hill next to the orange groves like a happy, fit horse. He ran 7th last Saturday, but he got stuck in traffic on the rail. From where I sat, he should have finished third. He came back sound and content, and I have every confidence he’ll come back and win again, too.
While I was in the neighborhood, I took a tour of some of the breeding and training operations around Ocala, which were eye-poppingly beautiful. I was jealous of the weather and the turnout. Plenty of trainers had private facilities that allowed them to stable off-track.
Janet and Ellie were the bests hostesses anyone could have, and I’m sure I’ll get back to Florida more often now that I see how things are done there. It was all very refreshing, and it makes me all the more resolved to keep pushing for a ban on race-day medication. Such a shame to waste such fantastic infrastructure by breaking down horses at the track with the drugs. It was great to see the resilience of trainers like Janet and Ellie, who do it their way. OK, so you’re not likely to see them on the Triple Crown trail anytime soon. But I did see some good-looking, healthy horses on their farms, and just keep an eye on old Ide. He’s sitting on a win.