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A Texas Sojourn
By Alex Brown
I was galloping and looking after horses at Presque Isle Downs in Erie Pennsylvania, during the month of September 2007. A friend of mine was a steward for the meet. David Rollinson is also a steward at Sam Houston Race Park. He suggested I come down to Houston for the winter meet. I asked Darren Fleming for a job. Darren was Steve Asmussen's assistant at Presque Isle Downs and also Steve's assistant in Texas. Darren said there was a job for me if I wanted one. I came to Texas in the middle of November after a short sojourn in Kentucky. I worked the Keeneland fall meet and then at Churchill Downs for Eddie Kenneally.
I was in the right place at the right time, following the tragic loss of the racehorse Barbaro. The experience has changed my life.
Before Barbaro I was a part-time exercise rider at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland. I was a part-time faculty at the University of Delaware teaching Internet Marketing. I was a part-time consultant providing advice to applicants for leading MBA Programs. I was basically a part-time guy with no real focus, wandering through life.
As an exercise rider at Fair Hill, where Barbaro was trained, I thought it would be fun to combine my interest in racing and internet marketing and blog updates as Barbaro was preparing for the Preakness. Sadly we know how Barbaro's story unfolded. Oddly there have been many good things that have manifested because of Barbaro.
The site I run, alexbrownracing.com, has enabled Fans of Barbaro to participate in helping develop a legacy that includes rescuing horses in the slaughter pipeline and working to try to end horse slaughter in the United States. As part of these goals, in August of 2007, I decided to leave Fair Hill and my "part-time" life and focus solely on managing my web-site while traveling around North America via racetracks. I chose to travel via racetracks as I could earn enough to pay my bills, it would give me access to the local horse communities while also providing me legitimacy with the same.
Sam Houston Race Park was my fifth stop.
I arrived the third week of November to work for Tony, another Asmussen assistant. Darren was still in New Orleans with Steve Asmussen's string at Fair Grounds. He had Curlin in his care. We had about 20 horses in Houston when I arrived. Three of us were galloping. Each day more horses and people arrived. Tony left to run our barn at Sunland Park, New Mexico. Darren took over. The "steady state" was a barn full of horses (64 stalls to a barn) and about eight riders.
The backside at Sam Houston Race Park is quite small relative to the other tracks I had worked. You soon got to know who everyone was. It was friendly. The track was busy when we were on the track. It was busy all the time for us.
I had not met Steve Asmussen before I came to work for him. He is intimidating. I had seen him at Keeneland and Churchill Downs and tried to engage in casual conversation and I was pretty sure he did not know I was going to work for him! When Steve first visited I remained intimidated, and I have worked for some of the best trainers in North America. I resolved that the only way this was going to work for me is if I stay out of the way when Steve was here. I was in Houston, after all, to learn about Texas and horses.
Steve has a certain level of intensity that I now understand is necessary for him to be able to manage his large stable. Over the course of the weekly visits I started to develop a new respect for his sheer intelligence and his commitment to the sport of horse racing. Finally I was at ease striking up conversations with Steve. We are not close friends, but I do think he does now know who I am. Steve also knows, I think, about the projects I am working on regarding horse welfare. In that sense Steve is now providing me a wonderful platform to continue doing what I am doing as I type this essay from my new base in Woodbine, Canada, working for Steve.
I met and made some good friends at Sam Houston Race Park.
Paul Nolan, a fellow Englishman, and journeyman jockey, was a natural ally. Paul has ridden more than 1,000 winners. At the end of the meet he rode his first Graded Stakes winner, Scrappy Roo in the Grade 3 Connally Breeders' Cup Turf. Sadly I missed the occasion as I was already on my journey north.
Of course David Rollinson, one of the three Sam Houston stewards, was a constant reminder of my home-base back in the North Eastern United States. David is originally from Ireland. He spent a few years working at Delaware Park and the Maryland racetracks of Laurel and Pimlico. We knew each other well. We became close friends in Texas after renewing our acquaintance at Presque Isle Downs.
I also came to know "Masterlock" Scott, an exercise rider. Originally from Nebraska, Scott has been working the Sam Houston meet for four or five years, the last two for Steve Asmussen. Scott provided the entertainment in the morning with his random thoughts that sometimes would be frustrating and always unpredictable. Scott always knew the price of a 12 pack of Cokes at the local supermarket and was happy to tell you daily.
I also met Eddie, an exercise rider who was someone I knew from somewhere else. You know when you see a familiar face and cannot quite place it. It happens a lot in horseracing. Eddie has worked for Steve on-and-off for a while. He has also worked for Steve's father, Keith. It turned out he had worked at Fair Hill for Barclay Tagg - me too, at a different time. He also worked at the recently concluded Presque Isle Downs meet.
"Superstar" Erik McNeil, our apprentice recently had his first ride at Lone Star Park. Erik's brother is a jockey, his father is a jockey. Steve is helping him get started and he's a natural athlete. He has a wonderful opportunity and it was fun to watch Erik develop over the winter.
Jose was our jockey for the meet. Very affable. I admired Jose's work ethic. He rode every set for us in the mornings. Often nine or ten horses. He stayed to clean tack. He rode races at night. I think he was the hardest working jockey at the meet. He is also a good person.
Darren, my boss is still my boss at Woodbine. Like Steve, with Darren if you do your job well all is well. Just don't mess up. Darren asked me if I was interested in coming up to Woodbine. I hope that is a signal I did not mess up--too often.
The horses I rode at the track. Like any horseman, you have your favorites. Chromedoll and Poni Colada were my two. I even fell off Poni Colada, my only spill in Texas. I think he was more shocked than I.
I was fortunate to get on many nice horses. Student Council came in the last day I was there. I rode him that day. He recently won the Pimlico Special. I rode Golden Hare, once. He was the winningest horse in 2007, with thirteen victories.
A few of the horses from Sam Houston have followed me up to Woodbine. One of my regulars, Humble Janet, won her first race here at Woodbine after preparing all winter to return to the races at Sam Houston. It was a very satisfying win.
The track at Sam Houston is first class. So is the inner-turf course. Of each of the dirt tracks I have experienced in North America (Penn National, Churchill Downs) Sam Houston's ranks the best by far. Even after wet weather there remains some give in the track that is not evident with most dirt surfaces.
So while I enjoyed my Houston experience with Steve Asmussen's team at the track, my real reason for being in Texas was to explore Texas, it's connection to the horses and meet people who are involved in horse welfare issues.
Upon arrival I called Jerry Finch of Habitat for Horses (http://www.habitatforhorses.org/).
We connected the first weekend I was there. Sadly it was the only time we did meet. Jerry has been committed to ending horse slaughter for a lot longer than I had even known about the issue. Jerry also runs an organization that takes in horses involved in abuse cases and rehabilitates them. I knew of Jerry as he and his organization had been active on my web-site. We met. We talked. Jerry showed me around his farm. It was great to see horses recovering from issues of neglect. Jerry and I discussed our viewpoints on slaughter and rescue and he also provided me contact information for Julie Caramante.
Julie has worked with Jerry for many years as an investigator and is another leader on the horse slaughter issue. Julie and I met. Julie suggested she wanted to really ratchet up efforts this year for the horse slaughter issue. Julie also works closely on horse slaughter issues with former Mayor Paula Bacon of Kaufman, near Dallas. Kaufman housed the last horse slaughter plant in Texas. Julie and I met a few times, and along with Paula we organized "Americans Against Horse Slaughter", a lobbying event in Washington DC. This event became the largest such event in the history of this issue. Texas spawned this event.
Helping plan and prepare for "Americans Against Horse Slaughter", I was determined to really figure out my own personal viewpoint on horse slaughter. As a horseman, I knew horse slaughter was wrong and it needed ending. I was fortunate to manage a large like-minded community of horse welfare activists on my web-site. Now it was time for me to publicly articulate my position on horse slaughter.
This has manifested in a recently published essay, "Sensible debate over unwanted horses would help anti-slaughter lobby." Underpinning my essay is my conviction that the pro-slaughter lobby has effectively tied the number of horses slaughtered with the number of unwanted horses. I wanted to dispell this notion. It is their major argument. It is not true. It is one I easily deconstructed.
I was invited to speak at the Greater Houston Horse Council. This was actually the first time, after the Americans Against Horse Slaughter event in DC, that I had the opportunity to share my ideas that evolved into my horse slaughter essay. It was a small gathering. The Houston Rodeo was ongoing so I think I was lucky I was not alone! The small audience, however, was very engaged as I shared my thoughts and ideas on the unwanted horse issue. Some challenging questions helped me refine my arguments. It was a great experience that underscored the notion that fundamentally horsemen are not pro-slaughter. Some horsemen simply assume slaughter is necessary. That does not mean they like the idea. I determined that if I could refute the idea that slaughter was necessary I could help move more horsemen onto the anti-slaughter side of the debate.
I went match racing. I attended the Houston Rodeo. I visited a horse auction.
I rode General. An OTTB. He is owned by Angela, someone I met after she made an inquiry on another internet forum about photographing at Sam Houston. General was cool. I rode him three or four times. I was told I helped, but I am not sure. General was not a fast racehorse, but he is an interesting prospect for eventing. He has good size and scope and appears very willing. I even jumped a fence with him - very brave on my part.
Riding General also made me realize the importance of marketing OTTBs. We need to consider how to apply more resources into rehabilitating horses for second careers when their first careers come to an early conclusion. Most racehorses' careers are over when they are four or five. We know horses live much longer. Spending a small amount of time and resources can yield tremendous results for previously slaughter-bound horses. To this end, recently I have created a resource on the internet for OTTBs as part of a broader marketing and branding campaign. I was a Marketing Faculty after all.
What have I learned about Texas and horse welfare?
Texas used to have a couple of horse slaughter plants. It is cowboy country. I assumed it needed the horse, but also that it treated the horse as a disposable commodity, livestock. In contrast I had just worked in Kentucky for six weeks. There the mares and foals are gorgeous, they also have the best of horse racing. I assumed they adored the horse, akin to a companion animal.
My understanding has now reversed.
In Kentucky, the horse is business, it is agribusiness. The horse is disposable and slaughter provides the horse industry an "easy out."
In Texas the horse, while it used to be a working animal, is now more a recreational animal. Horses are used for multiple purposes. Racehorse trainers rehabilitate their own horses. The racetracks actively support horse rehabilitation with their direct support of LOPE (http://lopetx.org), a retirement and rehabilitation center. I attended a fundraiser for LOPE at Sam Houston. I could see first hand how easily trainers interacted with Lynn Reardon and were thankful of LOPE's service as they made inquiries about horses they had donated.
As far as horse welfare issues myself, my time in Texas has reaffirmed my commitment to ending horse slaughter. Texas transformed me from someone who knew horse slaughter was wrong, to someone who knew why horse slaughter was wrong and was able to articulate those ideas.
Helping organize Americans Against Horse Slaughter was a huge undertaking. Preparing my essay took months of research in my very modest motel room. It was all very worthwhile.
My time in Texas was personally enriching. My stay was made more enjoyable
with the support of local FOBs (Fans of Barbaro) who went out of their way to
make me feel welcome and let me hang out. Thanks Julie and Kat and Lynda and ...
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