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Saying thanks

Horses can't read calendars, we all know that. But sometimes in the hustle and bustle of it all, it is easy to forget what this actually means.

Horses need food, water and care 365 days a year. They get sick on holidays, too, and someone has to be there to help them.

Although still unsung heroes of horse racing, I do think grooms and exercise riders are starting to get more credit than before. In most cases, they spend more time with a racehorse than anyone else. Grooms tend to the daily needs of the beast, while exercise riders spend far more time on the horse's back than most jockeys do.

What many people who only follow the sport casually may not realize is that odds are the horse you just bet on has had someone, somewhere keeping an eye out for him since before he was even born.


As a result, they can usually tell when something isn't right faster than others. It is similar to knowing something is wrong with your pet, even if there is no proof of it. A funny look, an unexplained slight change in attitude, an odd movement that might hint at a bit of soreness that wasn't there before. Grooms and exercise riders are the first line of defense when it comes to things like this.

But what many people who only follow the sport casually may not realize is that odds are the horse you just bet on has had someone, somewhere keeping an eye out for him since before he was even born.

Starting in January, the new foal crop of future racehorses will start making their appearance in the world. Breeders in the Northern Hemisphere aim to have foals born between January and June because racehorses here celebrate their birthday on Jan. 1 for ease of regulating age-restricted races. As result, a foal born in say, November, would be at a huge disadvantage compared to its March-born crop mate.

Due to instinct, most mares prefer to foal in the middle of the night. In the wild, this helps keep their newborn safe from predators that might be lurking about. Although horses are on their feet quickly, especially compared to humans, those extra few hours are good for both mother and foal.

While Thoroughbred mares in a breeding program have no need to fear such an attack, instinct is instinct. What this also means is that this time of year, farms are busy hiring people to fulfill the role of nightwatchman. Then there are smaller operations where they do it all themselves. Either way, it is important to have someone in the foaling barns, keeping an eye on the mares who are close to delivering.

I had a friend who was a nightwatchman to make extra money while in college. I went out to the farm a few nights to see what it was like and to hopefully see a foaling. No mares decided to foal the nights I went, but I did learn to appreciate the people who do this to make a living. Instead of being snug in their beds, they are in a barn keeping watch so any foals being born that evening have the best chance at an easy delivery.

In many places, if a mare does decide to foal, the nightwatchman calls for the broodmare manager or someone else higher up the ladder. This means a lot of sleepless nights for anyone who works on a farm. No matter what the size of an operation, days off become fairly nonexistent during the foaling season.

While there are many good ways to tell if a mare is about to foal, no mare will foal until she is good and ready. A few years ago, I was assigned to cover the birth of a foal, and my photographer and I got the call that the time was definitely upon us. We showed up about 10 minutes before a thunderstorm rolled in.

The mare, who had been showing every possible sign of an imminent foaling, was also aware of the storm and did the equine-equivalent of crossing her legs. She wasn't having her baby in a thunderstorm, no way, no how. Her filly came into the world uneventfully about 20 hours later.

Once that foal is born, keeping it healthy is a primary concern for everyone on the farm. This is true from birth to weaning (when it is taken away from its mother) to first steps of training. The amount of man hours that go into getting a horse to the races is astronomical.

Of course, after a horse is done racing, it is also important to find it a new career, be that in the breeding shed or in an entirely different discipline. The people who retrain off the track Thoroughbreds also dedicate an incredible amount of time to an individual horse's needs.

Horses don't know if it is your birthday or Thanksgiving or the night of a dinner date you have been looking forward to. They don't keep 9-5 hours, and as a result, anyone who works with them can't expect to either.

If you work with horses, you better like horses because it is guaranteed at some point they will somehow unintentionally ruin your plans.


If you work with horses, you better like horses because it is guaranteed at some point they will somehow unintentionally ruin your plans.

Many tracks run Thanksgiving cards and there are lots of big races this weekend. Sports in general are part of the Thanksgiving tradition. It is likely you might stop and think about the people who are giving up family time for your entertainment this weekend. If you do that, try to also spare a thought for the people who you will never hear of who protected and nurtured that horse you are about to bet on.

On this Thanksgiving, I want to send them my thanks. Thank you to the man in multiple layers of clothing on a winter's night coaxing a foal to take its wobbly first steps. Thank you to the person who will inevitably have to drive a sick foal to the clinic in the middle of thunderstorm this spring. Thank you to the woman who will feel that horse's legs every day for the first year of its life to make sure it is healthy and hearty and hale before it goes off to training. Thank you to everyone who does the right thing by the horse during its career and after.

Horse racing has many, many moving parts, many of which the outside world will never see. Yes, there are people who do the wrong thing, but there are so many more who do their best to do the right thing. These are the men and women who dedicate their lives to horses, and they don't get told thank you enough.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.