Living Like a King: The Pampered Life of a Racehorse

John ScheinmanFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2015

Scott Serio/Special to Bleacher Report

When trainer Eric Guillot shipped the five-year-old gelding Moreno from his home track in California to West Virginia three days before the horse's running on April 18 in the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic, he tried to make sure everything went perfectly the entire trip for his star racehorse.

Instead of flying across the country to an East Coast airport and then immediately continuing the journey by long van ride, Guillot broke up the travel. He first flew Moreno in a specially designed, chartered cargo plane to Kentucky, where the horse could spend a night on his family's farm in Lexington.

"The airline, Tex Sutton [Forwarding Co.], purchased all the old army tank and cargo carriers," Guillot said. "The horses just walk up the ramp and go into a stall so they feel secure and safe. There's a foot of straw, and it's a box stall, seven by eight feet, with a bucket of water and a hay rack. It's less crowded than how we fly—less security, less disorganization, less hassle. I think I rather fly with the horse."

When Moreno arrived at the farm, Guillot placed the horse in a stall, let him drink water, walked him and had groom Sixto Chavez give him a bath. Guillot checked Moreno's vital signs and fluid levels and then let the animal rest.

The next day, at 5 a.m., when they headed toward the winding mountain roads of West Virginia, Guillot played a CD of the song "Dueling Banjos" from the film Deliverance in the back of the van to keep the horse company.

Two days later, Moreno won the Classic, one of the richest races in the country, in track-record time.

In the world of high-level thoroughbred racing, few things are less understood by the general public than the overwhelming quality of care received by the horses.

The sport's leaders have been going through wrenching efforts recently to get each state to adopt uniform national medication policies. Horses suffer 1.89 fatal injuries per 1,000 starts, according to The Jockey Club, an organization founded in 1894 and dedicated to improving breeding and racing. 

The deaths, largely on the track during racing or workouts, are undeniable. Yet with most exceptions taking place at the bottom rungs of the game, the trainers go to great lengths to treat their horses like they—not the owners—are the "kings" in the Sport of Kings.

"They get spoiled like French poodles that sit with fat old ladies on their front porches," said Guillot, a colorful Cajun from New Iberia, Louisiana. "They get talcum-powdered on their [rear ends] after they get bathed. We manicure their feet every day. Their teeth get taken care of. The majority of horses wouldn't get this in a regular setting. Racehorses get exercise and treatment that most others don't."

Whether living at the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Maryland, which is the equine equivalent of a four-star luxury resort, or a mid-level track like Laurel Park, or at the relatively tiny Delta Downs racetrack/casino in Vinton, Louisiana, top horses are as fussed over as any athlete in the sports world.

Scott Serio / Special to Bleacher Report

"I think it's tough being a racehorse," said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, one of the most successful racing syndicates in the world. "You have a lot of concussion, a lot of pounding, and being in a horse race can be a very hard experience physically on a horse's body. Having said that, I can't think of any other athlete as well cared for or pampered as a racehorse.

"Usually, people who take care of them love them. You would be hard-pressed to find a groom or exercise rider who didn't really like their horses."

Team Valor, which purchases runners from around the world, has approximately 40 to 45 horses in training in the United States with at least 10 different trainers. Irwin sends horses to those he believes will be good fits to maximize their talents. Some trainers excel with grass horses, others with sprinters; still others win no matter what type of race.

The Team Valor syndicate's greatest success came with Animal Kingdom, trained by Graham Motion at Fair Hill. The horse won the 2011 Kentucky Derby and two years later the $10 million Dubai World Cup, the world's richest race.

The experience of flying Animal Kingdom from the United States to Dubai was unparalleled, Motion said.

"Sheikh Mohammed's private plane"—a modified Boeing 747/400 freighter plane—"picks us up in Fort Lauderdale, which is pretty cool," Motion said. "It's direct to Dubai. It's a lot more spacious [than a Tex Sutton plane], that's for sure.

"They have a veterinarian on board. They have several professional grooms that take care of them on the trip, who feed them whatever they need. When you arrive in Dubai, the quarters are very cool barns, indoor barns, with big, spacious stalls. You have your own personal groom for each horse when you arrive, as well as the grooms and exercise riders you bring. So you end up having two or three people looking after each horse, which is pretty exceptional for the horses."

Motion is used to providing exceptional care to his horses. Fair Hill is one of the premier centers for racehorses in the country.

Michael Matz trained the ill-fated 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, there. Shug McGaughey sent Orb there after the colt won the Derby in 2013. Top trainer Tom Proctor recently sent a string of horses there.

In the peak summer racing season, Motion will have up to 150 horses on the grounds at a time, overseen by a staff of 100 people. While barns and stalls, on the surface, have changed little across the years, his are state of the art. The stalls are big and airy, open in the front with windows in the back because, as herd animals, horses like to see each other. Each stall has a fan to cool the animals on hot days. His feed room is immaculate.

All the straw, used for bedding, is imported. The feed Motion's horses eat is a proprietary blend—protein-heavy and high in fat, nutrients and vitamins—called "Fair Hill Mix" from Hallway Feeds in Lexington. The trainer also always shops for the finest hay he can find.

The horses are treated with omeprazole, which prevents gastric ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease and other digestive problems.

"I spend most of my day here making sure the horses are well cared for," Motion said. "I barely even make it to the races. I have a full-time day person in their barns, checking temperatures, filling water buckets. They get 24-hour care. It's extremely labor-intensive. You can do it with a lot less, but you couldn't do it how you want to do it. I'm fortunate to win a lot of races and to have a staff of that number."

In Motion's outfit, there is a groom for every four horses, a hot walker and exercise rider for every seven. He has a day watchman and a night watchman, and those are supplemented by a suite of cameras that peer into every corner of the barns and paddocks. He and his wife, Anita, can monitor these cameras, which retain records for two weeks, on a flat-screen television in their office or remotely by apps on their smartphones.

Fortune Pearl, a four-year-old filly, gets an acupuncture and electro-stimulation therapy treatment from Dr. Sandra Perkowski at Fair Hill.
Fortune Pearl, a four-year-old filly, gets an acupuncture and electro-stimulation therapy treatment from Dr. Sandra Perkowski at Fair Hill.Scott Serio / Special to Bleacher Report

Motion's barn is a short walk from the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center, a wonderland of high-tech restorative equipment on the grounds that can accommodate up to 60 horses.

Owned and operated by former trainer Bruce Jackson, the therapy center offers horses a solarium, where a rack of lights is lowered above their backs to provide short-wave infrared heat to simulate sunlight, increasing blood circulation and cellular metabolism.

The center also offers a stall with a vibrating floor that also increases circulation and treats general soreness. There is a cold saltwater spa that allows the animals to exercise on a treadmill in "turbulating" water cooled to 35 degrees while reducing inflammation. And most extravagant of all, the center has a hyperbaric oxygen chamber that delivers 100 percent, pressurized oxygen to promote wound healing and post-race recovery.

Jackson can monitor a horse, which spends approximately 75 minutes per session in the chamber, on a console screen. On a recent day, a horse had his face right up next to the floor hole where the oxygen pumped in.

The cold saltwater spa at Fair Hill helps prevent injury and increase circulation for horses.
The cold saltwater spa at Fair Hill helps prevent injury and increase circulation for horses.Scott Serio / Special to Bleacher Report

"That horse is breathing pure oxygen under pressure," Jackson said. "When you do, your body absorbs 10 to 12 times more than you would normally. This was all adapted from human sports medicine. It doesn't make them run fast. It's a recovery tool."

Jackson said Motion brought a group of Baltimore Ravens football players to the center one afternoon, and they were surprised by what they saw.

"They said, 'This is all stuff we use,'" Jackson said. "They had vibration plates and did their stretching on the plates."

While only a small percentage of his horses uses the hyperbaric chamber, Motion does have an acupuncturist come in to alleviate any pain.

"If ever we do get away from using medications, people are going to have to be more clever about how we do things," he said.

Seventy-five miles down the road from Fair Hill, Linda Albert trains a string of 12 horses at Laurel Park. Unlike Motion, she has no paddocks to turn out her horses following workouts or a therapy center right outside the front door.

Yet she believes the care she gives to her far less regally bred horses is just as good.

"I have none of those things…but I'm not sure how much I believe in all that stuff," Albert said. "I'm an old-timer and I don't know. It sounds kind of cool, but I don't think I'd expect miracles out of any of it."

Like Motion's horses, Albert's are bathed every day and fed high-quality feed and supplements. Her grooms arrive early and immediately begin to clean the stalls and water buckets. She arrives at the barn a little later and prepares the feed. The only tool for exercise she has access to on the grounds, outside of the track, is called a EuroXciser, an enclosed circular walking machine with spaces partitioned off for up to six horses to exercise.

"I consider my horses nicely pampered," she said. "They're clean; they're shining; the barn is nice and neat and clean, but I'm sure not as nice as Graham's."

Albert laughs when telling the story of a horse she recently bought in a claiming race that had been living at the Fair Hill barn of trainer Michael Trombetta.

The facilities at Fair Hill are enviable.
The facilities at Fair Hill are enviable.Scott Serio / Bleacher Report

"I have to say, he was standing in one of my stalls looking dejected. Like, 'What did I do?'" she said. "You wonder what goes through their minds when they go to Laurel from Fair Hill."

Tom Amoss, the leading trainer at the recently concluded Fair Grounds meet in New Orleans with 41 wins and $1.29 million in earnings, trains at major racing centers like Churchill Downs and also small tracks like Delta Downs.

He said his level of care at each is no different: The attention to detail is exacting.

"I think the basic premise that needs to be understood here is that in horse racing, one-fifth of a second is a length in a race," Amoss said. "When you start going into the details, you recognize that's the difference between winning and running fourth; you recognize why no stone is unturned in caring for the horse—not only in the barn but on the racetrack in their training routine."

Amoss learned his trade under the guidance of Hall of Famer Jack Van Berg and trainer Frank Brothers. He said the main lesson each taught him was to spend a lot of time at the barn watching the horses so not even the slightest thing goes wrong without being seen.

"I'm here every morning, and I'm here every afternoon," Amoss said. "The more time around them, the better you're going to be and the better you will know that specific horse."

Where Albert charges a $60 rate to owners for each horse, Amoss charges $85. The costs are commensurate with the class levels their horses race at, but both trainers try to give top-quality care.

"Ice therapy on a daily basis is something a lot of the horses get," Amoss said. "We soak the feet if they have sensitive kinds of feet. We hose the horses in areas of warmth, putting pressure on them. We do acupuncture once a month, chiropractor treatment. We walk everything by hand. We limit the number of horses a gallop boy can get on. The most horses a gallop boy can get on is eight. By limiting the number, it gives us more time we can be with each horse."

Bank Float, a five-year-old horse, exercises in the Aqua Pacer at Fair Hill, which provides equine athletes with a high-resistance, low-impact workout.
Bank Float, a five-year-old horse, exercises in the Aqua Pacer at Fair Hill, which provides equine athletes with a high-resistance, low-impact workout.Scott Serio / Special to Bleacher Report

Amoss, like Albert, considers himself an old-school trainer. He doesn't necessarily go in for the state-of-the-art treatments, but he doesn't deride them, either.

"We are not one of those stables that will jump on the next fad that comes along," he said.

Yet the happiness and well-being of the horses in his care is paramount, he said, and he believes the general public mostly only hears the negative stories about the racetrack and not about the hard work trainers put into their care each day.

"I don't think the public understands we put the horses before ourselves," he said. "They get the best of everything. When you walk into my barns, the first thing you're going to notice is how clean they are, how well the horses are bedded—all these things go into winning. The average horse on the racetrack gets more attention, by far, than any pleasure horse owned by a boy or girl growing up."

John Scheinman covered racing for eight years at The Washington Post, co-founded and edited Kentucky Confidential and contributes to the Blood-Horse. He lives in Baltimore. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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