It takes a village to race a horse. Everyone knows that the owner owns the horse, the trainer prepares him for the race, and the jockey is the horse's rider. However, it's not just these three that are associated with a winning horse. There are several people behind the scenes that contribute just as much to the success of the horse.
The person who manages the daily care for the horse is the groom. The groom will not only bathe and maintain the coat and mane of the horse, but will also feed the horse and clean and maintain the horse's stall. The groom is typically the person that spends the most time with the horse.
An important, but often overlooked person behind the horse is the farrier. The farrier is the one that puts on the horse's shoes and cares for its feet. Improper maintenance of a horse's hooves can cause numerous problems that may lead to career-ending injuries or even death.
In order to keep the horse fit, the horse must work out in the mornings. An exercise rider is used to pilot the horse around the track according to the trainer's request. Typically, exercise riders are current jockeys, previous jockeys, aspiring jockeys, or other experienced riders. Often, apprentice jockeys (or jockeys in training) exercise the horse in the mornings in hopes of gaining the opportunity to ride the horse in a race. Unlike a professional jockey in a race, an exercise rider does not have to maintain a certain weight or size in order to ride the horse during its workout.
When the horse is ready to go to the track for the big race, a hotwalker leads him from the backside barn over to the paddock. The hotwalker will stay with the horse and parade him around the paddock until the call for riders up is made. At that point, the jockey mounts the horse and rides him out of the paddock and onto the race track.
As the horse enters the track, a lead pony meets him and escorts him along the post parade, around the track for the warm-up, and up to the starting gate. A lead pony may be a retired racing thoroughbred or even a quarter horse. The lead pony must be a calm, good natured horse that can provide comfort and reassurance to a nervous runner.
Finally, once the horse makes it to the post, the gate handler leads the horse into the starting gate. The gate handler stands on the edge of the gate and assures that the horse makes a clean exit when the gate opens. The job of the starting gate handler is the most dangerous of all on the race track.
So, think about all the people that are behind the scenes the next time you see a large crowd gathered in the winner's circle around the winning horse.
Photo: Courtesy Kentucky Derby