This was a response that I uttered every morning for six months straight as Woodbine’s security asked about my health and took my temperature before going into work. Mask on, hand sanitizer nestled in the cup holder of my car, I drifted onto the backstretch under the misty lights towards the stables as the clock ticked towards 5 a.m.
Barn 5 was my home for the majority of the 2020 thoroughbred racing meet. It is one of the first barns you drive past upon entering the stable area. The lawn jockey decked out in black and red silks indicates the barn is home to Colebrook Farm’s racing outfit. Although Colebrook horses occupied a majority of the shed, Barn 5 was also home to a fleet of runners for trainer James Smith as well as a cozy crew trained by Irish trainer Breeda Hayes.
I worked for all three trainers: Hayes for the longest, Smith when he needed an extra hand on a couple of days. Then I finished the season out with Colebrook Farms.
The horsemen – trainers, grooms, jockeys, exercise riders, hotwalkers – were the only people allowed access to the track during the pandemic. A journalist by trade, my access was severely restricted. On the advice of a friend I applied for a job as a hotwalker, knowing that it would be hard to stay away from the sport I love for the whole season.
I also knew from looking up Facebook groups like Work Force or websites such as Equine Guelph’s Job Track that finding a job wouldn’t be too tough. Horsemen are always looking for exercise riders, grooms or hotwalkers to help with the horses. According to Tim Lawson, manager of racing development and stabling operations, Woodbine has been home to upward of 1,900 horses this year and the backstretch employs a maximum of 1,800 employees, with the daily number of workers actually ranging from 1,300 to 1,400 people.
With that said, many horseman are always looking for help and the process to gain employment is pretty straightforward. Getting a license from the AGCO and, thanks to Covid, wearing a mask are the two essentials things you need to gain entry and work on the backstretch.
My job title of hotwalker was not completely accurate, as it doesn’t necessarily mean you just walk hot horses after they have finished training. Yes, you can choose to only walk horses, but the words ‘pitching in’ mean a lot to the horsemen. So depending on what barn you work for and how much help they have (or don’t have) you ‘pitch in’ where you can. This might mean a little bit of grooming, helping an exercise rider or trainer tack or untack a horse, filling water buckets and even cleaning some stalls. It sounds like a lot, but it really depends on who you choose to work for. More importantly, by pitching in you have a much better appreciation for the horsemen who spend endless days and months preparing their horses for the races.
When hotwalking, you tend to walk a bit of everything, including the two-year-old youngsters that spook at the slightest sounds and most miniscule of movements. I also walked veterans in this game who had seen it all – empty shaving bags blowing through the shed, a loose horse coming down the road or even that silly raccoon peering in while looking for misplaced snacks or treats.
Some horses don’t bat an eye to anything happening in or around the shed, yet they are still unpredictable creatures. Several bruised toes and a trip to the walk-in clinic to get a tetanus shot has taught me that remaining vigilant and keenly aware of your four-legged charge is a vital aspect of this job. (I owe that latter lesson to a chestnut colt from another barn where I also helped for a brief period of time.)
My first piece of advice for anyone who wants to work on the backstretch is avoid wearing shoes you’re attached to. They won’t be ‘shoes’ in the true sense of the word for too long working with horses, walking the shed and hustling back and forth from the front side. Caked with dirt, soles worn down, my running shoes have sadly been retired from the racing scene. I got a few looks when I started wearing rubber boots, but when you bring a horse out to the wash bay there’s a good chance you will get soaked, too.
Talking about feet, I tracked my steps daily and by the time 10 a.m. rolled around and morning training wrapped up, I had walked around 20,000 steps. So despite the closure of gyms during the pandemic I was definitely able to get some exercise in while also spending time with the horses.
Barn 5 is my home
At the Hayes outfit my day started off with sleepy eyes as I scrubbed buckets and filled them with fresh water for her trainees. Breeda’s husband, Johnny, had already mucked the stalls and was heading off to a ride a handful of horses for another outfit as I filled buckets. Meanwhile, Breeda was setting tack and getting one of her trainees ready for the first jog or gallop of the morning.
While Johnny and Breeda were the first people I saw every morning, a prominent voice I heard within the first few minutes of arriving on the shed belonged to John Perron (or Shakey as he was known to some). Working for Jimmy Smith, John adored all the horses, but especially Silver Sheriff, a horse owned by his sister, Michelle. Each morning without fail, John would be standing alongside Sheriff’s door, giving him a morning cuddle or letting the strapping big horse nuzzle his head.
Another voice that could be heard throughout the shed was Pat Dixon, an assistant trainer for Colebrook, who walked up and down the shed checking in on each horse before morning training began. Although the pandemic greatly impacted social interaction, it was nice to come to work and have many friendly faces greet you.
Once water buckets were done, I would grab a lead shank and make sure to have it handy when the first horse returned from training. I didn’t like to stand idle, so I would pitch in, brush off a horse, pick feet and help tack up when Hayes needed a hand. Under her watchful eye, Hayes showed me how to put on different pieces of equipment including polos.
That was just one of the wonderful things about working for Hayes. I didn’t just walk horses around the shed; she actually taught me how to do things as well. When a horse needed paddock schooling, she would let me accompany her to the front side and sometimes even saddle a horse in the paddock. During my time with Hayes I had the opportunity to walk over and help paddock school some really cool kids who went by the barn nicknames, Charlie, Lola and Charger. They are better known to racing fans and the betting public as Credit River, Lots to Like, and Go Take Charge.
I loved all her trainees, but there was definitely something special about Credit River. I think everyone felt that. My first day on the job that steel grey two-year-old colt looked me dead in the eye as if to say “Listen, I will walk if you want to, but I will also show you my dancing legs if you take your eyes off me for a single second.”
I have to admit that I always heaved a sigh of relief after walking him, thinking to myself ‘phew, another successful day around the shed, nobody got kicked, I didn’t land on the ground, and he didn’t lose his peanuts over something silly.’
Good looks and sassy personality aside, could the son of More Than Ready actually run?
He certainly could.
At 41-to-1, that little grey horse cruised by the competition to secure his first win (as a first-time starter) in the Ontario Racing Stakes for Hayes and owner Garland Williamson.
That was a surreal moment. Interviewing people who win races is one thing, but being part of the team is even better. It means weathering the highs and lows of the sports as well. Celebrating a win is one thing, but nursing yourself back from a defeat is another.
Despite his best efforts in his next race, Credit River was upstaged by the competition in the Cup and Saucer Stakes.
All the while, through the first win and then a loss, Hayes exuded an understated sense of grit and courage while on the job. Each day came and went. Other horses needed to be prepped for upcoming races later that season, so the loss was tough, but you just moved forward.
Memories from that barn might fade with time, but hearing her say ‘I’ve just got to kick on’ will probably always stick with me – serious words of gumption from a trainer, a horse lover and my mentor.
Walking down the shed to Colebrook Farms
As the season drew to a close, Hayes shipped horses out and I found myself pitching in to help with other outfits in the barn.
Another great thing about the backstretch is that you don’t need to upload your resumé to a company website, wait for a response and pray you secured a job. No, you can literally walk down the shed (or to another barn) and into another job.
I pitched in for Smith’s outfit a couple of times and honestly that outfit devotes a great level of care and time to each horse. It’s safe to say I was equally rooting for Team Hayes and Team Smith on days they had a horse entered to run.
Then I ventured down the shed to Colebrook. Everyone is tired towards the end of the season, yet there remains an air of hopeful energy that permeates through the barn as grooms clean stalls, riders adjust their equipment and hop on those first few horses going out. The words ‘centre’ or ‘hold up, in the middle’ still ring through my ears as I think back to the riders and hotwalkers calling out as they walked horses through the middle of the shed.
There were no dull moments at Colebrook. As soon as I had put one horse back into its stall, another groom would call me from down the shed, “are you walking any horses in the next set?” Shank and cooler in hand, I walked over and waited for another horse to come in, while a groom could tack a horse going out in the next set.
While I walked a lot of nice horses this year, it’s important to mention a couple of Colebrook trainees named Story Straight and Grander Plan.
Story Straight, an unraced two-year-old dark bay filly, was at the track to learn the ropes of being a racehorse. When I first met her, she walked tentatively through the shed, almost waiting for you to react to anything so she could react. She eyeballed blankets on the rail, the empty shaving bags, or anything that made a movement as the wind picked up through the barn. She also nickered to all her friends in the shed when they called out. I wasn’t able to go out and see her train, but I always asked her rider Cassandra how she did. The two had a bond and I definitely felt that Story’s confidence continued to grow over time because of that.
Then there was Grander Plan, a lanky two-year old gelding and son of We Miss Artie. I called him the night owl of the outfit because he raced at 9 p.m. on one of the last days of the racing season. The morning of that race, I snuck into his stall while he was resting up for his race and took some photos with him. Not too often did I see him lying down as he usually towered over me while I walked him. That night he ran a closing fourth – a pretty decent effort considering most of his barn mates were sleeping while he was on the front side putting in his best effort.
Racing has set days and times, but the curtain falls at different hours for each horsemen. Your horse could be entered in the first race, which means you have the rest of the day to take it (relatively) easy. Or you could be running in the very last race despite being the first person on the shed at 5 a.m. Being able to adapt is key to surviving in this industry.
Much to the disappointment of the horsemen, this racing season was cut short due to the lockdown in November which resulted in horses from the Colebrook outfit being shipped home to spend the winter on the farm. Abruptly, my hotwalking job came to an end.
Yet looking back on this year, it was truly a blessing to have a home-away-from-home during the pandemic.
Next year, if you find yourself looking for a part- or full-time job with horses, in particular racehorses, I encourage you to give hotwalking or grooming a go if you are willing to show up and hustle. Just remember to set your alarm clock, wear sturdy waterproof shoes and put your social life on snooze.You’ll get lots of exercise, meet new people and the best part: you get to spend time with some amazing four-legged athletes.