I am still thinking and feeling that today after spending the morning at Churchill Downs in Louisville with a friend, and her friend who has a race horse in training. Being on the backside of the race track is a whole different experience with its own energy and feeling to it, and I am amazed at the entire experience. Seeing the riders on excited and nervous thoroughbreds in the early morning on one of the most famous race tracks in the world has made me appreciate another aspect of the equine world.
The back side of Churchill Downs is full of large barns, mostly full of horses in each stall, wonderful smelling green hay, and the bustle of people around every corner. What I didn't realize is the safety aspect of being in this world of horses and how alert a person needs to be at all times. My kids were invited to go today, which until leaving, I hadn't fully appreciated until talking with my friend, listening to her say how she appreciated how my kids behaved today. She said she wouldn't bring just anybody's kids to this area - and now I understand why (and I am so proud of my kids!).
When we first got to the stall where our new friend's horse was, we had just been told that if a horse is being lead by, we needed to immediately stand against the wall, stand still, and let the horse pass quietly by. If we didn't we had a high chance of getting kicked. After having a few horses go by, we decided it was safer to have us stand on the outside edge of the barn and watch the horses go by because more than a few people in such a busy, closed in area was just too dangerous. We walked to the track to watch exercise jockeys ride horses around the track, entering them through one of a few gaps along the track rail.
The Rules at the Track
The rules are you have to always stop and let a horse pass, stand still and quietly, and no sudden movements. No feet scuffing, no banging, so tapping, no shuffling bags, no speaking loudly. Anywhere.
Why? The thoroughbreds are excited, nervous, and sometimes scared, so for the safety of the riders (and horses) everyone must obey these rules. We had to constantly be aware of horses and riders coming and going, and my kids did great (which for a six and eight year old it can be a challenge for a few hours).
It was simply amazing to see the horses walk out to the left onto the track of Churchill Downs with a pony rider or another race horse because most of the horses being exercised was giving off such an energy and excitement - eyes wide, muscles twitching, feet dancing, tails swishing - and that's just walking onto the track. Other thoroughbreds were walking out like it was just another day at work. As mentioned when horses go out, and also when they are walking they are all headed clockwise around the track. Horses that are running at any speed are going counter-clockwise. Horses that are running at a slower pace are in the middle of the track and the fastest running horses are on the inside along the rail.
Here are some other things I learned today.
When a horse is being run the fastest it can go, it's call "breezing." That part of their workout is usually done in front of the grandstands and they run full out. By the time the horse and riders were on the opposite side of the track where we were, they were being slowed down, with the jockeys standing up in the stirrups. Some horses had their reins pulled back and they were snorting to the rhythm of their feet hitting the ground, while others had their heads pulled all or part of the way to the side because they still wanted to run.
The horses tongues are tied down so they don't swallow them when they are racing. I had no idea prior to today. Some horses entering the track had their tongues literally hanging out of the side of their mouth, while others you could not tell. When they were running there was no hanging out but you could see some of the bands on the bottom side of their mouths in the pictures.
If the horn is sounded at the track at Churchill Downs it is to alert everyone that a horse is loose and sounds until the horse is caught. We were there for a couple hours before this happened. We were standing in a boxed in area with rails next to a building used by timers next to the track. The horn sounded and within a few seconds everybody came to a halt, on and off the track. Immediately pony riders approached the loose horse who was running down the track in the wrong direction directly towards us. A gentleman was standing with us watching and he told us to go stand behind the building and stand against the wall as he went to stand in front of us. He then said go stand on the other side of the building - and I'm glad we did.
As we got to the other side, the loose horse rain right up to the rail where we had been standing. It could have easily hopped the rail and run over anyone that was there. Loose horses on the track are usually scared, hyped up, and in "flight" mode and have to be taken very seriously as injury to the horse and those around them can come easily.
A couple of pony riders gathered in front of and on the side of the horse and eventually caught him. I swear as soon as as the pony rider had the loose horse's reins in his hand, that is the moment when the horn stopped sounding. Amazing. Thank you to the man who had the foresight and thoughtfulness to tell us to move to safety.
We Met a Race Horse in Person
The friend of my friend (our new friend and her two girls) has trained horses for years and is training her two year-old colt on the track. Unfortunately her horse's legs need some down time so she did not run him on the track today. We did get to meet him, see him get a bath and see his stall, which happens to be next to a thoroughbred who just won his first race. Who knows what other horses we ran into today - perhaps a Derby winner in the future. That's pretty exciting to me!
It was an amazing experience today to be on the other side of the track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY today. My kids loved it, I loved it, and our friends who go on a regular basis are so interesting to talk with and hear their stories. I don't know which is more fun - being in the grand stands with a crowd of people watching the races every 30 minutes or so. Or being on the barn side of the track watching more horses than I can count horses walking, running, all at the same time, on a beautiful almost-summer morning. What do you think?
If you want to see more pictures, check out the gallery named "Churchill Downs" for a full view of what we were able to see - including the loose horse, a famous trainer, and lots more.