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Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:03

Winner's Circle: Hoofing it Through the Backstretch

By | Sports

Is racing so complicated that we need to study Aristotle’s philosophy in order to glean pleasure from it? No, not really, but without some understanding of how race horses are raised and developed, we are less likely to appreciate the full spectacle the sport offers.


Horses granted stalls at the Saratoga Race Meet are either made-stars or the equivalent of prep school graduates. To observe them going through their morning routines is a special experience and one I’d encourage everyone to participate in.

NYRA (New York Racing Association) has been conducting backstretch tours for decades. Every morning just outside the Nelson Avenue gates, you’ll find trams parked and waiting. To most people’s amazement, the backstretch tours are free.

Few other race tracks are so accommodating. For anyone who is not licensed to go onto the backstretch, these tours provide a way to observe the pastoral but complex functions of morning training.

When the tram reaches the backstretch, a specified guide delivers a quick tutorial about safety and protocol. From there, participants move right into an up-close observation of a horse and explanations about his equipment. Buddy’s been at this job for eight seasons; he’s there six days a week and welcomes every tour. His owner, Lisa Donadio, brings the QuarterHorse/Thoroughbred/Paint mix from her Connecticut farm for the entire racing season. He’s truly a model horse and Donadio says he loves his job.

Buddy’s bright chestnut coat is easy to spot. He’s a patient sort, and, like a lot of horses, enjoys interacting with people. Donadio looks forward to this summer activity and each fall returns to Connecticut where she is a special-education teacher. Buddy’s other jobs include best friend, trail riding, and workout partner. I asked Donadio the most frequently asked question she gets and she instantly replied, “Most of the people ask: How did you get THIS JOB?”

After leaving Donadio and Buddy, groups of approximately 25 people unobtrusively stroll through the barn area, never too close to the horses or interfering with the work at hand. A trainer’s barn is a private area and you’d no more step up to a stall without permission than to walk into someone’s office and open a drawer.

After watching horses come and go to the track, get their baths and bandages, the tours are led near the track to watch horses jog, gallop, work or school in the starting gates. The last stop is a briefing from Gus Rodriguez, a key member of the starting gate crew.

When I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was writing about the tours, she told me about her own experience . “I came to Saratoga by myself, I didn’t know anyone but I wanted to learn more about the racing here. Breakfast at the track and listening to Mary Ryan was the first step. I saw the tours advertised in my racing program and went on several of them in those first years up here.”

She compared the experience to a scavenger hunt, one clue leading to another. She found the booty all right, and now participates in a Saratoga-based racing syndicate.

This same friend is also an ardent fan of opera and travels far and wide to see special performances. She’s often mentioned that her two passions parallel each other more than one might expect. Her explanation is, “They both require engagement on a lot of different levels and for this precise reason they are interests best-suited for mature audiences.”

Opera is made up of drama, music, literature, history, costuming, landscape, acting, architecture and theater. That’s a lot of balls to hold in the air. Racing has an entirely different set of components but it too is a complicated tapestry.

Curiosity of the sport is a beginning, but to stay hooked you need to weave everything together. Learning what happens during training hours is a good start.

The Saratoga Race Course tours are a cost-free and effective way to gain exposure to this fascinating world of the backstretch. A crew of NYRA workers led by June Shaw conduct these informative tours. Shaw has been at the job for more than 20 years. Engage her in conversation, and you’ll soon learn she’s immensely happy with her job. A jovial crew reflects her enthusiasm.

The tours move in and out like clockwork. Shaw told me how, “The guides call me the hook because I’m forever pulling them in to load the trams for the return shuttle.” The horses and all the interesting activities tend to captivate people and the tour guides get excited to share even more of the wonderment with their audiences. It becomes something akin to curtain calls at a musical performance.

There are guides of all ages and their backgrounds vary vastly. They all seem to share a reverence for the outside, and a fascination for the horses, the people and the sport of racing. They are allowed to customize their tours so long as they follow the safety rules and stay in the designated areas. Like everything, there is a little theater involved.

I sought out what looked like the youngest guide. In only a week, Ben Shimkus will trade in his bright logo shirt and head off to SUNY Cortland University to begin his college career. It made me smile when I learned he was a theater major. His charismatic style is what first attracted me to learn more about these tours.

Shimkus started with NYRA on the frontside in the guest services department, but soon his curious nature caused him to gravitate closer to the horses. He told me, “I’m allergic to horses but attracted to everything about them. In his second year as a guide, Shimkus said the most frequently asked question is, “How often do they race?”

These guides handle their groups in a style reminiscent of crowd control at a PGA tournament. They are cautious and alert and always quick to provide space for personnel and the horses. You can see that they are prepared in the event someone suddenly hollers, “fore.”

Next I spoke with Bill Marotta, a Verizon employee for 32 years and a backstretch tour guide for 16 seasons. He told me, “I was 11 years old when my father first took me to the track; we lived in Brooklyn and went to Aqueduct and Belmont quite a few times.”

It was a joy to hear Marotta express his passion for racing. “I love the game and took one of these tours on my first visit to Saratoga.” He and his family moved here in ’96, and when the season opened, Marotta found himself applying to be a tour guide. Surprised to find out NYRA paid a stipend for this service, he told them, “You don’t have to pay me, I just really want to do this.”

Marotta spends his vacations in Saratoga. He says, “Why would anyone want to go elsewhere when this great spectacle happens right in your own backyard?” He quickly dismisses the shock some people express when they learn he takes his kids to the track. I just tell them, “Look, I’ve been coming to the races since I was 11 and I think I turned out alright.”  

He continued to say, “I am forever fascinated by how much goes on every day on the backside. People from all around the world have come on these tours and they are amazed that something so wonderful can be free.”

The odds of making a fan out of someone in a day at the races are slim, but give them a glimpse of what happens on the backside and they leave with hundreds of reasons to want to see more of this game.

The more everyone learns about these noble animals and this engaging sport, the more inclined they’ll be to preserve the great racing we have in Saratoga.

Kudos to the tour guides for all the great work they do.

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