There was something different about one of the shed rows in the stakes barn area at Pimlico on Preakness weekend this year. The aisle was neatly raked, uniform stall guards were up, a fan was quietly humming away in the early afternoon. Horses turned away from their open doors, cocking one leg while dozing. But instead of sleek, delicate Thoroughbred legs, these horses had feathers.
The Budweiser Clydesdale hitch is a staple of Preakness weekend, with four pairs of Clydesdale drafts weighing up to 2,300 pounds pulling a replica of a Budweiser delivery wagon down the stretch, usually early in the race card. Clydesdales have been a part of the beer company's imagery for decades, making their first appearance in 1933 and continuing to appear in commercials, parades, and all sorts of sporting events. The first set of Clydesdales were a gift from August A. Busch Jr. and Adolphus Busch to their father to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition. The Budweiser hitch has appeared in inauguration parades for two presidents (Harry Truman and Bill Clinton) and is now heralded as a “living embodiment of America's great industrial spirit” according to the Budweiser website.
And, just like their racing compatriots, the Budweiser Clydesdales travel with their very own barn buddies. Each hitch (there are three altogether, each covering a different part of the country) has one or two Dalmatians that travel with them and at least one dog is often visible on the wagon, sitting next to the driver.
Shelby Zarobinski, Clydesdale handler for the West Coast hitch, said the presence of a Dalmatian on the hitch is also a nod to tradition.
“Dalmatians, the breed itself, was known as a coaching dog. Back in the day when they made deliveries, the dogs would run between the wheels of the coaches and carriages and they were also companions to the horses,” she said.
“Regarding the history with Budweiser, the first time a Dalmatian rode on the hitch was March 30, 1950 and that was for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Newark brewery. Since then, Dalmatians have made appearances at the parades and events we do, riding alongside the drivers on the wagons.”
The Clydesdale team at Preakness has two dogs with them now – a female named Mary and her full sister, 5-month-old Lily – who spent afternoon naptime in the first stall in the row, traditionally reserved by racehorse trainers for the most important creature in the stable. Zarobinski said there's a great deal of variability on dogs' personalities. Lily was playful and curious, while Mary seemed slightly jealous of her younger sister getting all the attention. The two dogs on Zarobinski's team are named April and August. April is the adventurer, while August, the younger dog, is more cautious.
“We're sitting in Texas right now and it's raining and she's out playing in the grass and the mud, just being a dog,” she said. “August on the other hand, he's more like 'Eh I'll lay down inside. I don't want to get wet. I'll let the people come up to me and pet me.'”
Zarobinski said Mary and Lily are an example of Budweiser's training program in action.
“We get a puppy when the older Dalmatian is 3 years old,” she said. “The puppy will sort of shadow the older dog for about three years, and then we'll retire the older dog at six. That way we always have two and they sort of keep each other company, play together, self-exercising. It's just healthier that way. Just like horses are herd animals, the dogs tend to do a lot better when they're together on the road.”
Retired dogs find homes with horse handlers, giving them plenty of years of a less hectic schedule. While Budweiser Clydesdales are purpose-bred at the Warm Springs Ranch in St. Louis, dogs are needed less frequently and so the company works with reputable breeders around the country to find the right puppy when they have a spot to fill.
On the road, Zarobinski said dogs are allowed to spend as much time as possible with the Clydesdales to get acquainted with the gentle giants. They use PetSafe perimeter collars to allow them to explore a safe distance around their base whenever possible. Starting their job at a young age means the Budweiser dogs are not one-person dogs, but get used to receiving admiration from lots of people during a public appearance.
The team helps the dogs practice with the wagon whenever possible, pulling it out during quiet afternoons to show the dog how to climb aboard safely and where to sit. Younger dogs are seated in a driver's lap as they get used to the movement of the wagon.
“Our Dalmatians love riding up there,” Zarobinski said. “It's sort like when an athlete's getting ready to go to a massive championship—they get their gear on and they're ready to go. The horses and the dogs, they get that harness on and they know it's showtime.”
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