Now that I am known far and wide as the writer of everyone's favorite Paulick Report series, it's not uncommon for me to get emails and Twitter DMs that read something like, 'Have you done a thing on the Serpe kitties?'
(If you have a Barn Buddies tip, by the way, I'd love to hear it – [email protected])
I hadn't done a thing on the Serpe kitties, so a few days before this year's Belmont, I made the walk back to the training track barns in hopes trainer Phil Serpe wouldn't be too busy to take questions about cats. Turned out, Serpe and his assistant/long-time partner Lisa Bartkowski were all too happy to talk about the barn crew at their Belmont base, even during New York racing's busiest week.
There are five cats altogether: an elderly statesman named Dave, a young female named Jumps, and her three (now grown) kittens: Coco, Sunrise, and Sunset. On the morning of my visit, calico Coco was curled up on the couch in Serpe's office.
“If you were here yesterday, you'd have seen – she just noticed the clock hands were turning around,” said Bartkowski, gesturing to a clock on the office wall, arranged above a bulletin board with some impressive scars. “She got her claw stuck in the [clock] hand and was just looking around like, 'Ok, somebody's got to get me down from here.”
“Notice the bulletin board, too,” Serpe said, pointing to the deep crevices in the cork. “It's a great scratching post.”
Serpe's office used to be in the area where his tack room is now, before an incident convinced him maybe he needed a cat-free space for his owners.
“A wealthy lady we trained for came to the races in a black dress. She sat down, and got up and walked away, and she didn't know it but the entire back of the dress was covered in cat hair. I'm like, 'I'm not going to say anything,'” recalled Serpe.
The new office — complete with cushy furniture, a full bathroom, and a door — was meant to be a fur-free area. That lasted until they took in Jumps, a petite tabby who had been abandoned at Gulfstream Park. Serpe suspects someone dumped her on purpose because it turned out she was pregnant – which he didn't know until she made a nest in his office one day.
“I knew something was weird one afternoon – she was hanging out in the office, acting strange. Sure enough, we go the next morning and she was laying on Dave's bed. I go to pick her up, and there's a kitten in the bed and one hanging out,” said Serpe, who admits he had a moment of panic before supervising the rest of the birth.
Jumps had three female kittens and one male, who was adopted by one of the track veterinarians. Of course, the couple couldn't stand to put such a vulnerable group out into the barn, so the office became cat territory once again. On the morning of my visit, Sunset was napping on a shelf over the shower in the office bathroom.
When the cats first came to Belmont, they would catch 20 to 30 mice per day. Now, they've chased most of the mouse population away from the Serpe barn. They won't take on Queens rats, which are considerably closer to their size, but Jumps will chase them out of the barn. Jumps has since shown Serpe her gratitude for his hospitality by bringing decapitated mice into the office and arranging them on his desk, which he accepts with horrified gratitude.
“They have such unique personalities,” said Bartkowski. “[Coco] is so devious and [Sunset] is neurotic, even though we've treated them all the same. And Sunrise is a loner.”
All of them are inquisitive. Coco has learned which drawer Serpe keeps treats in and will interrupt a nap to march over and paw the drawer pull, suggesting he open up.
“They're just a barrel of laughs. Every minute, they're right there,” said Bartkowski.
Both Serpe and Bartkowski run into the same problem faced by so many cat owners: so many pictures, all of them too precious to delete. Their tablets and phones are crowded with photos of the cats in trees, cats in the office, cats sitting on saddles and towels in the tack room.
“Phil had to buy me more iCloud storage because I have all these pictures of cats,” laughed Bartkowski. “Every once in a while I'll have an owner who wants to see a horse picture, and I can't let them look over my shoulder because it's kind of dumb – 30 cat pictures first, and then a horse.”
I think we've all been there.
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