While this Saturday's Belmont contenders prepare for the longest race of their lives, the horses' grooms double as psychologists and cheerleaders, keeping them relaxed amid the tension and media hubbub. As is the case on the racetrack, the high-level eventing horses don't just carry their riders when they enter the starting box. Like racehorses, the hopes of an entire support team sit in the saddle on their biggest days. Behind every rider is a hard-working groom currying, washing, and worrying at all the sport's major events.
The day is a long one for an eventing groom, starting around sunrise for most and finishing long after their horse's last ride, sometimes with a few check-ins overnight.
The rewards are great, too. Most grooms are riders themselves and trade their labor for the chance to learn from their employers. Some of them also have the opportunity to exercise the horses they care for.
Sarah Braun, groom for rider Hawley Bennett-Awad, relishes the opportunities she has to take Bennett-Awad's Rolex mount, a Thoroughbred mare named Gin and Juice, for the occasional trot set or gallop.
“It's a lot of pressure but it's definitely a lot of fun. It's cool to say that you've ridden a four-star horse,” said Braun. “She's so careful with her body and so light on her feet .. she's a pretty special little horse.”
Bennett-Awad and Gin and Juice finished seventh at the recent Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, the highest-rated CCI event in the United States. “Ginny,” as she is known around the barn, has been to all but two of the world's four-star CCI events and is a fan favorite both for her Thoroughbred blood and playful name.
Groom Lauren Sherrill also enjoys rides on her employer's horses from time to time. Sherrill worked for professional eventer Laine Ashker as a student one summer, and the position evolved into a grooming job. Sherrill and Ashker care for the eight horses on Ashker's central Virginia farm themselves, including off-track Thoroughbred Anthony Patch, Ashker's current four-star mount.
“Some people [become grooms] just to learn and to reach a certain goal, whether it be to go to Young Riders [an international competition for riders between ages 14 and 21] or to do a one-star or a two-star, and some people want to do this professionally and ride at the four-star level, which is ultimately my goal,” said Sherrill.
The chance to work for a professional rider has other perks. Alex Van Tuyll, who has groomed for the past 15 years, was at this year's Rolex to care for British rider William Fox-Pitt's two mounts. Van Tuyll has been to France, Germany, and China during her time as a groom—although it hasn't all been a vacation.
“You have to work hard to get to where you're going to. There's no point in coming into this profession thinking, ‘Oh I'm going straight to the top,'” said Van Tuyll, who became a groom after a traumatic fall in her days as a competitor. “It just doesn't work like that. I remember my days as a teenager raking and filling hay nets and that's basically all I'd do all day.”
As a veteran of the job, Van Tuyll said she didn't let the pressure get to her as she kept not one but two four-star horses calm, healthy, and gleaming through the weekend—even when that meant showing up extra early on Friday to be sure the horses were relaxed during the severe thunderstorms raging outside their stalls during breakfast.
The long hours in and out of the saddle create an extraordinary closeness between the horses and their grooms, who know their charges' every quirk and preferred method of relaxation.
“Al is a complete and total ham,” said Sherrill. “He is super spooky but at the same time he loves attention. He has to be the center of attention. He plays this game where he points to where he wants you to itch him, and it can go on for hours. He likes you to brush his face with a broom. He had been doing this long before he got to Lainey's. I have no idea how she discovered this.
“They're all so pampered, and Al, Al is spoiled rotten. He gets whatever he wants, in a good way.”
Van Tuyll has learned the quirks of her charges as well, including Fox-Pitt's popular off-track Thoroughbred Parklane Hawk, who won Rolex in 2012.
“He's cool, he's a cool dude,” she said. “He quite likes his own space, so he's not as affectionate as the others. He would sometimes have a little cheeky nip as you did his girth up but if he did it, he'd be like, ‘Oh my God, I'm really sorry, I'm really sorry, didn't mean to do it.'”
When their employers enter the show ring or leave the cross country start box, a groom's calm resourcefulness can evaporate.
“When they don't show her on camera, I'm sweating, my heart's pounding out of my chest the whole time she's on course, and then when she comes through the finish flags it's a relief,” said Braun of Bennett-Awad and Ginny.
This year, all three grooms breathed sighs of relief at the end of Rolex's stadium round as their horses left for home in relatively good health. And even better, Van Tuyll got to enjoy another perk of the job courtesy of her charge Bay My Hero—standing in the middle of the stadium course Sunday afternoon to accept an award for being Groom of the Winning Horse.
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