As the horse racing industry has struggled in the face of controversy this year, many racetrackers felt misunderstood as the public developed a gradually more negative idea of what happens on the backstretch. 'If only people could come back here and see how well Thoroughbreds are really treated, they'd understand,' people said. Two groups at this year's Saratoga meet aimed to make that desire a reality.
Amplify, a new version of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association's Vision 2020, launched earlier this summer with the goals of cultivating young racing fans and mentoring those who may one day want to work in the Thoroughbred industry. As part of its first wave of industry programs, the group offered enhanced backstretch tours on a handful of dates in late July and early August.
Saratoga already offers tram tours, which pick up large groups from the clubhouse gate every 30 minutes and take them through the main track backstretch, stopping to watch workouts, see a trainer's barn, and speak to the gate crew. Amplify co-founders Annise Montplaisir of Godolphin Flying Start and Madison Scott of Solis/Litt Bloodstock coordinated with the New York Racing Association and received permission to give select small groups a more complete experience of the track. Amplify tour-takers got barn tours from Mark Casse, met Off-Track Thoroughbred ponies at the pony shed and were equipped with Thorofan's saddle towel guide so they could recognize the affiliations of horses going by. In the afternoon, the Amplify tour guides took them to reserved seats and brought them into the paddock. The tour guides gave the families programs and autograph books and helped the young fans in each group approach jockeys for autographs.
Despite a last-minute start in getting tour dates approved, Amplify hosted families on each of its three tour dates and got rave reviews.
“They thought it was great,” said Amplify spokesman John Piassek, who volunteered to help the organization host its Saratoga tours. “On one tour we had horse people who weren't racing people, and on one we had people who went to Saratoga a lot so they knew a little about racing. By immersing them in the experience and sharing info with them, it created a much better understanding of the track, and once you have that the experience becomes much better.
“It's no secret that racing is always looking for young people to be involved. One thing I've always liked about racing is that there are so many dimensions to it – training, breeding, wagering. It attracts all types of people, and I thought this group highlighted all those groups in different ways. I'd worked in Saratoga for the past two years as part of the Bet Squad program, so I had experience with teaching people about racing and wagering. I've written handicapping columns. This seemed like a way to keep [teaching people].”
The goal wasn't to reinvent the wheel, since Saratoga already had the tram tours available to the public. Rather, Amplify organizers knew from their own experience that the chance to ask questions and make connections with industry figures leads to more learning, and hopefully, more long-term engagement. The group is particularly interested in children, teens, and young adults who may already have an interest in horses but know little about racing, or who are casual race attendees but may not follow the sport in the off-season. Amplify already plans to have a presence at Keeneland's fall meet and at this year's Retired Racehorse Project Thoroughbred Makeover, where the group hopes to find riders who have retrained OTTBs but may know little about their first careers.
“It helps people to see owners and trainers as people, not just as caricatures of what people think they're all about,” said Piassek.
In the long term, Amplify organizers hope that if young fans want to work in the industry when they go to college or high school, the group can set them up with mentors to continue their racing education.
Over by the Oklahoma Training Track, trainer Gary Contessa also opened his barn to the public. Contessa hosted his 26th seminar and tour of his barn on a dark day earlier this month.
“I think every person that you make enamored with this game, they're going to stay,” he said. “It also creates X amount more people that realize how kind we are to horses, as opposed to the [protestors] standing outside the gate telling people how unkind we are. I want people to see how the horses are treated, how we go about doing things – therapy, training, everything.”
While Contessa usually has an outline for the topics he'd like to cover, he answers any questions visitors may have. On this particular day, he introduced visitors to each of the horses in his row, letting them know which were safe to pat and which were biters. He showed the group his feed room and tack room, went through horses' daily routines, and brought a particularly serene 2-year-old filly out of the barn to pose for pictures. The group's questions ranged from the more insider (like each horse's racing name and breeding, so they could follow the horses' careers later) to the more basic (why do horses sometimes scratch out of races?). Contessa is open with the group, not skipping over a couple of horses on lay-up from recent injuries.
Contessa said he offers some tours as part of a package to local charities for silent auctions, but he also allows people to come to his lectures for free. One man on the rainy day barn tour said it was his fourth Contessa event.
“I got an email about this and saw the Facebook post,” said visitor John Lougher. “My friends are up at Glens Falls so once a year I come up for the races. I love animals. I love to go to fairs, I love to be around animals, dogs. My wife won't let me have [a horse] in the yard.
“I've always loved coming out at 5 o'clock in the morning [to watch horses work out]. You don't get that other places. I live in Jersey, and you don't go to Monmouth or Belmont or Aqueduct and do that. You could, I guess, but people don't. This place is something special. You can feel the history in your pores, it's just amazing.”
Contessa plans to have at least one more barn tour before the Saratoga meet is out. He announces dates and times on his stable's Facebook and Twitter.
“It's way beyond the tram ride,” he said. “People want to hear stories like I told today. They want to hear about training methods, feed, they want to know about horses.
“Here, people have a thirst for information. They love this stuff. I had a walking tour of this place where I had 300 people. People up here thirst for more and more information about horses and I am such a proponent of getting people to the backside. I'd like nothing more than to do this every day for people.”
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