At a racetrack, the barn area (known as the "backside") is closed to the general public - mostly for security reasons. To visit the backside, you need an appointment with a race trainer or a special pass.
LOPE volunteers (including me) periodically walk the backsides of Texas tracks – so we can find trainers with racehorses to list on our website. We meet the horses, learn their stories and take pictures. As a non-profit, LOPE provides this as a free service to the race trainers and owners, as most have limited resources and placement options for injured or under-performing horses.
Because so many people are curious about the backside, I am writing an article about life behind the scenes at a racetrack. Below is an excerpt:
"Tom and I were on the backside of Retama racetrack in Selma, Texas. As we walked between the long barns (called shedrows), the usual equine rush hour swirled around us - as horses commuted to the track for their morning workout.
Beautifully turned out, the racehorses were meticulously groomed, shining in the dawn. Their exercise riders also took pride in their appearance - wearing jaunty fringed chaps, bright helmets and gaudy shirts emblazoned with their barn racing colors.
The actual race trainers rarely ride; instead they pace along the track rail, like football coaches on the sidelines, muttering to themselves as they watch their horses gallop. Most trainers could easily fit into a Dick Francis novel, with their disheveled attire, wind-creased faces and sharp-eyed worldview.
The racehorses dance on their toes with anticipation as they approach the track - their pony horse babysitters jogging beside them. As the jockeys steer their mounts up on the track, the horses show their age and experience immediately.
The young two-year-olds gallop sideways, crablike, heads bobbing at every new sight. Seasoned veterans break into smooth runs, every stride an efficient pump of equine power. The current champions of the moment, the ones winning today or about to win tomorrow, strut arrogantly, throwing challenging glances over their arched necks, fighting the bit playfully.
It's easy to see which horses might end up at the LOPE ranch or on our website listing service - they move with stiffness from old injuries or radiate a tension too nervous for competitive racing. My favorites are the couch potatoes, the still-maiden racehorses that amble around the track, gazing placidly at the other horses dashing by, never once feeling a twinge of competitive fire, a faint urge to keep up with (let alone overtake) the sprinters in the passing lane.
Behind the scenes at the racetrack is a disorienting jumble of rumbling diesel trucks, tautly alert young horses trotting on the dirt pathways between shedrows, gallop girls shouting to each other over the wind between their hurtling horses, random sprinklings of barn cats, kittens and goats wandering boldly in the barn aisles, horses "playing" (a race term that really means "bucking like a mad bronc") on the starfish-shaped automatic walkers.
As a pedestrian, it's up to you to watch for horses suddenly trotting up behind you, their riders glaring if you don't leap out of the way quickly enough. In Texas, most trainers spit regularly, either chewing tobacco or plain saliva, creating another hazard. The cats will rub up against your legs, the more enterprising goats will casually head butt your torso, the kittens will flee from you on principle. Horse heads will snake out from the open stall windows, usually just looking for a treat (peppermints are a favorite), but sometimes aiming for a quick mouthful of your shirt, jeans or arm.
Lack of savvy isn't tolerated here. Neither is slowness, in horses or people - nearly everyone walks fast and talks even faster, a carny cadence faintly discernible. There is a touch of greatness in all the people - and a touch of the con artist, the film noir character with a heart of gold. The racetrack people will surprise you - almost always pleasantly.
The horses all have a touch of greatness too - whether fast or slow, young or old, you can see their ancestors in their sleek bodies, their well-shaped heads, their alert eyes and their purity of purpose - to run, to race, to win."