RUS Riders's Blog
The racing experience, from the best seat in the house
Published: September 12, 2015 9:20 am ET
Last Comment: September 13, 2015 9:50 pm ET | 3 Comment(s) | Jump to Comments
It would seem, nowadays, you could arrive at any given racetrack in Ontario and have your pick of any seat in the house. From the dining room, the grandstands, to the tarmac, or bellied right up to the rail to watch the horses charging across the finish line, more often than not its apparent that having the best seat in the house doesn’t require lining up at the doors, or contending with crowds to wiggle your way to a front row seat. Apart from a handful of major summer race dates, this has become a modern day reality at the racetrack.
I’d like to offer from my point-of-view, where the best, most exciting seat in the house still exists. It’s a place where a few fortunate people get the privilege to be, that often gets taken for granted. It’s that place where children and adult racing fans alike may only ever get to dream about. For most in the Standardbred world, that’s the view from the seat in the bike. And for a smaller few, it’s that view we get from the race saddle.
Since my first exhibition race start at Hanover in 2012, to winning in the first ever wagering under saddle race at Clinton Raceway in 2013, I can share with you so many different perspectives: good, bad, exciting, and terrifying, all experienced from that best seat in the house; behind the wings of the starting gate.
It didn’t begin as a place that seemed so glorious. After a long winter and spring of much trialing, and much error, transitioning each prospect slowly from bike to rider, striving to rate each mount during a mile, all the while teetering on that fine line between working together, and just getting in the horse’s way. Oh yes...and remembering to breathe, stay on, stay up, but still low, and stay back off their front end. Most importantly, still be safe, effective, and not completely gasping for air even after the mile marker is passed. No amount of cardio training, lifting weights, or cross fit classes can substitute, nor adequately prepare you for that unique kind of fatigue your muscles will experience from that “best seat in the house”!
And still, after so many jogging miles that left me thankful the next day that my house is staircase-free, training miles that left my arms like spaghetti noodles, countless internet hours conversing with other riders from around the world, nights lying awake running races in my head, it inevitably, in those first attempts, seemed to unravel into its own unplanned rendition behind that gate.
So many times, I contemplated if I would be better suited to trying my hand as a thoroughbred exercise rider. After all, I was spending a lot of my time on the gallop! All that preparation, and there we were...running like we were some awkward-gaited galloper preparing for the Belmont rather than a trot race. It was a major struggle trying to take any good from those early lessons, and say to myself "I’m so glad I’ve put my body and mind though all of this, I learned so much today! I can’t wait to get up at some ungodly hour to drive down here and do that again!" Sometimes it seemed anything BUT the best place to be.
Fast-forward through those early struggles, and I can assure you, being a monte rider is still very much a roller coaster ride of extreme highs and lows. Something you can never foolproof with best laid intentions. I’m sure any driver would tell you, it’s just par for the course in their line of work. But it's all so addicting as hell. Nothing quite clears your head, and fills you with adrenaline, like that best seat in the house, when the start car driver calls you to the gate.
So, how can I best express to you, on the fence, what it’s like from the saddle?
Each mount is as unique as the race day, race track, and weather conditions that present themselves. Most occasions, we have the luxury of knowing our team mate before the race, and other times we meet them for the first time in the paddock.
Hopefully, well before the race, each rider has devised a plan of how to best execute their ride for a winning outcome. Some horses have leaving power, while others have that final kick necessary to gain momentum over others in the stretch. Knowing your horse under saddle, as in the bike, is of utmost significance!
Now, convincing your 1,000 pound mount to go where you would like to place them is the key behind it all!
Out on the track, any of the pre-race nerves that were undoubtedly stirring inside have significantly been replaced with excited anticipation and adrenaline when we step out for post parade. In front of a diverse audience of family, friends, owners, trainers, drivers, bettors, and regular race day-goers, a cool thing happens when those trotters with riders step onto the track...whether it be the novelty of something new, the eagerness to cheer on a friend, or the curiosity of watching a known trotter preform without the race bike, there is a noticeable shift. People trading in their chosen seats for a now-crowded spot along the rail.
As we take our place behind our assigned positions, it becomes instantly apparent that this is not a place for indecisiveness or the faint of heart. Surrounded by friends that have become temporary rivals, and horses with only one motive in mind, that best seat in the house is no place to sit back and relax. One faulty decision of the mind, or physical unpreparedness as a rider, and one can pose an instant danger to others sharing the track. The obligation to handle one's mount with a cool head and an absence of ego is paramount. As competitors we all desire the same victorious outcome, but hold an acute responsibility to our four-legged team mate and every person who worked tirelessly to get him there, a safe, and honest trip around the oval.
As the engine of the start car accelerates, and the wings of the gate fold, the next 2 minutes or so become an isolated place of quick thinking and adrenaline-driven strength. The decisions made during those vital first seconds can make, or literally break, your contention for a win.
We can hear the cheers from the crowded fence as we rush by, but it's the tremendous sound of hooves, and our own breathing that keeps us grounded in the moment. By the first turn, we have either managed to settle a spot along the rail or looking fiercely to do so, working to balance one that is proving to be unsteady, pulling to the outside on a break, or dictating on the front as the race pacesetter.
By the half, entirely new decisions are quickly being made. Looking up at the mile markers, a watch, or judging by the power one either has or doesn't through the reins, moves are being prepared. From the front seat, a rider has either made the costly choice of rolling on through speedy first fractions, or muscled their mount back to conserve precious energy. From the pocket spots, riders are beginning to look around them for the right opportunity to pull, and invade the front runners. Others are coming to the realization that their mount is lacking, and are working hard to convince them to hang tough from their current position. All eyes are on that front seat coming off the final turn…
The stretch becomes louder as ear plugs are being pulled, and riders are getting low, urging their mounts for everything they have left. The crowd along the fence erupt into cheers, and it seems by the sounds around us that we are going to far more than the entry purse money we commonly race for.
The stretch either finds a horse as an obvious victor, or, more exhilarating for audience and rider, a late rush comes to challenge the lead, and two or more opponents are vying for a tight finish at the wire.
That is the seat I enjoy best.
Much like the photo finish at Clinton in 2013 that declared Radical Dreamer and I the winner, more recently, a close second at Georgian Downs filled me with the very same excitement. Regardless of those outcomes, finishing a race like that, with every last effort from rider and horse being poured into those last strides, it's indescribable. Glancing to the rider next to you after the wire, and knowing you and your horse put it all on the line is one of those very best seats in the house! Further back in the field, knowing that you made the best choices for your mount that day is equally pleasing. And for those inevitable days when you know you let your head get the best of you, and you failed your horse as a team mate, you still hold one of those coveted best seats in the house.
Because long after the winner is declared, and the trailer is loaded for home, we as riders are either enjoying the high, or working through the devastation and disappointment of bad ride. It's the latter than can destroy us, or make us better than before.
In the end, I wish that seat at the racetrack could be felt and shared with everyone. Riders and drivers alike have a duty off of the track as well to find ways of conveying that excitement to its patrons. If we are able-bodied, disciplined and determined enough to have the privilege of the best seat in the house, we owe it to the race fans to put on the best performance possible.
The bottom dollar from the bettors keeps us all out there and in the game. But providing entertainment that continues to be exciting and engaging for everyone, is what will keep us all feeling like we have the best seat in the house at our racetracks. Win or lose.
RUS rider and past-Vice President, 2012-2014
The views presented in Trot Blogs are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Standardbred Canada.