Preserving Railbird Ornithology at the Horse Racing Track

Experiencing an event at the race track can bring certain perks that other sports don’t offer.

Updated: Jan. 25, 2019 • 6:55 PM ET


Sam Houston Race Park is just one of Texas' premier tracks.

If you haven’t ventured out to your local horse track, you might go join the railbird population — a sort of horse ornithologist. Go be with the groundlings; leave the buffet and the cushioned club chairs behind.

It’s an eclectic bunch. One of my favorite positions is to be near the gate when the bell rings and the horses break. Speed, power and want, all form a nexus of such rawness. Jockeying for position literally takes center stage.

The architecture of the track should be enticing enough; it has a long history of development and there’s a certain rhythm to it.

Horses are brought from the barn area to the saddling ring along a certain route. Non-runners are included — I always imagine how they wish they were in the race. The parade begins after the trainers have a chat with their jockeys, as owners look on helplessly, hoping for the best. Post time approaches and before you know it, mounts are out on the track with ponies alongside going through their warmups.

This isn’t meant to be overly pedantic here about sport, but history impacts the future. The Coliseum in Rome possesses features that one might find at the new home of the Atlanta Falcons that will play host to this year’s Super Bowl. Yes, there are places for people to sit and cheer in both, but there are also specific conduits for traffic and a certain economy to how space is distributed (and, it should be worth mentioning, that both stadiums had retractable roofs and elevators).

Horse tracks are no different. Although the luxury seating has become more decadent, the rest remains the same. The rhythm is there too, just like in the paddock and on the track. There are betting windows (not all are electronic), and of course there’s the rail (which runs along the grandstand), where one can while away the hours watching horses come by at varying degrees of speed.

Unlike most postmodern sports, where there’s a clear demarcation between fan and athlete, horse racing has and will always blur those lines. For instance, unlike the major team sports, where it’s difficult to get near your favorite athletes, it can be an up close and personal experience in racing.

Take my local track, Sam Houston Race Park; during their live meet January through March, it’s endlessly fascinating because you can easily run into jockeys, trainers and owners along many paths. For example, since the winner’s circle is positioned next to the wire, jockeys dismount then make the long walk through the grandstand and back to the paddock. You can run into them as if it were Grand Central. Once while walking in, I nearly decked Martin Pedroza with the door. He was gracious.

Over the past few years, you can sit on the same bench with Steve Asmussen, have some idle banter with trainer Mike Maker and of course, you can stand next to the guy that likes to make odd comments to the jockeys as they head to post parade.

Recently, I’ve looked forward to the release of the card for the Racing Festival, which has become a fixture the day after the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. I wait with anticipation, as Equibase lists the horses, jockeys and trainers that will be in attendance.

This year, I was giddy as I read that Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will be making his first appearance at SHRP. Although he didn’t win the Eclipse Award this year, that’s quite a coup; he’s a legend in the sport. Think Jordan, Brady or Jeter.

He’ll ride in the feature, the Houston Ladies Classic, aboard an Asmussen mount, Midnight Bisou, a horse that hit the board in last year’s Kentucky Oaks.mIf that were not enough, he’ll also stick around for three other races, a real treat.

Other jocks and trainers are coming too. Jose Ortiz, last year’s Eclipse winner, and phenom trainer Brad Cox will make an appearance. They’re some of the best in the sport, and it will be a pleasure to have them in town.

That last tidbit brings up a debatable point of view. Criticism has been levied at trainers/owners that ship their horses into tracks like SHRP; thus, “raiding” purses. The thought process is that this robs lesser-known entities of the chance to win at their local venue. Super barns triumph.

I’m not convinced that this is raiding, per se. Rather, I think this is de rigueur. Aircrafts designed to move horses around the globe is commonplace now. Cards now display a stat of the trainer’s ability to ship; it’s the way of the world now, I’m afraid. Follow the money; there are the patricians and the plebeians.

We would be good to remember that horse racing has a long history, and even though it’s not the same sport it was 100 years ago (how can it be?), we still need to place a greater importance on supporting our local tracks, no matter who’s racing.

States that want to cut funding to the sport need to remember that meets are good for the local economy, and it helps to preserve the past and protect the future. I know it’s more complicated than that; government bureaucracy, funding channels, social ills associated with gambling and such need to be addressed. It all seems like deciphering an ancient language.

But reductionism has its place too. Enjoying the opportunity to watch athletes do what they do should be enough.

Maybe being a railbird will suffice.

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