Monday, May 23, 2016

Behind the Scenes - Arlington International Race Track

Behind the Scenes – Arlington International Race Track
By Nicole Janiga

Alexis Kuhn breezes a horse on the main track.

At noon on Sunday morning, the gates to Arlington International Race Track open for a day filled with bright floral sun dresses, lunch and conversations on the terrace, and fingers being crossed for the favorite thoroughbreds to be the first ones to cross the finish line as the crowd cheers from the grandstand.

Before the races begin, crowds gather around the paddocks to see the muscular horses, highlighted by the sun, being brought out and exhibited with grooms and colorful silk attired jockeys preparing for the day’s races. With the announcer’s voice echoing throughout the park, talk of the horses, their odds, and their performance fill the open air. The eight horses in each race come out toward the grandstand and enter their starting gates on the track, ready to be released to gallop towards the finish line. After the few short minutes of excitement and anticipation, the volume of the crowd’s cheering increases until the winner enters the Winner’s Circle with owners, trainers, family and friends, scurrying to get in for a ceremonial photo and victory hugs before the next group of horses are brought out.

Unlike most hunter/jumper shows, horse racing attracts a wider variety of spectators. Guests don’t see, and often don’t realize, what happens behind the scenes at Arlington and all of the people that make it possible. Alexis Kuhn, assistant trainer at Rodriguez Stables, spent the day with Chicago Equestrian to show us what goes into making the well-known and well-loved tradition of horse racing happen every weekend.

With an alarm clock set for 3:30 am every morning, Alexis beats the sunrise and begins her day at the track by 4:15 am to exercise and train horses until 10:00 am. At the young age of 22, Alexis already helps manage 30 horses and owns two of her own. With memories from her hunter/jumper background, Alexis took a 180 spin and didn’t just dip her toes, but rather dove into the waters of horse racing.

 Alexis Kuhn after a morning of breezing horses.

Often times, many horses will train together.
Alexis and the exercise riders bring the training horses out to the dirt track, overlooked by Illinois Rt. 53, before taking them to the main racetrack. One horse after another, they trot, canter and gallop around the polytrack. With four feet floating above the ground for milliseconds at a time as the horse extends and contracts its body to cover more ground, the riders hover above their saddles with the wind gliding over their backs. As horses with flaring nostrils and glowing bodies covered in sweat complete their day’s work, their prideful strut carries them and their riders back to their barns after a successful session.
Alexis on the practice track.

After the horses are exercised and have concluded their journey back to the barn, they are hosed off with water while they dance around anxious to get back to their stalls. Each horse is then hand walked by hot walkers for a few laps around the barn, eyeing its own stall each time as it passes by and nickering to the other horses. Alexis ensures that each of the horses at Rodriguez Stables is properly cared for, seeing that they are getting their legs wrapped and poultice applied as needed, by venturing to the barn whiteboard to double check that the jobs are being completed.

Enjoying time off between work and lunch.
From the grooms carrying totes of brushes and curry combs from stall to stall and the hot walkers leading drying horses around the barn, each job requires a test of candidates’ abilities to ensure the horses’, riders’ and staff’s safety. Some tasks, like tacking a racehorse, have more rigorous requirements and are left to assistant trainers and trainers. With horse’s hooves carrying their bodies and jockeys at speeds of 45 miles per hour, having the saddle tightly secured in its rightful place is crucial to ensuring that no jockeys slip off and land on the ground among other horses running at similar speeds.

As the horses are saddled and brought out to the track, each racehorse’s “pony,” outfitted in a western saddle, makes the flat, black racing saddle on its companion seem nearly invisible by comparison. They aid the racehorse by jogging their prideful companion, eyes filled with anxious eagerness, out to their mark in the starting gate. By keeping the young thoroughbreds at bay, the “pony” horses serve yet another vital part in both the training and safety at Arlington and other racetracks around the world.

 Racehorse being led by its “pony.”
With all of the roles that it takes to make a day at the track possible, it is important to take a moment between races to sit back and remember the dedication and persistence that backs this sport.

Alexis believes that “the day you stop learning and stop evolving is the day that you’re done in this business… The key is you have to find your motivation to keep evolving and find something that motivates you to keep pushing forward … Mine is having a stake horse.”

On behalf of Chicago Equestrian, we would like to thank Alexis for taking the time to show us behind the scenes at Arlington Race Track, and we wish her the best of luck in following her dreams and finding her very own stake horse.

Alexis’s racing saddle.

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