In misty mud of backstretch, workers live for horses


The General holds his daily briefings in The Track Kitchen at Pimlico Race Course.

"Thirteen hundred tanks, confirmed destroyed. Eleven hundred artillery pieces, confirmed destroyed. Nine hundred armored vehicles, confirmed destroyed," says horse trainer John F. DiNatale, reciting the Persian Gulf war reports on a rainy morning not long ago.

Mr. DiNatale digests the stats on smart bombs the way he devours the win-loss record of a Kentucky Derby prospect. Here in the track kitchen, where trainers and grooms, "hotwalkers" and jockeys yap about everything from equine dentists to fresh-fruit stands, the score card in the war provides rich fodder for conversation. "When one of our horses pulls up lame," says Mr. DiNatale, "we come in here and become political analysts."

Most mornings, during the half-hour "harrow break" that begins at 8 a.m., the men and women who make their living on the backstretch gather together to eat breakfast, grab a cup of coffee, read the Daily Racing Form, do crossword puzzles and philosophize about the world according to horse. Few of these horsemen will ever hold the Woodlawn Vase, the trophy awarded to the winner of the Preakness Stakes. Most will only drink Black-Eyed Susans on that day, while some other lucky buckdrapes a flowered blanket on the back of the winning horse.

But these are the folks who make racing run in Maryland, the people who arrive at the track before dawn to exercise their horses in the misty dark, who sweep the stalls clean of

manure and fill them with fresh hay, who keep a thoroughbred walking to ward off colic, who file a horse's teeth and fire their shoes, men and women who rush to Laurel by noon to watch a horse run and then race back to Pimlico in time for the barn'safternoon feeding.

"The ones with the smaller holes in their shoes -- that's how you tell the better handicappers," says trainer L. William Donovan, who hasbeen working with horses since he was a boy on his daddy's Richmond farm. "We all live in hope and die in despair. A lot of these horsemen are trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Very few do."

Bill Donovan caught a lightning bolt a few years back, a colt named Lost Code who earned $2 million in 1987-88. "He's a big, strapping, darn good-looking horse," the 57-year-old trainer says wistfully. "I trained him for three years. I had a beautiful roll. This game has been good to all of us."

Better for some. Worse for others. Addicting for most.

Lisa Murray, a 24-year-old groom, worked for three years without a day off. John and Judy DiNatale, both horse trainers, took their first and last vacation three years ago when they honeymooned in Florida. After 30 years of transporting horses to and from race courses, Simon Calrow retired and then returned to the track as the van company's agent.

"Once you get hooked, you can't get away from it," says Ms. Murray, who has groomed horses at tracks from New Hampshire to Alabama.

"This is the only business in the world where you can rub elbows with kings and queens and they won't put you in jail," says Alexander "Bubbles" Riley, a fixture at Pimlico whose gap-toothed smile and wizened face attest to his veteran years.

"It's our own little world here," adds Harry J. Shew, who's been operating the track kitchen for 14 years. "Same people every day . . . you know who's going to be sitting where and who's going to be talking to whom. It's like one big family."

And what a family it is.

Charlie from Charles Town talks horses down off the wall.

In the middle of the night, he walks through Barn L at Pimlico, poking his head into stalls, checking the thoroughbreds. Sometimes he stumbles on a horse that, in the course of turning over on a bed of hay, has wedged its hoof against the wall.

"We call it casting. He's trapped. He panics. They tear their intestines apart. My job is to calm him down, calm him down, so he won't hurt himself," says the 61-year-old security guard. "Horse sees me and says, 'Charlie's here.' You have to have a little bit of technique to pull a 1,000-pound horse off the wall."

It's a technique Charles L. Turner has developed since he chose his life's work.

"I'm from Charles Town, West Virginia. Bible Belt. Church and state. I chose church and horse, and I can operate without any conflict of interest," says Mr. Turner, who as a 7-year-old "hot walker" led West Virginia fillies around the grounds of the Charles Town track to cool them down after a race.

He lives two blocks from Pimlico and works from 4:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., patrolling a 40-stall barn for trainer Richard W. Small. He works seven days a week and earns minimum wage.

"I chose horse," Mr. Turner says as he sits among saddles and girths, bridles and blinkers in a tack room draped with cobwebs. "To me, it's my world. I'm safe in my world."

Greg Ryan chose horse, too.

Five mornings a week, he puts 1,000 pounds of horse between his legs and gallops the two-minute lick of a racetrack. Then he mounts a second horse and another and another until it's time to go to work. He puts on a suit and tie and drives downtown to Lee and Mason of Maryland, where he works as an insurance broker.

A steeplechase jockey, Mr. Ryan exercises horses at Pimlico to stay fit.

"You can work out on weights, ride a bicycle, run as much as you want," says the 30-year-old Fells Point resident. "But there's nothing like getting on a horse."

Before dawn, on a recent wet February morning, Mr. Ryan and other exercise riders gallop horses with names like C. A. Gold Streak, Carnival King and Downpatrick Dragon and streak past the grandstand before disappearing into the fog. Like many of the riders, he is a free-lancer, who earns $7 for every horse he rides. Some ride as many as 15 in the two-hour exercise period.

"With a really tough horse, you want to gallop them in the dark because they relax more," says Mr. Ryan.

Deborah Ramirez has left the damp, muddy track for a cup of coffee in The Kitchen. Her carrot-colored hair is pinned up under a red bandanna. Leather chaps cover the front pant legs of her jeans.

"My first horse hits the track at 6 a.m.," she says of the work she has been doing for 18 years. By 8 a.m., the 36-year-old rider gets ready to leave for her full-time job in the payroll department at the Johns Hopkins Health Plan.

"The offer was good. The salary's decent. The benefits are good," says Ms. Ramirez, pausing. "I won't be able to gallop forever."

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