Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'This is not a job for wimps'

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Joanie Hamilton often has little girls come up to her and her pet palomino Harley and tell her, "I'm taking riding lessons and I'd love to pony, some day."

"That's what I used to think too, when I was young and naive," said Hamilton, who has been a pony rider at Assiniboia Downs for 25 years (with some time off in the middle to have a family). This is not a job for wimps that's for sure," she went on. "You soon realize that it's pretty serious. People can get hurt, and this is a livelihood for these people out here."

So what about those riders, who escort the thoroughbreds and their jockeys from the paddock to the starting gates before each race? What are they really there for?

Well, just so that you realize it, they're not just a bunch of pretty faces. While it may seem calm out there, things can turn pretty nasty in the blink of a filly's eye, and that's where the hooves meet the track. "Our job is to keep the thoroughbred quiet, and get the jockey to the starting gate so that he doesn't have to use much energy, allowing him to focus on the race," said Hamilton. "Our job is to focus on getting him to the gate without him being dislodged from the horse along the way.

"If the jockey comes off and we manage to hang onto the thoroughbred, the trick is to turn your horse and go with them. You can go faster going into them, than they can backing away from you. If you let him pull his face away, he has leverage on his side and he is just going to go."

Occasionally the horse does break loose, and when that happens, catching the thoroughbred becomes the job of the Manitoba Jockey Club's group of outriders. "If the horse stays on the race track and they catch him, he is allowed to run the race, once the veterinarian inspects him and says he is OK," said Hamilton. "If he leaves the track, he is an automatic scratch."

Hamilton points out that all of this activity is not only to protect the horses, but also the investment owners have in their thoroughbreds.

Hamilton's main job at the Downs is performing the duties of the executive director of the Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association. "We represent the owners and trainers in their negotiations with management. We help determine, how many days of racing, what the racing days will be, how many races we will have per day, what the purses will be and what the conditions (for the race) will be."

In addition, the HBPA also runs a groom school, provides health insurance, social activities, and a backstretch chaplain, among other things.

Hamilton, 56, and Harley, 20, are track veterans. "I've had him since he was four," she said.

Oh, she's thought about replacing the aging Harley, who she says sounds like a motorcycle when he's working, but hasn't found a steed that measures up to him yet. "I know I will never find anything as good as Harley because he is pretty special. And it takes a good couple of years to get them to where they are working with you and understanding what you want them to do."

So this weekend when you hear the bugle announcing the post parade, give a big wave to the pony riders out there, and maybe even bring along a carrot or two for Harley and his pals.

Post time tonight and Saturday is 7 p.m. and 1 p.m. on Sunday.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2012 C7

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