22It was a legitimate question, but it had six-time Assiniboia Downs leading trainer Clayton Gray, his son, promotions and media co-ordinator Allan Gray, and head starter Derek Corbel laughing so hard, they were almost rolling on the floor in the Backstretch Kitchen.
"Coming from a layman, that is a good question," chuckled the elder Gray.
The discussion circulated around track safety, and the people whose job it is to ensure that Assiniboia Downs is one of the safest race tracks around.
"There is no way to tell the horse how to do it," said Corbel, the son of two-time leading trainer Emile Corbel. "My theory is that you keep bringing the horse over, and stand him in the gate. Then back him out. He doesn't always know that he is jumping out of the front, or even that he is going to be in a race. Hopefully he'll settle down...
"I had a guy get kicked in the stomach last night (July 8)," continued Corbel, adding that the job can be dangerous for the horse, jockey and his staff. "Our priority is the rider. If the horse flips in the stall (approximately 3x7 feet), we get the rider out first and look after the horse later. A lot of times (the rider will) get chucked right out the back before being thrown down to the bottom."
"Most of the horses load with no problem," said Dr. Joe Meek, the Downs' veterinarian "There are some which are reluctant, so they have to wrap up (two guys, one on each side of the horse, who lock hands under the rump, and muscle him into the gate)."
Tyrone Nelson, currently the No. 2 jockey in the standings, said a lot can happen in the moments prior to the start of a race. "The gate people here are pretty good, but you really have to be alert. Sometimes the horse does crazy things. Sometimes he leans on one side, or he just sit on his hind legs. Or sometimes they force their nose right up on the front of the gate."
Track supervisor Bob Timlick's job is to make sure the race surface is safe for both horse and rider. While admitting his job isn't as exciting as being a Zamboni driver, Timlick believes it is every bit as important. "The composition of every dirt track is different," he said. "Ours is about four per cent clay, three per cent silt and the rest is sand content."
Timlick, who dumps 40,000 gallons of water on the track each morning of race days, and can be seen driving the water truck between each race, says if you could see a cross-section of the track, "you'd see that we have a three-inch cushion, with an inch-and-a-half sub-base of higher clay content. Under that is a limestone base about 15 inches thick. Prior to the first race, I do cushion checks from each marker pole outward to make sure we have three inches right across, and I grade the track once a week."
Spring presents a particular challenge to Timlick and his crew of five. "Spring training begins March 1, at minus 20, often in snowstorms. We have a guy who runs the tractor all night during spring training just so that the track won't freeze."
"If a track is too hard there is chipping ankles and cracking shins," said Gray. "If it is too loose, you get them pulling suspensory (ligaments), tendons, and have lots of trouble with their back ends. But at this track, you don't have too much of anything."
One thing that exacerbates the chance of injury at smaller tracks such as Assiniboia Downs, said Gray, is that "We can't spend a lot of money, so we buy everybody's rejects (older horses). They are getting rid of these horses cheap for a reason, but we very seldom have horses hauled off in a wagon (because of injuries) either. At some tracks that is a daily occurrence, so I think it is fantastic how well we do."
"We get lots of young horses without problems, but there are some with problems," said Meek, "and we watch them pretty carefully. Horses can race up to 12 years, but probably, on the outside, only eight years. We've got several horses here that are eight, maybe the odd nine-year-old, but it is rare to get a 12-year-old. I think the majority of the time, the track is pretty kind to the horses."