It's 4 a.m., and I'm about to hit the snooze button one more time before I drag myself out of bed. It's still dark outside, and my dog Hank gives me a look that says, 'you want me to go outside, and do what?'
He gives in after I bribe him with a cookie, and after fixing his breakfast, I'm out the door.
An hour-and-a-half later, I arrive at Tom Gardipy Jr.'s stables at Assiniboia Downs, and as the sunbeams spill through the doors, the scene within is ethereal. Chirping birds are busy raising families in the rafters, a vole scampers between my feet into a bale of hay, and about 30 thoroughbreds stand at the entrance to their stalls. Heads bob up and down and steam puffs from their nostrils as they eagerly await breakfast.
The day dawns on shed row.
As a rule of thumb, I like to run things past my psychologist before I embark on a new adventure. When I told her I was going to work for a day as a groom, she told me I was nuts, which is not an official psychological term, but she did have a point. Horses and I have never really understood each other. Hell, at the age of 10, I fell off a painted pony on the merry-go-round at Grand Beach. It was years before I could get back in the saddle again.
Gardipy arrives just before 6 a.m., and assigns me to follow his 24-year-old son Travis (Trapper), whose first order of the day was breakfast. After I realized that he meant for the horses, I grabbed a wheelbarrow full of oats, and began dishing out a gallon pail to each horse, while at the same time trying not to get between the horse and its meal.
Gardipy, who shared Trainer of the Year honours last season with Carl Anderson, has his whole family working in the barn. Along with Travis, there are sons Gabriel (20) and Tanner (15) as well as daughter Jessica (18). The latter two join him once school is out for the summer. His wife Cheryl works back home in Okemasis First Nation, near Saskatoon, but joins the family, and pitches in during her vacation time. Tannis King, the only non-family member, rounds out his staff.
"A groom never gets enough recognition," Gardipy maintains. "A lot of a trainer's success is decided by how good his grooms are. Having my family here is an advantage. Everyone knows all the horses, and they are more willing to do a little extra with the animal, rather than just to get paid to look after them, and that's it."
Gardipy is convinced that a healthy horse is a happy horse, and a happy horse runs faster. "Often it's little things such as paying attention to them, spending time with them, taking them out of the stall and taking care of their sores and pains before they become serious."
Jockeys Tyrone Nelson and Larren Delorme show up at 6:30 a.m. to begin galloping the horses. The bulletin board in Gardipy's office outlines what he wants each jockey and horse to do.
With horses out on the track, it's now time to muck a few stalls. Travis hands me a pitchfork, and as I stand there wondering what to do with it, he points to Moment of Song's stall.
Immediately I wade into the carpet of straw, and step into something soft and warm. I know instinctively that I have just received my baptism as a groom. But, aw shucks, it's all part of the job, so I just take a deep breath of that country-fresh aroma, and fill the wheelbarrow. Next I spread new, dry and comfy straw on the floor, to welcome Moment of Song when he returns.
By 9 a.m., the parade of horses on their way to the track is constant. As I watch from the right sideline, Delorme, last year's leading jockey says, "You should be careful where you're standing. You could get kicked. The ones going out are more dangerous than the ones coming in. They're excited to go." I make a mental note to find a safer location.
Moment of Song is back, and now it's time to give him a shower. The scene in the shower stall is ludicrous, as this massive bay gelding stands there, glaring down at me with ears tucked back, just as I was about to spray him with cold water. Averting his glare, I glance downward and notice how close my feet were to his aluminum-shod hoofs. One wrong move, and my toes would have been history.
Forging on, I begin by spraying his head, which is not a good idea. Moment of Song doesn't like water sprayed into his face. He tells me this by throwing his head back, curling his lips and exposing all of his teeth. In a huge understatement, Travis says, "Maybe you shouldn't spray him in the face."
Once we have soaked down his entire body, I scrape all the water off of him, which is something he seems to enjoy. Up next is a short walk to cool down, and Moment of Song goes back to his stall.
Working as a groom is not your average job. "We work seven days a week," explained Travis. "We begin at 5:30 a.m., and we're usually done by around 11 or noon. Then we're back about 4:30 p.m., to feed them, clean their stalls again and give them fresh water. After that we are done until about 9 p.m., when we come in again and throw them some hay.
"On Sundays we usually sleep in until about 7-7:30 a.m.," Travis goes on. "It's like a day off, so we just walk every horse, but we still have to clean the stalls and feed them. It's sort of a rest day for the horses too."
It's 11:30 a.m., now, and I've survived my morning in the stable; so far. On the way out, I stop to pet Honorable Lady, three-year-old filly I am fond of. As I stroke her nose, and whisper sweet nothings in her ear, she swiftly lifts her head up, and catches me square on the nose. As tears spill from my eyes, I can't help but wonder. What's next? Dare I try galloping one day?
Maybe I'll leave that to the jockeys. One thing's for sure though, if I ever need another resumé, under job experience, I can honestly say I have shovelled sh--.