Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Moonlighting as a Pony Rider with Silver Swallow

-- Sarah Andrew

This week, Silver Swallow was officially retired from racing at the age of 7, sound, with earnings of $473,415.

In 2009, I had the privilege of spending a morning on the track with her.

3:55am Pacific Standard Time. The only times I’ve slipped out of bed so willingly at this hour were for a horse show, a sunrise at Saratoga, or to try to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus on Christmas morning. Today was a bit of all three rolled into one.

Within minutes, I was dressed, out the door, and on the road to the racetrack. It was not yet 4:30 when I arrived at the barn. Barn cats sashayed toward me and exercise riders greeted me as if I was a regular. Sunrise was almost two hours away but the barn lights glowed warmly and the track bustled with activity. The sharp odor of stalls mixed with the warm, earthy smell of the horsepath and familiar notes of shampoo and liniment.

Decades of win photos decorated the walls of the office of legendary California trainer Bruce Headley. The trainer stepped into the office to begin the day’s work and turned the dial up on the heater. November at Santa Anita is chilly air for Californians but downright balmy for a Jersey Girl. Bruce’s daughter and assistant trainer Karen greeted me with the casual cheer of a person who spends every morning at a racetrack. I wondered if she could see just how nervous and excited I was. I’m pretty sure she could.

I left the office and spotted my mount for the morning, a stout bay gelding named Captain who was snoozing in the barn before the day’s work began. The first thing I noticed was how placid he was and the second thing I noticed was his tack. He had a western bit and bridle and an exercise saddle on his back. I had been expecting a big western saddle, but the exercise saddle was even more interesting since I’ve never ridden in one before.

Captain stood obediently at the mounting block as I slipped my paddock boot into the small lightweight stirrup and mounted up. The stirrups were shorter than my shortest jumping length. Karen asked if I needed them longer. I smiled and said they were great- when in Rome… right? The pony’s back was broad and he felt quite solid and the saddle was remarkably comfortable.

I rode Captain to the edge of the shedrow and waited for Karen to get a leg up onto her morning’s ride: Silver Swallow, a mare who was entered in a Breeders’ Cup race the following day. Silver wore the signature royal purple Breeders’ Cup saddle cloth with her name embroidered below the logo. There were no freckles on her snowy coat; she was nearly white with a perfect silver mane. It is difficult to see shine on some grey horses, but this mare was different- she shimmered like alabaster. Her luminous, expressive, almond-shaped eyes were set wide on her head, offsetting her round jaw and delicate muzzle. Her ears were slightly curled at the very tips and one seemed to be set on a slightly steeper angle than the other, giving her a jaunty expression.

I rode beside Karen and Silver Swallow on their left, past the barns and toward the training track. Both horses briskly walked down the path; my pony knew his job so well he could have done it by himself. The mare was eager to stretch her legs. She walked on a loose rein and her closely-set ears were radar antennae, rapidly swiveling to gather information. She had a fine, silky, neatly-pulled mane- it swayed and bounced like human hair with each nod of her elegant head. Upon first glance, she appeared dainty, but her feminine features belied her constitution- she was deep and muscular through the chest with a powerful loin and strong, sound legs set on well-balanced feet. She had the heart, speed, and class to race against the finest mares in the sport, finishing second to Rags to Riches and third to Zenyatta.

After we walked through a tunnel and onto the track, we asked the horses to stand for a moment. My vest pockets were stuffed with carrots. Karen asked me to feed the mare a bit of carrot- she politely accepted her snack. Captain turned his head to me hopefully and he got a carrot as well. Everything I did this morning was alternately foreign and familiar; feeding treats from the horse’s back was second-nature to me since I do it all the time back home. Feeding treats to a Breeders’ Cup contender, however, was something I had never done before.

Silver Swallow’s trainers had done a masterful job with her preparation for the big race- her sharpness and fitness were palpable but she was not too sharp. Timing is essential, Karen told me. As if to prove her point, at just the right moment, she and the mare slipped onto the track like an Olympic diver slipping into a pool. She called over her shoulder and said, “Sarah, turn around.”

I had been so focused on my task that I had not looked up even once until now. When I did look up, I grinned and my eyes glowed. The surrounding scene was breathtaking. The sky was dark and the Santa Anita grandstand sparkled. Palm trees were silhouetted against the lights. Exercise riders softly sang to their horses and the horses purred rhythmically in time with each stride as they cruised around the oval.

I rode Captain to the gap and greeted Cindy, the outrider, and her pony with a hello and a carrot. Cindy and I chatted for a moment as I peered over the rail, watching for Karen and Silver. From halfway across the track, I could see them gliding over the dirt in perfect harmony. The mare powerfully switched leads and navigated the turn, ears still forward and swiveling. Her pilot’s heels were flexed and her skilled hand followed as softly as a Grand Prix rider guiding a horse over a fence. They were a perfect pair. The mare’s neck bowed proudly onto the bit as they slowed from a gallop to a jog and met back up with me and the pony. We slipped off the track together. The mare’s veins stood out on her neck and she appeared to be a hand taller than she was before her gallop. She had barely broken a sweat. Her walk had changed- no longer was there anticipation or urgency in her gait. Now she had a proud spring in her step. She was ready for her race.

We walked back through the tunnel, down the path, and back to the barn. Silver accepted a good-luck pat on her nose and returned the favor by playfully nipping at Captain. I gave Captain a pat and a carrot as a token of my appreciation and I dismounted. When I was on horseback, my perspective changed. I was no longer the photographer recording the scene, instead I was a part of the scene. When my joyride was over, I was back to having two feet on the ground and I had work to do.

The rest of the weekend did not disappoint. Breeders' Cup 2009 is the year of Zenyatta’s Classic triumph and the year when Conduit and Goldikova reaffirmed their dominance on the turf, but I will never forget it as the year I spent a little time in the saddle on an early California morning on the training track.

(c) Charles Pravata
Happy Retirement, Silver!


Anonymous said...

Great story- I feel like I was there! What a once in a lifetime experience!

Cindy said...

What a great story! It's so nice to get a peak at what goes on behind the scenes at the track. I love the last picture! It's one I wouldn't mind hanging on my wall. What a beautiful girl!

Anonymous said...

So glad she retired sound and that you have such wonderful memories with her.

Debb said...

Love this story! Made me feel like I was there experiencing this wonderful morning. Thanks so much. Beautiful pix too!

Marie McCormack said...

Sarah, great job, you brought it like in such a way that I felt I was there watching it all....

Gina Spadafori said...

I've long been fan of Sarah's; in fact, I sought her out to be the lead photographer for our "The Ultimate Horse-Lover" book (published by BC-winning breeder/owner Peter Vegso's company, HCI) after seeing her work.

Her writing is just a skilled. I love this post, and I love her ability to show us the behind the scenes stories of the people and animals who make racing special. Thank you, Sarah, and thanks to TDN for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written account of an inspiring experience. Thanks for sharing!

Belinda Ransom-Davis said...

Sarah, I've always admired your photos and had no idea you were also such a skilled writer. Wow! Fantastic read! Thank you for the nice start to my day.

Anonymous said...

Descriptive writing at it's finest Sarah. I could smell the smells and feel the purrs.

Thanks for sharing another fantastic adventure with us.

dana said...

Great stuff and a fine addition to the TDN Staff Blog... looking forward to more!

The_Knight_Sky said...

I remember that blog post. Silver Swallow was (is) a beaut. That wild mane and her swishing tail in the final 1/16th was quite a sight.

One of two horses that left a visual impression on me. The other being the grey standardbred Laag who raced under the lights at The Big M.

Silver Swallow's record from the team of Bruce Headley/Irwin Molasky.

I see you've moved your tack over to this blog.
Nice digs. ;-)

Lisa Post said...

Sarah, I LOVE your sharing this first-hand experience. It brings the behind-the-scenes action alive to the reader.

What an experience that must have been!

Dom said...

What a great and beautiful mare, and a phenomenal opportunity. Thanks for blogging it and for linking us to it.

Sharla Sanders, Founder, The Second Race said...

Karen loves this mare, what a nice tribute. Silver Swallow always a stunning mare and well loved by the barn, is off to be a mama. Thanks for the story.
Sharla Sanders

Anonymous said...

Great story, Sarah! I was able to ride an outrider's horse at Arlington Park back in the day! Sooooo thrilling to be on the track!

Barbara Livingston said...


I'm so happy to see TDN taking advantage of your writing skills as well as your amazing photography! You have a beautiful way of bringing a person into a scene. I could feel, through you, what that memorable morning was like for you.... The "Sarah, turn around" moment - when you suddenly 'took in' the whole scene that you were living - was magical.

Keep up the great work!

Fran Jurga said...

What a great story--and what a beautiful mare! Where will she be spending her retirement, did I miss that part?

I really enjoyed this post, and felt like I was right there. Here's hoping TDN has more stories from Sarah!

Interesting, Sarah said she felt like part of the scene because she was on horseback. The photographers are very much a part of the scene, on foot or up on the roof or whatever. People like Sarah make it come alive for the rest of us who are stuck at home and just wish a pony would turn its head to get a bit of carrot from our out-stretched hand (and not fall off doing it).

Thanks for this story!

Anonymous said...

Wow! Loved this descriptive article about Sarah's Pony Experience. It's nice to hear about the track from another view. Very well written!! Sarah, you deserve a raise for such a good article.

Anonymous said...

Sarah - loved your artcile! It was so descriptive I felt like I was there. You have proved to be as good a writer as you are a photographer.

Ida Howell said...

Absolutely LOVE this article!

'The sharp odor of stalls mixed with the warm, earthy smell of the horsepath and familiar notes of shampoo and liniment.' Can't you just smell how good this is?

Sarah you have a gift with a camera and give a snapshot with your words also..