Friday, August 12, 2011

A Warm and 'Fuzzy' Feeling

It was a hot July afternoon and the Woodbine walking ring was a contentious corral of amped up two-year-olds snorting and kicking up their heels. The sun beat down upon the willow trees as six young horses prepared to sprint for a purse worth $150,000 and, judging by the flash of their tails, the majority of these colts were in a foul mood.

Except, perhaps, for one.

Within a circle of tenuous testosterone stood a horse and his groom, encased, or so it seemed, in their own protective bubble. All was right in their world. The young gelding stood oh-so-still, his nose tucked inside the crook of the arm of his groom, who cradled the young racehorse in a protective hold. In their bubble, the air was cool and all was right with the world.

The moment endured minutes and it was as calming to watch as it surely must have been to experience. The delicate duo’s competitors turned and turned their short circles as they waited for a call of, “rider’s up” to release them from their pre-race purgatory. Their anxiety building in the pressure cooker of expectations of what was to come.

Minutes passed and yet, still, together the pair stood ever-so-silently, until finally the call came and it was time to head to the track. The hold was released. The groom leaned in close to his young charge and, with their heads touching, a final pre-race thought was put forward as if delivered by some otherworldly equine sensory perception.

A moment later, a jockey lighted on the young gelding’s back and the horse headed to the track. A Hollywood ending would see the horse having his picture taken as the connections lifted a trophy, but the truth of the matter is the horse finished a well-beaten fifth.

So happy together!

The result didn’t detract from the moment and it only encouraged the curiosity within to discover the secret of this groom’s magic touch with young and impressionable equines.

His name is Michael. Not that anyone calls him that. The only name he answers to is ‘Fuzzy’, and it suits him to a ‘t’. He’s one of the many colourful characters working in trainer Mike Doyle’s barn on the Woodbine backstretch. Fuzzy works closely with another groom by the name of Flowers & Berries, who greets each visitor with the call of his own name. Perhaps it was just the morning of this particular visit, but Doyle’s barn seems a happy place to work.

Fuzzy sure seems to think so.

“I love my horses and I love being here,” says Fuzzy, quietly.

He works as he talks, happily tending to the five horses lucky enough to be in his care. Fuzzy knows a bit about parenting. He has eight children between the ages of 11 and 34, and the proud stories of his offspring’s exploits would easily fill a book. One child is a court clerk, another is a manager, the youngest is still in school. Fuzzy laughs at the suggestion that he might better be described as the parent of 13 children.

“The five kids in here make the money for me to spend on the other kids,” grins Fuzzy, as he waves towards shed row.

Like many who work in the industry, Fuzzy wants his children, particularly his youngest daughter, Brooklyn, to find a life outside the track. At least, at first.

“She loves the horses so much, but she s doing so good in school I hope she don’t come this way. I hope she makes the money first and then she can come here,” smiles Fuzzy. “But she loves this game. She’s just 11, but she’s very smart.”

The gentle groom speaks just as freely about his horses, and he’s only too happy to share some of his secrets to his equine parenting.

“The more time you spend with a horse, the more they get to know you, and when a horse gets to know you they will do things for you,” starts Fuzzy. “Keeping them quiet is one of the main things I practice. I try to work with them so that they stay quiet going to the races.”

Home away from home

In Fuzzy’s care are five Woodbine regulars. Gin King, Dance to the Moon, Smart Surprise, Sulis and the young gelding, Secret Consultant.

Fuzzy’s eyes widen at the realization his moment with Secret Consultant was caught on camera. Almost incredulous that someone had taken the time to notice.

“You saw that,” he asked, with a whisper. “I wanted him to relax and take a view of all that’s going on around him. If I can get him relaxed, he has a better chance in the race. The quieter you keep him into the race, the better it is for them. I try to rub their head and blow in their eyes.”

Blow in their eyes?

“You have to know your horse. All my horses like different things, but they all like this,” coos Fuzzy and then, by demonstration, cups two hands around the long snout of Smart Surprise and blows a gentle, soothing breeze.

Their heads barely separated, the horse leans in toward his groom, in the manner of a cat’s upraised chin exposing an itch desperately in need of a scratch.

How can this be?

“Give them some love, they give you back some,” says Fuzzy.

Eye see you!

It seems strange that communicating with a horse is this simple. And yet, the groom clearly has a rapport with his horses that’s at a level far superior to many human relationships.

“Do you ever hear of a horse named King Ruckus,” asks Fuzzy, by way of explanation. “I rubbed him. He was a very nice horse. That horse won every sprint race you could think of. He won them all and was one of the best I ever had. He was a monster.”

When Fuzzy says monster, he hunches his shoulders and flares his nostrils to illustrate his point.

“He was big and strong and when I get in to work in the morning, the only way to deal with that horse was to say to him, ‘get to the tie chain’ and he would turn around go to the tie chain and I’d snap him on’”

That doesn’t sound all that difficult.

“But if I grabbed him and tried to take him, I’d never get him there. He’d kill ya,” laughs Fuzzy, with a glint in his eye that suggests it took him more than one morning to come to such terms with King Ruckus.

The group of five in Fuzzy’s care seem much more sedated than the particular King Ruckus.

“This horse now, “ says Fuzzy, staring back at Smart Surprise. “If I opened the gate right now. He’d turn around and stand at the tie chain.”

So, Smart Surprise likes his job?

“He knows his job because I teach him,” says Fuzzy, matter of factly.

So, where exactly did all this horsemanship come from?

“I’m from Jamaica. I’ve been here a long time. I came to Canada in 1971,” starts Fuzzy. “The funny thing is, 30 years ago I was a machine operator and I decided to try the racehorse business and I liked it so much I never went back to machines. I just enjoy it so much. It such a relaxing job for me. I enjoy doing what I do.”

As the saying goes, before you can run in the horse business, you have to walk.

“One day I came out and decided I was going to try hot walking,” says Fuzzy. “I started with Mike Silvera and he had a horse named Ask Muhammad and the horse taught me the game.”

A clean horse is a happy horse

Fuzzy would spend his mornings at the track, learning the game from the ground up. For years, he worked for trainer Danny Vella. However, Fuzzy has spent the past decade working with Doyle and it’s a job he still enjoys.

“We got weird hours. I get here at five in the morning and I leave at all different hours. If you like the racing game, hours don’t matter, you understand,” says Fuzzy. “When the horses are okay, that’s when I leave. It’s not a nine-to-five job. You have to spend time with them.”

While the long hours sound stressful, it doesn’t seem to affect the carefree Fuzzy.

“I’m the kind of guy that’s laid back. If you’re hyper around the horse, then the horse will be like that. So, I take my time,” states Fuzzy. “If they get nervous going into the race, the rider can’t control them as well and they’ll run off.”

One day, Fuzzy hopes to have a horse he can call his own. A horse that doesn’t just lean in for some love - - a quiet pat, a gentle hold or a warmly blown breeze. Fuzzy would like to hold the paperwork as well.

“My goal is to get my own horse. I can’t do that right now because my kids are in college,” says Fuzzy.

He’s not looking for a star from the yearling sale, either.

“I want one that’s ready to race. You need big money to take a two-year-old and get him there. It’s easier to get to the races with an older horse,” says the man who helps young horses more than most of their owners will likely ever know.

“Give them some love, they give you back some”

It’s not too difficult to imagine Fuzzy realizing his dream. In a lifetime rich in experience at the racetrack, the gentle groom knows that good things come to those who wait. It’s a virtue he’s taught all the horses in his care for many a year.

“Take your time and be patient, that’s what it takes,” nods Fuzzy.


Anonymous said...

Great article Keith, great insight and discription.

Valerie Grash said...

Keith, this is really beautiful writing (not that you don't always write well, but this is exceptional). I love, love, love that first picture! It says it all, doesn't it?

Wowhorse said...

This was a wonderful portrait of what makes great grooms so invaluable. Thank you for writing this!

Keith-TDH said...

Thanks everyone for the kind comments...these stories are fun to write. Everyone should love horses this much.

Joanne said...

Hi Keith loved your story. I have known many grooms like Fuzzy and you did nicely portraying him. Hope you don't mind I sent this link to!/proequinegrooms. I also posted it to my FB page. Hope you don't mind it was too good to keep to myself.