Rock star status: Preakness horses get royal treatment

Handlers used special massage techniques to soothe Goldencents' muscular frame and sudsy sponges to stimulate the shine and bloom on the Preakness competitor's chocolate-colored coat — while a sizable entourage seemed transfixed.

Outside the Pimlico stables, a green oasis tucked inside urban Northwest Baltimore, a crowd had gathered around Goldencents. Photographers took pictures. A cluster of men, women and children from a sunrise tour stopped to stare. Security guards looked on.

The list of helpers, assistants and advisers for Goldencents and the other Preakness all-stars is longer than Stacy Keibler's prep team on Oscar night — grooms, exercise riders, hot walkers, trainers, jockeys, veterinarians, stall muckers, chiropractors, ultrasound technicians and nutritionists.

Compared to everyday companions and farm horses, the life of a celebrity racehorse is nearly unrecognizable.

"When you get to this level and you get to these races, it's just a whole different stratosphere," said Glenn Sorgenstein, one of Goldencents' owners. "It's like being in the locker room of the Baltimore Ravens. These are athletes."

For Saturday's race, the horses were flown in by cargo planes that specialize in transporting livestock or shipped in vans that are typically equipped with air-ride suspension, a groom, bags of fresh hay and a camera for the driver to monitor conditions.

Once at the track, a Preakness horse's day starts before dawn. While their stalls are cleaned, hay racks restocked and water buckets topped off, the racehorses are taken out to the track for exercise.

Goldencents, a 3-year-old colt, galloped around the 1 3/16-mile track one day this week to stretch his legs, said Doug O'Neill, who trained last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I'll Have Another. Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas called for his horses, Will Take Charge, Oxbow and Titletown Five, to be jogged, as did Shug McGaughey for his Derby-winning colt and Preakness favorite, Orb.

After the workout, the hot walkers grab the horses' reins for a cool down before the athlete is washed with special soap, which sometimes includes human hair-care products. In the cool of the early morning, steam rises off their skin.

To stop a chill, the horses are covered in fleece blankets.

"Some people think the life of a racehorse is grueling," said Steuart L. Pittman Jr., president of the Retired Racehorse Training Project, which works for the welfare of ex-racehorses. "If I were a horse, I think I would like to be a racehorse. They get blankets on them in the winter, a fan in front of them in the summer.

"Some would say they're pampered."

The treatment of racehorses isn't hailed by all. Critics say lack of industry oversight contributes to overmedication, which can mask ailments and lead to broken legs and ankles that cause horses to be euthanized.

Some animal-rights advocates point to cases in which former racehorses have been slaughtered. Others are starved and mistreated. Many end up at Maryland organizations such as Days End Farm Horse Rescue in Woodbine, where they are rehabilitated.

Despite lifestyle differences between racehorses, farm and companion horses, their basic needs are the same: food, water, shelter and exercise, said DeEtte Gorrie, equine programs director for the donation-run Days End Farm.

"If they could speak to you, they would tell you, 'Can you meet those needs for me, please?' " Gorrie said. " 'Please bathe me when it's hot outside. Give me a cool shower. Groom me. I love the fan because it keeps flies off me and cools me. Yes, I'd like to have my food 24/7.' "

Pittman, who runs his family's 288-year-old Dodon Farm in Davidsonville and leads the Maryland Horse Council, said a horse's success in racing is determined by its trainer's countless decisions. The skill of the sport is, in part, knowing how to respond to a horse's needs, such as watching its expression, how it moves and how it reacts to being groomed.

He said a good trainer knows when a horse needs a break or when it might risk injury.

"If you have a horse like Orb, you're watching it like a hawk, whether to adjust his feed, whether to move him around, to let him graze on the grass and how far to go and how fast to go," Pittman said. "It's all part of the horsemanship so they peak on the day of the race."

After gorging himself for 40 minutes on the lush grass outside his stable when he arrived at Pimlico on Monday and a day of relaxing Tuesday, Orb grazed in a sunny spot for more than half an hour Wednesday.

While trainers are secretive about their exact formulas for success, the horses typically feed two or three times a day on the finest grains. The feed companies are in constant competition to come up with products that enhance performance, but some trainers will order their feed specially blended based on equine nutrition for fat, fiber and minerals.

The horses' stalls always have a supply of protein and fiber snacks: grass hay, timothy hay or the leafier alfalfa hay. Having food nearby at all times helps prevent ulcers caused by the acids in a horse's stomach.

"Everybody uses the top of the line. Everybody's looking for an edge," Pittman said. "They are fed very well, really the best feed that money can buy, because it gives them every advantage."

O'Neill said the joy of the job is seeing the horses develop their athletic ability.

"They're strong and powerful and yet very sensitive," he said. "They're cared for royally. Horses are bred to run. I'd like to think that they're good, safe, comfortable. ... I think it's not a bad life."

Berkley Kern, 61, of Elkridge, who has worked at Pimlico since 1970 as a farrier and trainer, said the horses deserve no less.

"They warrant it, simple as that," he said. "They are performing at the highest level. Like anything else, if you were a celebrity and in the spotlight all the time, you're going to get taken care of better."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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