Belmont Park's outriders' goal is safety
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Eight thoroughbred racehorses thundered past the finish line at Belmont Park, and the grandstand crowd erupted.
A few feet away, Miguel Gutierrez sat calmly atop his horse. Sporting a Western saddle, white pants, a red jacket and silver spurs, he watched the competitors closely as his horse stood obediently. Only a slight flick of his mount's ears and a few steps in place betrayed the horse's awareness of the younger and faster brethren galloping by one afternoon last week.
"Our job is safety, in capital letters," said Gutierrez, 49, of Elmont, the head outrider at Belmont and the New York Racing Association's chief of those who function as the horse police at the famous track. "In an emergency, we are there to help."
If horses get loose, the outriders catch them. If a racehorse gets hurt, they stay with him or her until the equine ambulance arrives. And if a jockey wants to protest a foul during a race, they report it Belmont's stewards.
The outriders, all seasoned professionals, often take on another role. Many also work as so-called pony girls or pony boys -- the equine escorts of the racing world.
Before races, the pony riders, who wear green jackets, pair up with racehorses being walked onto the track -- controlling the often-flighty young thoroughbreds with a thin leather strap wrapped around the bit, rather like a leash. Trainers hire them for individual racehorses, to make sure the competitors warm up and get to the starting gate without incident.
"We get them to the gate as quietly as possible," said Laura Droge, 57, of Richmond Hill, the only pony girl at Belmont. She also works as an outrider at nearby Aqueduct Racetrack in the morning during training sessions. "You want them to save their energy for the race. You don't want them to wash out. If you watch [Triple Crown contender] California Chrome in the post parade, he is calm and quiet. He doesn't get excited."
Both types of riders keep everything going smoothly and -- on a good day -- without accidents, in a sport where there are real dangers for horse and rider.
"It's a very dangerous job, because you have to be able to control two horses at the same time," said Gutierrez, who has escorted the likes of such champions as California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who will be racing in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. "You have to be a professional horse person to be able to do it."
The outriders work as a team and communicate by radio. They are posted at the starting gate, the finish line and other key spots around the track. If there is a runaway, they must pursue on horseback, getting out in front of the loose horse and grabbing him by the bridle or reins to slow the animal down. Sometimes the horse has lost his bridle in a mishap.
"Then you have to grab him by the nose," Gutierrez said. "We have to get him, no matter what."
During early-morning exercise sessions, the outriders enforce track regulations, such as making sure riders don't gallop their horses in the wrong direction or inadvertently use the inside rail, which is reserved for those "breezing" their mounts -- that is, going racing speed.
Among their duties during a race is to stay with horses that break down, keeping them calm until a veterinarian comes on the scene, escorting them into the ambulances or, in the worst-case scenario, staying with them while they are euthanized.
Asked about some of the worst accidents he has seen, Gutierrez shook his head and said, "You don't want to know."
Both the outriders and the pony people need placid, adaptable mounts. They generally own their own horses, which include ex-racehorses and quarter horses. The horses have to get accustomed to excitable young thoroughbreds galloping alongside them, and the ex-racehorses must learn to stop competing, and to move in all kinds of directions, not just forward.
"They have to have a nice, quiet disposition and handle a horse who might want to bite and kick them and not bite and kick them back," said Droge, a pony girl for 30 years as well as a former groom and assistant trainer, as she stood next to Sweetpea, her 15-year-old chestnut quarter horse.
Gutierrez, who has worked for NYRA since 1988 and has been the head outrider for two years, said it takes about three months to train an outrider horse. He personally has seven horses, including the former racehorse he rode Saturday named "Yes yes yes!"
"They have to be calm when they need to be and aggressive when they need to be," he said.
He also chooses the outriders, often taking them from the ranks of the pony people he sees work each day at the track.
"I'm looking for somebody with a good seat and good horse skills -- someone who can hold a horse and move their own pony as they need to," he said.
Such skills are critical, he said, given the unpredictability of intense daily workouts and races, with high-strung thoroughbreds reaching top speeds that can exceed 35 mph.
"We can go for two weeks without any accidents, and then we'll have two or three in one day," Gutierrez said. "Anything can happen."