Shed Row No. 11 at Belmont Park was a scene of quiet, focused bustle when Doug Bauer arrived for work promptly at 6:15 a.m.
None of the frenzy surrounding Triple Crown contender California Chrome appeared to penetrate the calm of that morning earlier this week as Bauer headed down the long, low-slung stable with its dozens of large box stalls, some empty, some with young, curious horses poking out their heads to watch the action or nip at a passerby.
Bauer, 24, of Dix Hills, is one of a dozen hot-walkers for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin -- one of the least glamorous yet most indispensable jobs at the racetrack.
Hot-walkers cool horses down after each race or workout, hold them while they are washed, and then walk them for a half-hour or more inside the shed row before returning them to their stalls.
If horse racing is the essence of a heart-pounding adrenaline rush, hot-walking is the opposite: It's the slow-back-down -- a way to prevent sweating thoroughbreds from suffering the gastric distress of colic, which can be lethal. It's also a way to return the young horses to a calm baseline, which in this barn means spending most of the day knee-deep in straw, munching on hay.
Bauer first went to get two big buckets, filled them with warm water and carried them to two rubber mats outside. He took out a large sponge, squirted it full of shampoo from an industrial-size blue plastic barrel marked "animal shampoo" and put it in one of the buckets.
Then he walked back inside the shed row, crossed his arms and waited patiently for the first of three horses he would hot-walk that day: a bay named Whale Rock; Taghleeb, a chestnut; and Beyond Empire, another bay.
Bauer, a 2009 graduate in equine studies from Western Suffolk BOCES, has worked in McLaughlin's barn for 41/2 years, part of a team of 35 that includes hot-walkers, grooms, exercise riders, foremen and trainers. He knows the drill and takes his job seriously. McLaughlin has 36 horses at Belmont; none is racing in tomorrow's Belmont Stakes.
Assistant trainer Artie Magnuson said Bauer has the quality essential to a good hot-walker: an easy but confident way with high-strung, often excitable horses.
"He loves the horses. He always shows up for work with a smile on his face," Magnuson said.
"Doug reminds me of why I got in the game in the first place."
Bauer, who takes riding lessons on Long Island, said he decided to work with horses because he was looking for a way to get out of school. His goal? To someday own a racehorse.
"I want to buy a horse -- maybe if I can find a partnership," he said.
His first charge on this morning was the 2-year-old Whale Rock.
Exercise rider Gregory Benitez, 28, legs dangling out of his stirrups, serenely rode the horse into the shed row, down the aisle and, ducking his head, straight into the box stall.
"He's sweet," Benitez said of Whale Rock as he vaulted off the horse's back.
The exercise rider -- who already had ridden three horses and had three more to go by 10:30 -- said the horse liked to look at people. "You have to push him to do his job, but then he's good," he said. "He's fun."
Magnuson said the horse had only come to the barn a few weeks earlier, and the team was taking it slow with him. "He's young and inexperienced," he said.
Whale Rock was curious and kept nibbling at Bauer's hand. Bauer held him while the groom vigorously lathered up the horse, rinsed him off and threw a blue-and-white-plaid "cooler" over his back.
At 7:05 a.m., horse and hot-walker began their placid pace around the shed row -- up one aisle, around the corner, down the next aisle. Round and round they went.
Every now and then, Bauer would adjust the cooler or jerk on the chain across Whale Rock's nose when the horse poked his muzzle once too often into his walker's hand, looking for a treat.
Otherwise, the pair silently kept up their slow, steady procession, following several other horses also being hot-walked.
Far from being boring, the time was meditative and deeply calming.
At 7:35 a.m., Whale Rock was back in his stall. He snatched at his hay peacefully.
Bauer was on to his next horse.