A gallop poll

It was just a shack in the middle of a bunch of shacks, but at 5 a.m., the lights shining through the windows made it stand out like a beacon in the early dawn hours. And, like a beacon, it drew you in with its cozy warmth and smell of coffee. But its draw was really the collected knowledge inside. It was the place to be if you were really into Thoroughbred racing and wanted to know what they knew.

“They” were the old hands at Turf Paradise, the ones who trained and worked the horses at this track just north of Phoenix. The trainers, the grooms and the workout boys all would gather in the coffee shack in preparation for their long day to come.

The men and women inside the shack were trading gossip about the horses they worked on, and that was valuable to the railbirds who hung out at the track and to the heavy bettors who wanted insider information. I happened to know the son of a trainer, and he was helping me to get the story of a day at the races. The shack was the starting line.

The work that day was not of the glamorous sort. I remember buckets of feed and water, walking the horses to cool them down, and some shoveling of horse excrement. The horse business is a lot of work (see “And they’re off!” page 20).

The high point was when the trainers would saddle their entries and parade them onto the track. The crowds and the pageantry added to the excitement, and there are no sounds more thrilling than pounding hoofs coming down the stretch and the happy shouts of winning bettors. But, of course, it all started in the early morning quiet in that shack.