And they’re off!

In the world of harness racing, the horses may trot, and the crowd may be small, but the owners and trainers are no less driven than in Thoroughbred racing.

Photo By Jill Wagner

On a late winter night at Cal Expo, the racetrack was lit up with bright lights as if it were still mid-summer and State Fair season. In his blue racing silks and white helmet, horseman Rick Plano entered the big round paddock beside the track. He was having a mediocre race night, and he looked sullenly at his next horse. Around him, a collection of drivers in bright racing silks and grooms in their work clothes circled the colorfully painted sulkies—like stripped-down old-fashioned buggies—that sat clumped together in the center of the paddock, their seats resting on the ground and their stiff metal bars pointing into the air.

After all the grueling and repetitive training, race nights proved whether or not a horseman like Rick had done everything right. Races were the payoff.

Rick smoothed his hands over the connecting hardware of his horse’s harness. He bent down around the horse’s head and looked at the bit.

Kathy Poor, a marketer for Capitol Racing, stood outside the paddock and watched him. “He always goes over everything twice,” she said.

It was a relatively slow night for Rick; the ninth race would be only his fifth competition. He was in the sixth spot, with his horse Dignity. Next to him on the inside was his son Luke, on Tennessee Leebrook. Even closer to the inside was his new rival, Eddie Hensley, on Furness Abbey.

These three ultra-competitive horsemen had shared the track once that evening already. Luke had come in first, Rick third, and Hensley fifth. Not bad for the Planos, but horsemen race multiple horses every night, four to five nights a week, 10 months out of the year. Every race is a drop in the bucket.

A horseman’s livelihood comes from his share of the purse. So, if he doesn’t come in first, second, third or fourth, he doesn’t get paid, and his horse doesn’t earn its keep that week.

“The hardest thing to get used to,” Luke said, “is that you’re going to lose more than you’re going to win.”

Two minutes from post time, eight racehorses walked gingerly onto the track for the post parade. The drivers hopped onto the seats of the sulkies that had been attached to the horses’ harnesses, swung their legs forward and set their feet in stirrups, their spines bent forward into uncomfortable looking curves.

Luke watched his father as the pair moved lazily toward the back curve of the track. He always wondered what the older man was thinking of him during a race. Sometimes, it affected his confidence. Luke was one of the youngest drivers on the track; his father was one of the best.

From the nearly empty stands, two race fans pulled folding chairs within a few yards of the finish line. One confessed that he used to come all the time, before he started gambling at Cache Creek. Only a few other fans huddled under an overhang, drinking beer or staring at the racing programs that painstakingly detailed each horse’s racing history.

Cal Expo’s racetrack is the only one left in California that features this sport live, and yet the races can attract as few as a couple hundred people on mid-week race nights. But, if the fans aren’t in the stands, many of them are watching and wagering from other locations. Poor said her company can pull in $700,000 a night in simulcast business, making Sacramento hotshots like Rick and Hensley celebrities for fans nationwide.

On the track, riders and horses gathered behind a shiny wine-colored luxury car that looked absurdly out of place sitting about a quarter mile back from the finish line, which was also the starting line for each one-mile race. Outfitted with a mobile starting gate, the car spread out two straight white bars that had been folded up like a pair of butterfly wings. They formed a single line that stretched nearly the width of the track.

The “start car,” one of the main differences between harness racing and thoroughbred racing, began to roll gently forward. Starter Bill Vallandingham sat facing backward in the car, watching the horses jog into their post positions behind the gate, increasing their speed with the speed of the car until they huffed and puffed audibly, staring at him from inches away. At approximately 30 mph, when the horses moved evenly together behind the gate, the car cruised quickly out of their way and off to the outside. Vallandingham watched as each horse surged forward, and one driver forced his horse out in front.

Rick Plano has been the top trainer and driver at Cal Expo for years, but now he’s got some competition from a couple of younger horsemen, including his son.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Luke and Hensley looked right at each other near the front of the field, but as the horses rounded the first curve of the oval track, they all fell into a straight line like a regiment of soldiers, the horses blowing great snorting gusts of air on the helmets of the drivers before them.

In a one-mile race, each horse needs some kind of rest, Luke had said earlier. If the leader doesn’t take it slow around the backside, he’s going to have to do it later, giving the other drivers a chance to catch up.

As the horses moved into the last half-mile, fans noted movement in the line, horses speeding up and drivers making their moves. Around the second curve, the field bunched up, and the drivers started roaring at their horses. Luke held the middle of the field, followed closely by Hensley and then Rick. Rick rocked himself forward in a smooth, rhythmic motion, cracking his whip against the shaft of the sulky, the sound signaling the horse to maintain top speed.

Luke made a late move along the outside, and his horse sprinted for the finish line in the final few yards of the race, where position is most pliable. But as the horses crossed the finish line, neither one of the Planos nor Hensley had made it to the front. Luke’s frantic drive had pushed him into a respectable fourth place, and Hensley, who’d stuck with him the whole race, took fifth. Behind them came the more experienced master horseman, Rick.

Though Rick has been Cal Expo’s top driver and trainer for the majority of the last 10 years, his best race that night only landed him in second place. Hensley, who just recently had taken the title of top driver and trainer away from the master horseman, captured three wins. Luke, the youngest and least experienced, took home one.

One night at Cal Expo during harness-racing season made it obvious: These horses are tough, much tougher than their cousins the Thoroughbreds, who might grace a racetrack once every month. The harness-racing Standardbreds race at Cal Expo once or twice a week, and it’s not like they’re carrying 100-pound jockeys. They haul sulkies and drivers who don’t have to meet any weight limits. And while the horses are charging down the home stretch, changing position by a nose, they’re never allowed to break into a gallop. Races either feature horses keeping to an elegant “trot” at top speed or a “pace,” in which the horses move the two legs on each side of their bodies in tandem for a faster stride. In both types of races, the drivers sit behind them, the wheels of their sulkies spinning within inches of each other. One miscalculation, and a sulky can bounce a tire against its neighbor, upset a cart and send driver and horse sprawling into the dirt.

Accidents are rare, said Poor, but she’s seen riders go down. She’s even seen it happen to Rick. It was Luke, Poor said reluctantly, who made the mistake that sent his father flying, but the seasoned horseman bounced back up off the surface of the track as if he’d been popped from a slingshot.

“Tell my son I’m OK,” Rick reportedly told the breathless people who greeted him as he trudged off the track. “Tell him he didn’t hurt me.”

The story is indicative both of how tough Rick is and how green Luke is.

A native New Yorker with 30 years in harness racing, Rick has built a reputation for good horse sense and good hands. It used to be that he wouldn’t even buy a horse unless there was something wrong with it that he could fix, he said. A lame horse was a bargain if you knew what you were doing. The real test of a true horseman, said Steve Wiseman, another veteran horseman at Cal Expo, was whether he could pick a winner at a young age, train her and have her winning races at 4 years old. Rick could do that, too.

But, in spite of his good reputation, and his stables, which are swollen with more than 50 horses, Rick swears he’s no angel. He admits to having tricked naive racehorse owners out of money when he was young. And, like a lot of drivers, he’s been accused of using drugs on his horses, though the California Horse Racing Board says Rick’s never been in trouble for anything serious. Luke chalks suspicions against his dad up to jealousy. If you beat another horseman often enough, he said languidly, that horseman is going to get mad.

Luke spent part of his youth at the track in his father’s shadow, but the 22-year-old showed no affinity for horses as a boy. Rick remembers finding his son leaning lazily against his broom when he was supposed to be sweeping out stalls.

“What the hell are you doing?” he would boom, and Luke would dive back into the grunt work that makes a novice wise.

Still easygoing as an adult, the lean young man in the oversized jeans admits that the only thing he liked about the races as a boy was the wagering.

“Now,” he said, “you’ve got to break my arm practically to get me to bet, and I love to race.”

Training to become a master horseman, Luke Plano exercises his horses in the mornings and races them at night.

Photo By Jill Wagner

When Luke finished high school, racing sounded better to him than college, just as Rick had hoped, and soon Luke learned to be a good caretaker and to recognize signs of trouble. If a horse nods its head while running, or if its gait is uneven or it drops its head to one side too often, it’s signaling some kind of pain. The trick is figuring out where that pain is and what caused it; if one leg hurts, the horse could strain the others trying to compensate.

While Luke practiced interpreting horse behavior, Rick found himself in need of an assistant trainer, and Luke quickly was promoted to a position reserved for seasoned horsemen—except he lacked the seasoning. “It’s hurt him,” says Rick now. A lot of the horsemen at Cal Expo would agree.

The daily caretakers, who often are Mexican grooms working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for a few hundred dollars a week, are the real unsung heroes of the racetrack because only good caretaking can keep the horses in prime condition. Good trainers have to know everything the grooms know—and more.

Ask any horseman how to win a race, and he’ll tell you, “Know your horses.” Press him further, and he’ll add, “Know all the other horses on the track with you.”

Even as a late bloomer, Luke quickly impressed an owner who needed someone new to train and drive his horses. Luke now trains about a dozen horses in his own stables. His peers grumbled that Luke wasn’t his own trainer—that his father was helping him too much, so Luke recently picked up and moved all the way to the other side of the long lines of stalls at Cal Expo. As long as the two compete aggressively against each other on the track, their family association is tolerated.

“If we didn’t do good,” said Luke about the family’s winning percentage, “probably nobody would care.”

Some horsemen might have grumbled, but the Planos aren’t unique. As it’s practiced in Sacramento, harness racing is overwhelmingly a family business. Race secretary Fred Kuebler has a brother named Rick who drives in races. Trainer and driver Steve Wiseman is a third-generation horseman, and his caretaker wife is second-generation. Their daughter, toddling around the stables in diapers, probably will be a horsewoman, too. Take a look at the list of trainers, drivers and administrators, and you’ll find more than one Vallandingham, Clarke, Luster, Ratchford and Maire.

As one of the top racing families on the West Coast, the Planos have just gotten used to other horsemen getting their noses bent out of shape, especially because Rick can clear a couple hundred thousand dollars a year as a successful trainer, driver and co-owner.

“Anybody can do this,” said Rick. “You’ll see 200-pound guys out there, but it’s the young, athletic, 130-pound guys who do well.”

There’s just a hint of self-mockery. At a fit and trim 51 years old, the master trainer is thinking about giving up driving, especially since that upstart Hensley came out of the gate like wildfire at the start of this year’s season. Hensley swept top honors, becoming Cal Expo’s top trainer for the last half of 2002 and keeping the position of top driver, which he’d won from Rick earlier. Rick is now holding steady in second place.

“I’ve been No. 1 for a long time,” said Rick, as he walked up and down between horse stalls. “Maybe it’s Eddie’s turn to be No. 1.”

Even as he said it, his tone became formal, as if this compliment were more about good sportsmanship than about any real dip in his ambition. His drive to win also stirs up a little tension between him and Luke. On training days, he can be heard joking in his rough New York accent that his son has his head up his ass.

“Nobody likes to make mistakes,” said Rick in a later interview. “But as the top stable, we set the standards, so when we screw up,” Rick said, looking for the right words, “it’s worse.”

Rick is anxious for the next phase of his own career, in which he’ll just train; manage his grooms; and let his son, the aggressive, hot-rod driver on the track, do all the racing. As a team, maybe the two of them can win that top spot back.

Rick says that he and his family have lived well off his winning purses, but his wealth is still tied to his success on the track. Half of every purse, which can vary between $2,500 and $10,000 on a regular race night, goes to the winning horse and its team. The owner takes half of the horse’s winnings, and traditionally, the trainer gets 5 percent and the driver gets 5 percent. The grooms get paid extra, as well. A horseman with savvy will become a trainer, a driver and an owner, as both Rick and Hensley have.

Ed Hensley’s horses get full-body workouts in a swimming pool designed just for them.

Photo By Jill Wagner

“A lot of these guys don’t save,” said Poor, smiling indulgently at the men working in the paddocks before the races one night. “They love to spend money when they have it,” she continued. “And when they don’t have it, they’re screwed. They don’t have 401(k) plans, and they don’t have retirement.”

Though the Planos have been impressing fans for years, they are not Sacramento’s first or most famous horsemen.

Leland Stanford, founder of the Central Pacific Railroad, past governor of California, and early Sacramento resident, decided in the 1870s that photography might help him prove that a horse picks all four feet up off the ground at the same time when it runs. Stanford bred harness-racing horses, so he wanted to perform an experiment with one of his best.

It was on Sacramento’s old Union Park Race Course, which was at the north end of Midtown, that Stanford’s associate, Eadweard Muybridge, began testing this theory and advancing the evolution of high-speed photography. In experiments perfected at the Stanford stables in Palo Alto, Muybridge created photographs that caught a horse with all four feet aloft, and a reproduction of one of those photographs, with the sulky and driver included, became one of the era’s most famous images.

Muybridge, ever improving his study of equine locomotion, is now considered the father of motion pictures. And Stanford, who experimented constantly with training techniques, is known for breeding some of the era’s fastest harness-racing horses.

Like Stanford, Rick learned the rudiments of caretaking while living on a farm as a boy. Both men developed a lifelong love of horses, and both were intensely competitive.

“What you see at night is the end result,” Rick said one morning, standing in front of his office and looking down the rows of stables. “The important stuff happens back here.”

Rick’s secret weapon, which Stanford also wielded, is his work ethic.

That morning, Rick had gotten up, done 100 abdominal crunches and showered before getting to the track by 8 a.m. And that was after racing until maybe 11 p.m. the night before.

In his training silks, Rick hopped onto a sulky and jogged one of his many horses repeatedly around a small auxiliary track. He “ponied” a second horse, meaning that he held the lead rope, and the horse jogged alongside him. The second horse stared at Rick and nuzzled his helmet as the three of them went round and round the track. After a few miles, the horses were walked back to the stables, and Rick took out another pair.

As he worked through the repetitive tasks of training, he grew increasingly quiet, listening more to the horses than to the people around him. He brought back one filly that had a slight scare on the track, and Rick would give no more than one-word answers to the anxious groom.

“She didn’t like running into that pylon, did she?” asked Lehigh Vickroy, a groom who’s been in the business 30 years herself.

“Nope,” said Rick.

“But she’s OK?” Vickroy asked, a little nervous.

“Yep,” Rick whispered, never looking up at the groom, and moving toward the next horse.

Hensley’s strategy for winning seems deceptively simple: Keep the horses happy.

Photo By Jill Wagner

Rick finished in the early afternoon by giving swift directions to one groom after another, his muscular shoulders curved in as if he still sat slumped on the seat of a sulky.

Coaxing a horse toward its greatest time takes constant handling, constant attention. Its legs aren’t nearly as fragile as a Thoroughbred’s, but Rick wraps them carefully in bandages, ices them to keep the swelling down and even coats their hooves in sea mud to keep them from cracking.

“If I had someone to take care of me the way we take care of these horses,” said one of Rick’s longtime grooms, “I’d be in seventh heaven.”

That same groom, Larry Merriweather, moved over to Luke’s stables when the son separated from his father. Though Luke is making progress, he’s still got a long way to go, which has become obvious through a few spectacular mistakes.

In December, Luke was training a horse on the mile track when the animal got its foot stuck in a piece of equipment. “I really messed him up this time,” said Luke apologetically, willingly accepting responsibility for his mistakes.

The horse took a spill, and not only did the horse go down, but also Luke did. And the two horses following him went down in a three-horse pileup that could have ended not just careers but also lives.

When a horse goes down, it doesn’t just get back up; it gets up and runs, with the sulky still attached and often no driver to calm its fears. Kentucky Skipper was scared to death, said Luke. He kept running into things and then fell again and again on the concrete behind the track, the sulky dragging behind him. A horseman from a different stable finally snagged the reins, but after months of rehabilitation, the horse still suffers from related aches and pains, the abrasions on its legs a constant reminder.

Though such mistakes can be costly, they’re rare, and Luke continues to train safely on the crowded track with the other horsemen.

The family’s biggest competitor, Hensley, has taken his horses off the site altogether, to a farm where there is no concrete.

A driver for 17 years, Hensley just recently began training, and he has gone to extravagant means to see his particular training strategy in action, though he makes it sound deceptively simple. “I try to keep the horses happy,” said the good-natured Hensley with a genuine smile, his hands shoved into the pockets of his pants.

Hensley has moved his 40 horses to Two Jake Farms north of Sacramento, where the horses can exercise on a quiet track in a pastoral setting. The farm’s paddocks are roomy and lush with tall grass and are surrounded by old fences on which blackbirds perch in the mornings. Instead of walking the horses for exercise, the grooms swim them in a small, very deep pool.

Early on a weekend morning, a tall dark horse walked carefully down the ramp and then took one big joyful leap into the water. His groom walked around the perimeter of the pool, leading the horse by rope, watching it propel its enormous body through the water and let out warm soft snorts as repetitive and rhythmic as a cat’s purr.

Hensley said that Rick had lost his top spot partly because of something unrelated to his age or his abilities: claiming.

If an owner believes he has a $6,000 horse, he puts it into a $6,000 “claiming race.” The problem is if someone else thinks the horse is a bargain at $6,000, they can pick the horse up at the end of the race for that price, and there’s nothing a horseman can do about it. But avoiding claiming races would mean missing out on the biggest purses, so horsemen take that risk nightly. Sometimes, they lose their best horses.

It used to be, said Hensley, that other trainers wouldn’t claim a horse off of Rick because they thought the horses wouldn’t perform for any other trainer. The horsemen also feared that Rick would retaliate, sparking off a claiming war in which two horsemen continually picked off each other’s best horses. In an arena like that, Rick and his owners had enough money to cripple a small stable if they were feeling vengeful.

Luke Plano drives his horse through a fast mile, watched closely from behind by his father.

Photo By Jill Wagner

But recently, said Hensley, trainers have begun to claim horses from each other more aggressively. Rick is no longer immune, so he’s less likely to risk an expensive horse in a less expensive claiming race. However, he does continue to claim right back.

“Dad wants to knock two seconds off someone else’s time when he claims a horse,” said Luke. “He wants to embarrass someone.”

When a horseman succeeds, he attracts some suspicion, both from other horsemen and from bettors who’ve lost money. Sometimes, such suspicions are correct. Cal Expo has had to suspend horsemen for “milkshaking” a horse, or putting a tube down into its stomach and filling the animal with a baking-soda solution that neutralizes the lactic acid that causes fatigue. Cal Expo has even been accused of suspending some milkshakers and letting others off the hook, but since milkshaking has been illegal, Rick said he has never used soda on his horses on race days. His license, along with Luke’s and Hensley’s, is in good standing.

One of the best ways to increase one’s stable is to attract new owners, and on most race nights, men with expendable income look down into the paddock, wondering what it would feel like to pose in the winner’s circle.

Because an owner can buy an inexpensive racehorse for a couple thousand dollars, Rick’s first question to these moneymen always used to be, “How much do you want to spend?” If a novice said he could invest $10,000, Rick would accept it, find the new guy a $5,000 horse and pocket the change. He jokes that if this had been a strategy that worked, maybe he’d still be doing it.

“Now, you think you’ve got a $10,000 horse, and I gotta race him against other $10,000 horses,” said Rick jovially, making fun of his past naiveté. “I don’t care if you’re the richest woman in the world,” he said. “If you’re not making any return on your investment month after month, eventually, you’re going to say this is no good.”

Wearing out owners and horses never worked in his favor, and Rick swears that he no longer accepts a single dime from an owner above the price he pays for a horse.

His relationships with the owners at his stables seem to prove that he’s rehabilitated. On a recent morning, Dave Haness brought his daughter Kimber to Rick’s stables to see the family’s horses. Haness said he knew he wasn’t one of Rick’s biggest owners but that Rick always treated him warmly and respectfully. Then, he told the story of how he got into this business in the first place.

The family’s first horse was supposed to be a gift for Kimber, who had fallen for Sugarcone Matt, a horse Rick was able to claim at a bargain.

That Christmas, Kimber opened a present with a picture of her father in the winner’s circle, and Kimber realized she was the owner of a winning racehorse.

The family might still be cheering Sugarcone Matt today if it weren’t for the sad ending to this story. The horse was down at a now defunct Southern California track for the winter, and right before heading home after a series of wins, Sugarcone Matt was claimed.

Though Kimber never got into the winner’s circle with her first racehorse, her family kept buying horses with Rick, which says something about the man’s way with owners.

“I live my whole life around these horses,” Rick said repeatedly during interviews, and that obviously includes taking care of his owners, his stables and the future of his family at Cal Expo.

When horsemen talk about their mistakes, they talk about positioning. In a race, they think and act at unimaginable speeds while their safety is at risk, their horses are at risk and their livelihoods are at risk. Knowing the temperament of a horse and how much speed it can muster comes from decades of study, which Rick has. If he’s envied by other horsemen now, imagine what the Plano stables can do when Luke’s high-energy driving is tempered by experience and Rick can give all his attention to training. There’s the potential for great things.

In the sixth race on a recent Saturday night, Luke was the only Plano competing. He goaded his horse into an early lead, leaving Hensley and his other competitors trying to catch up. All along the backside, Luke held on, convinced that his horse could speed through the whole mile. As the horses began to shift position, storming toward the finish line, a fast horse made a quick move, climbed up beside Luke in the last few yards of the race and stretched its nose toward the finish. Luke, who’d believed he was unbeatable, saw the horse at the last possible second and snapped his whip, shocking his horse into one last burst. He dove under the finish line in first place.

Hensley, Cal Expo’s new man of the hour, came in fifth.