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A Look Inside The Backstretch At Saratoga

Lucas Willard

Beside the famed Saratoga Race Course, the backstretch is always busy. Working for the trainers, grooms, blacksmiths, and others spend long days with the horses in between training rides and races. 

On a quiet Friday morning, leading thoroughbred trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was sitting at a patio table at his stable behind Saratoga Race Course.

He had no horses running that day, and morning workouts were already over. McLaughlin said he doesn’t get many days off, especially at this 40-day meet, and he tries to keep it cool.

“So you go get your haircut or get your car washed or do other things when you don’t have time to do when you’re racing every day,” said McLaughlin.

At the time of our interview, McLaughlin was on a hot streak. One week into the Saratoga meet, seven of his 10 horses had claimed victory.

To ensure a good season, McLaughlin keeps a team of grooms to work with the thoroughbreds.

“We have a great team of people. It’s not a one-man show by any means,” said McLaughlin.

McLaughlin says everyone works well together. Some of the grooms have been working with McLaughlin for 20 years.

One of McLaughlin’s most trusted is Hilario Fragoso. He introduced me to a few of the other workers and horses.

In one of the stalls, a horse is having stables bandages taped to his lower legs. Fragoso says it’s just part of the routine after a morning of training.

“When you go to the track, come back, finish, he is put the bandage on, he is make a bed, a good bed, clean the feet, brush,” said Fragoso.

Because the grooms spend so much time with the horses, it’s up to the grooms to show that they’re comfortable.

“The horse look at you, and you look at the horse. And you be nice to him, he’s nice too,” said Fragoso.

It’s simple advice that blacksmith Bruce McCTuan also follows — while changing a horse’s shoes, which must be done monthly.

“This horse, she’s not nervous ‘cause I’m not nervous, ‘cause the holder isn’t nervous,” said McCuan.

McCuan, who has been blacksmithing for 50 years, only recently started working with McLaughlin.

He says the trainer’s even-temper is what keeps things flowing smoothly.

“All people that are good at their jobs, they’re usually that way. The ones that are insecure are the ones that yell and got ot make a scene, and stuff like that. And there’s a lot of them around. But this guy, he’s sure not that way. He’s the greatest,” said McCuan.

McLaughlin, who has some of the most experienced workers in the business, said there’s another secret, too.

“We have a great rapport between us all. We’re not hiding anything. Everybody knows to tell the boss that something’s wrong. And everybody works well together. And I pay well so they stick around,” said McLaughlin. 

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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