When I tell you what happened to me that August day at Yonkers (N.Y.) Raceway, you'll understand why I have no stomach for harness racing. There I was, sitting behind a horse who had decided to relieve himself in midstride. As we raced down the backstretch, I was sprayed with pellets of manure. Then I felt particles of dirt—and Lord knows what else—in my mouth. It wasn't what I had in mind when I said I wanted a taste of life in the sulky.
Going into this assignment, I knew harness racing was a messy, malodorous sport. So for four days I withstood an unrelenting assault on my nasal passages in hopes of mastering it. But nothing prepared me for the humiliating moments I spent clutching the reins as a 6-year-old pacer named Nicko's Brother dragged me around the track and pooped in my face.
Consider this a cautionary tale of what comes from watching too much television as a child. My frame of reference for harness racing was an episode of the sitcom My Three Sons. I recalled the heartwarming episode in which Steve and the boys cheered from the grandstand as Uncle Charley hopped on a sulky and won a race. Yes, I was an ignoramus when it came to horses and racing. But I convinced myself that if an old fogey like Uncle Charley could handle a standardbred, so could I.
My two-day apprenticeship at Gaitway Farms in Englishtown, N.J., did little to rein in my cockiness. Trainer Linda Toscano and the eight caretakers who help her with her 21 racehorses made harness racing look as easy as Uncle Charley had. Toscano's approach to the job is unorthodox but effective. In 17 years she has had surprising success with horses most trainers would have considered hopeless cases. Back in 1987 she turned Storm Dust, a 4-year-old pacer described by one trainer as "a sulking piece of garbage who can't get out of his own way," into a winner.
"He had a bad reputation, but I thought he had something in him," Toscano, 37, says. "It was just a matter of finding a way to get it out of him." One of her toughest cases this season is Carrot Man, a 3-year-old pacing colt whose '92 winnings—$9,646 so far—won't cover his $20,000 annual bill for room and board. Most everyone has given up on Carrot Man, including driver Jack Moiseyev, a 641-race winner this season who has never won with the colt. In September, the last time they teamed up, they finished ninth in an 11-horse field. The mere mention of Carrot Man sets Moiseyev's head to shaking. "There's a horse that just won't try," he told me.
Secretly, I was delighted to hear it. Don't get me wrong. I genuinely hoped Carrot Man would turn into a speed demon someday and have the last neigh. I just didn't want him doing it while I was driving him. So while his groom, Carl Damiano, put on Carrot Man's harness and bridle, and buckled on the hopples that keep a pacer on stride, I sidled up to Carrot Man and whispered, "Let's just take it nice and slow and have fun today." I needn't have worried. Carrot Man was delightfully placid when I took him for a spin around the track. He didn't try to sprint when other horses moved up beside him. Like a marionette he obeyed when I tugged on the reins to slow him down.
I fooled myself into thinking I had a knack for handling massive hunks of horsepower. Looking back, though, the presence of Damiano, who rode shotgun on the jog cart, probably reassured Carrot Man that even if he wasn't in good hands, a competent pair was nearby. The surroundings didn't hurt, either. Like the other horses stabled at Gaitway, Carrot Man seemed to bask in the serenity of farm life. Adjacent to the track, horses frolicked in paddocks to the chirps of birds and crickets, while a steady breeze made the 90° heat bearable.
My honeymoon with harness racing ended when we returned to the barn. The ammonia odor of horse urine flooded my nostrils. It was a reminder that it was time to clean up Carrot Man and his stall. I bathed him without incident, but as I led him into his stall, he planted his left foreleg in the exact spot where I had just put my right foot. Hearing my whispered plea ("He's on my foot! He's on my foot! He's on my foot!"), Damiano lifted Carrot Man's leg and rescued my throbbing foot.
After hobbling around for a while, I was able to face the task I had dreaded all day—mucking out the stall. The key to mucking, I discovered, is knowing how to distinguish good straw from bad. If you can quickly figure out which piles the horse hasn't peed on, you'll save yourself a lot of work and conserve straw, which horses go through like, well, toilet paper. Eagle-eyed grooms can spot the good stuff instantly and muck a stall in 20 minutes. Being a near-sighted novice, I had to rely on my nose. If it smelled bad, out it went. Trouble was, every strand of straw in that stall smelled bad to me. So for an hour I pitched out every bit of straw and put down a new bed, with Carrot Man watching. Though he had ample opportunity, he didn't kick me.
My apprenticeship completed, I moved on to Yonkers Raceway to show off my skills on a real racetrack. Nervous track officials wouldn't let me anywhere near a race. They suggested I amuse myself with a few solo laps during morning practice. In contrast to the pastoral atmosphere at Gaitway Farms, the dingy barns at Yonkers Raceway buzzed like a sweatshop assembly line, and the track intercom blared incessantly.
I felt the knot in my stomach tighten and my confidence evaporate when I walked through the line of horse-drawn sulkies on my way to the barns. The horses at Yonkers looked much more ferocious than Carrot Man had. But this was no time to turn into a yellow journalist. I had a deadline to meet. "It's natural to be nervous," said Moiseyev. "Just don't go out there scared."
The words echoed in my head as I greeted Nicko's Brother. The horse's regular driver and trainer, John Taddeo, eased my worries by telling me that in 20 starts this year Nicko's Brother had only won $9,180. "A little lazy" is the way Taddeo described him. "You gotta wake him up sometimes," he said. Nicko's Brother sounded like the perfect chauffeur for my first solo drive. And to make sure that he and I understood each other, I repeated to him the suggestion I had made to Carrot Man before we ventured out together. Then I took a deep breath and hopped aboard. But the feeling of imminent peril returned as soon as we reached the track and I saw how bustling things were on the half-mile oval. I couldn't remember Uncle Charley facing anything like this. At least 20 other horses must have been out there, whizzing by us. I felt as if we were entering the Speedway in the middle of the Indy 500.
During practice runs, slow-moving horses travel in the outside lanes, while the fast crowd hugs the rail. Every chance he got, Nicko's Brother tried to veer to the inside. My refusal to let him kept us out of harm's way, temporarily. Suddenly the driver beside us clucked his tongue and snapped a whip across his horse's back. I don't know whether Nicko's Brother thought a race had begun or whether I had had a change of heart, but soon he was pacing at full speed. As we headed into a turn, I yanked the reins as hard as I could and yelled, "Whoa, Nicko, whoa!" I might as well have been screaming into a wind tunnel. My commands were drowned out by the thunderous sound of hooves pounding the ground.
"Is he fighting you?" Taddeo asked when he and his colt caught up to us. Afraid to take my eyes off the track, I ignored the question and pretended the situation was under control. There was nothing to do but hang on until Nicko's Brother ran out of gas. As we hit the last turn on the third lap, he started expelling some of that gas right into my face. Then, down the stretch, he began to poop. One lap later, his fight—along with everything in his intestines—was gone, and I steered him off the track. "I guess he wanted to give you a little thrill," said trainer John Brennan, who was standing nearby. I couldn't respond right away, because I was still spitting.
Later, after giving Nicko's Brother a bath and turning him over to Taddeo, I asked Brennan why the horse had turned on me. He shared with me some wisdom I wished I had had before undertaking this assignment. "When these racehorses want to go," he said, "there's no way someone like you, with no experience, can stop them. They're bred to race. When they get out on that track, they don't know it's just for fun. They think it's time to go racing."
O.K. So I'm no Jack Moiseyev. But not even another Uncle Charley? Hadn't I shown some flashes of competence? "Well," Brennan said, when I pressed him for a critique. "Maybe you could pick it up if you kept at it. But it would take a long time—years, probably."
Years of being stepped on and pooped at? Forget it, I muttered to myself, as I headed off in search of a shower and a bottle of mouthwash.
Once Nicko's Brother decided to go full tilt, all Steptoe could do was hang on.
Bathing Nicko's Brother was the easiest part of the assignment.