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Bring on the heat

Recent cold snap presents challenges to horses in training and their handlers

Posted: January 8, 2018 2:51 p.m.
Updated: January 9, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

TRAINER RICHARD VALENTINE and one of the horses in his barn prepare for a ride on the grounds of the Springdale Training Center last Friday.

Appropriately dressed for someone riding behind a team of huskies for a trek over snow and ice-covered terrain, Richard Valentine sat in the saddle aboard one of his eight horses stabled on the grounds of the Springdale Race Course.

As he guided his mount in a circle set among the pine trees before going out for ride last Friday, the trainer of 2014 Eclipse Award winner for Steeplechase Horse Demonstrative half-jokingly said he might break out his attire usually reserved for the summer months as he talked about the weather forecast for this week.

Given the below-freezing temperatures which descended on the Camden area last week --- which were to give way to the 60s over the course of the next two to three days ---, it was not the optimal time for man or beast to be out either before or at the crack of dawn. Given that set of circumstances, Valentine and rider Jason Ruch each got aboard a horse for an 11 a.m. ride. Under more moderate Camden conditions, this should have been the time of day the two men were putting up their tack for the day.

Much like schools in Kershaw County last week, most horses in training were operating on a two-hour delay in order to let things warm up a bit before embarking on their daily routine.

“We’ve been starting later,” Valentine said as to the cold snap’s effect on his and his two employees’ work day. “We’ve been coming in at 8 o’clock where, normally, if the weather was nice, we’d be starting at six. We just pushed everything back.”

For the past several years, Valentine has traveled south to Camden with a string of horses, mainly jumpers, from his home base in Virginia. Even while bundled up for the elements on this day, he said all in all, he was happy to be at Springdale. Given the large quantity of snow and accompanying winds packed by winter storm Grayson, highways and byways up and down the eastern seaboard were a mess. That made the trip to Camden for horses coming from locales such as Virginia even more tricky and in some cases, treacherous.

Both Valentine and Ruch were layered from head-to-toe on this day with men having donned plastic pants which fit over their regular pants to help offset the effects of the wind and cold.

“It’s tough but you know what,” Valentine said of the obstacles faced when boarding a horse to go for a morning hack in the trails at Springdale, “we could be in Virginia so this is not too bad. It was cold there. Today, I think the horses there were just getting turned out (for their stalls) to be mucked out. The high there was supposed to be 19 degrees with 40 miles an hour winds. It was brutal.

“The roads were really bad from Richmond into North Carolina,” he said of the conditions drivers face when vanning horses south. “After that, it was OK.”

The wind, Valentine said, affects horses more than the bone chilling cold. That is just one part of the equation when it comes to tending those in his barn. A big concern was making sure the pipes did not freeze and burst; something which did not happen at Springdale. That, he said, could have been a disaster in itself.

“Basically, it’s the care of the horses,” Valentine said of the challenges posed by a such a steep drop in temperature. “I think the biggest thing is making sure the water doesn’t freeze, particularly down here where we’re not equipped to have these cold snaps like we’re having now.”

Like a human athlete who tends to drink large amounts of water in hot conditions to stay hydrated and ward off cramping only to stop doing that when the air becomes colder and cramping can still occur, the same goes for horses. Keeping horses hydrated in conditions such as last week was not the easiest of tasks. Workers had to keep an eye on the horse’s water intake. This, Valentine said, was more important than keeping a horse warm.

“It’s important to keep them drinking water. Sometimes, they tend to stop drinking water at this time of year when it’s cold,” he said. “That’s the biggest battle; making sure they continue drinking a lot of water and that they stay hydrated.”

Once the horses have their water and spend extra minutes getting warmed up before leaving the barn area, riders need to be aware of the condition of the ground which they and their mounts will be traveling over. Those areas which were wet or soggy the previous week may have turned to patches of ice and can be problematic for both riderd and their horses, which, at this time of the year, are not in full-fledged training mode. The heavier work load, for the jumpers preparing for the National Steeplechase Association’s spring campaign, will start in early February with breezing slated to begin the end of the month or, in early March.

“You have to be careful, particularly with the surfaces that you are training on,” he said. “At this time of year, we spend a lot of time trotting, anyway. We won’t start galloping them for a couple weeks.”

On Friday, Valentine’s barn had eight horses occupying stalls with more coming down over the course of the next several weeks. There are still nine horses on the farm in Virginia waiting for their shipping orders to Camden. His numbers are down, Valentine said, but he expressed hope that some horses could be in the pipeline given the fact that new clients may be hiring him to train their horses.

Valentine, along with Camden-based trainers Arch Kingsley Jr. and Kate Dalton, already have boots on the ground when it comes to giving their horses a head start in preparation for the NSA season. The 84th running of the Carolina Cup is Saturday, March 31, one week after the season opener in Aiken.

In the past, some northern-based trainers did not see much of a reason to get their top horses into training for such an early start. With Carolina Cup day featuring a Camden-record $325,000 in purse money, including $150,000 for the Marion duPont Scott Colonial Cup (Gr. I) along with the $75,000 Carolina Cup for novice jumpers, it has given owners and trainers incentive to get their top jumpers going earlier in the winter months. In some instances, that means trainers and horses arriving in Camden to train in the weeks leading up to the Camden spring classic which helps the race as well as the Springdale Race Course and its training center as barns begin to fill up on the grounds.

A cold and extended stretch of winter in the mid-Atlantic region could be a boon for Camden and Springdale.

“I think that you’ll find northern trainers will be coming down here,” Valentine said. “I have heard other trainers mention that they might be coming down several weeks before the race. It all depends on the weather they have up there.”

A quick look ahead to the weather for this week had Valentine optimistic of getting everything back to a more normal winter training schedule in Camden.

“I’m getting my shorts ready,” he said with a laugh as he and his horse began walking down a trail leading from the tree-shaded barn area and into the sunlight. “(The forecast) looks great. I’m looking forward to it.”



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