When you have four months off over the winters like I do, you have to find stuff to do to kill the time. So last month my girlfriend and I headed down to Virginia and the Carolinas for a roadtrip to get away for a few days. My travelling will almost always feature horses of the racing variety, that's just how I am, and this trip brought me to some unique places.
|Backing up to the 1/4 pole at Webb Carroll|
The first horse-related stop on the trip was the Webb Carroll Training Center in St. Matthews, South Carolina, near Columbia. My dad trains for Hopefield Farms at Woodbine during the racing season, and over the winter these horses head down to Webb Carroll to train, so I decided I might as well go see how they were doing.
|It's a Breeze|
I was quite impressed with the Webb Carroll facility. There are about 170 thoroughbreds there, both young horses and horses of racing age according to Travis Durr, who trains there. The track is a seven-furlong oval with a starting gate for gate training. The horses go out in large sets attempting to recreate the racetrack training environment.
The five Hopefield horses all looked good and seemed to be doing well during their winter vacation. It was good to see them and hopefully we'll have a good season with them at Woodbine.
|It's a Breeze after training|
|He's a Breeze|
The real highlight of the trip, however, was a day at the races in Red Springs, North Carolina. Heritage Park, as it is officially known, is a half mile track with a 1/4 mile chute. People who bet Charles Town may have noticed a few horses with workouts at a track code HTG. That would be Red Springs. On top of being a training center for a few Thoroughbreds, Red Springs is a popular match racing spot in the region, hosting races twice a month on average.
|Out for some training before the races|
|Superman getting a bath|
My last trip to a bush track was Eagle Rock Downs near Raleigh last March. Eagle Rock was very small, it had a friends and family atmosphere to it, where the races seemed to be more just for fun than for any serious money or competition. Red Springs was not like that. The crowd at Red Springs was probably a couple thousand people, as opposed to maybe a couple hundred at Eagle Rock. While the people at Eagle Rock were primarily African American, Red Springs had a dominant Latin crowd.
However, there were many familiar faces from last year's trip. Before I left, I ended up talking with Harrison Todd from WellBred Racing, a group who races in the Carolinas and he remembered me from Eagle Rock. He asked me if I would hang out around his group and take pictures of the four horses they had racing that day (which I found surprising because I didn't think my Eagle Rock pictures were that great if I'm being honest.) It did feel good to be remembered though.
|Red Springs barns|
|Porkchop ft. pony|
WellBred had two of their own horses racing, and had teamed up with some guys from South Carolina to race another two. Their first was a trail horse named Porkchop, a chunky little chestnut. He was match racing El Jarocho of Cuadra Veracruz, who he had previously beaten a few weeks prior. Unfortunately, Porkchop didn't have the same luck this time around, acting up and whacking his leg off of the gate, leaving him a length and half behind Jarocho in the 250 yard race and with a nice cut above his ankle.
|El Jarocho after his win against Porkchop|
After Porkchop came El Durango of Cuadra Azteca vs La Romerita of Cuadra Dos Trebol going 200 yards. I should stop here to clarify that in match racing, the Latin groups are called cuadras [blocks.] The team of the owners, trainers, grooms, etc make up a cuadra, or at least that's my understanding. If you are at a registered track and you look closely at the silks, you will often notice a cuadra's name and logo. Romerita won the race quite easily as Azteca lugged in.
|Getting ready for a workout|
|La Romerita before her win against El Durango|
|Porkchop on the hotwalker|
The worst luck of the day for WellBred racing came when they raced Ike Turner, a NW2 at the registered tracks who's won several match races now, in a three horse race against El Sargento and La Catrina going 250 yards. We stood about 100 yards from the gate, and you could tell that Ike, who was in the middle of the three, was drawing away. However, there was a pole up at the 200 yard mark, which the jockey mistook as the finish. He began to pull Ike up, and lost to Sargento by a head, despite that 50 yard slam on the brakes. It was the definition of a heartbreaker.
|Ike Turner is a solid looking horse, right?|
|Harrison Todd of WellBred Racing (on the pony) talking to Willie Cabbagestalk, a name some may remember from Hialeah|
|El Sargento, Cuadra La Herradura|
|Sargento vs Ike, La Catrina on the far side not pictured|
Unlike Eagle Rock, where most of the racers just hung out by their trailers to get ready, Red Springs has four barns for people to use. Some people did opt to just stay by their trailers, but a good number of the stalls were filled with racehorses. Also different from Eagle Rock was the presence of an MC. He was set up with a mic and loud speakers by the track and announced the upcoming races and when the horses were coming on the track. Between races there was music being played from the speakers.
|El Jl vs El Sargento (a different Sargento) |
Sargento (far side) proved best
One of the most notable races of the day was La Dama of Cuadra Mezquite against El Aventurero of Cuadra La Sierra. I've watched several videos of these two match racing before. Dama has always won, but they have always been very close races. Today they set up a camera at 300 and 350 yards to see who would win at either distance. However, Aventurero refused at the start! Dama was already halfway down the track before I realized she was the only horse in the race. People ran out on the track to get a straight on look at Aventurero standing flat-footed in the starting gate. The MC yelled on the mic, "Oh my God, I've never seen anything like this in my life! Not even in Mexico!" It was wild. They already have a rematch set up at the same distances on April 1st.
|I'm not sure how many lengths there are in 350 yards, but that's how many Dama won by|
Although it was a large crowd, apparently we stood out. Later in the day I went up to the MC to ask how many more races there were. He told me, then said "I've never seen you around here before." I told him that I'd never been there before because I'm from Canada, and he got on the mic and said "My friends, we need to give a welcome to our friends here from Canada!" I ended up meeting the sheriff shortly after. They were there to keep people off of the track during the races, which has been a problem at that particular track before. Another guy I talked to earlier in the day said "wow, you came all the way from Canada for some horse racing? You don't have horse racing up there?" Apparently we aren't targeting the North Carolina market well enough.
|Racing horses and drinking Corona, a fine combo|
Another common sight between races were horses who were shipped in just to breeze or gallop around the track. I suppose if you're planning on putting up money for a gate in a match race later you want your horse to get some experience over the track. The track at Red Springs was quite deep and dry, I imagine if I were to hand time the races they would come up pretty slow. Getting a feel for the surface is probably a good idea.
After WellBred's two horses raced, they had the two horses from South Carolina going later. First up was Superman, a fiesty grey with a large scar on his side who nearly kicked me in the head while I was taking pictures of him. My bad for kneeling on the ground. He raced against El Taliban at 250 yards but was beaten about a length and a quarter. State Trooper was the group's last hope, but he didn't break great and ended up literally eating El Mapa's dust. It was a frustrating day for the team.
|Is it a bird? Is it a plane?|
|No! It's my future Saddlecloth Sunday post!|
|El Taliban pre-race|
|I REALLY wanted a picture of Superman with all four legs off the ground. No such luck|
|What's this? Another Saddlecloth Sunday post!|
|I wasn't joking about State Trooper literally eating dust, unfortunately|
Overall Red Springs was a great time. I know a lot of people probably have a perception about bush tracks that they're dangerous or that the horses aren't well treated or the quality of horsemanship is low, but based on my experiences that isn't the case. The horses I saw were all fit and healthy looking. I've seen more horses that made me cringe at registered tracks than I have in the bushes. It might seem sketchy looking from afar but it's a ton of fun when you get to experience it for real.
|El Granito wins one of the last races of the day, despite his tack slipping a bit|
|Good night from Red Springs|
Since I-95 was the primary route home, I realized that Laurel Park was an option for a pit stop. We took the opportunity to stop in for a few races because I wouldn't have been able to sleep that night knowing I passed up such an easy opportunity to add a track to the list.
|Alyssa gets credit for most of the Laurel pics & some of the Red Springs ones|
|Harker with Wesley Ho|
Laurel was nice. I never saw what it was like before but I know they've done some renovations to the clubhouse area and they were done very well, it's very nice on the inside. I guess the next job is the grandstand, because the yellow and orange chairs I've always seen in pictures are all torn out and it looks like an abandoned building in there. The crowd on a cold Sunday afternoon was not huge, but it wasn't super small either. We didn't spend much time inside, mostly floating between the paddock and the apron for picture taking.
|Harker didn't break too well|
Laurel reminded me of Hawthorne, although a bit flashier. Nice, functional, tough to knock, but probably not many people's favourite track. Definitely had nothing against it though, I'd stop in again if I was in the area.
|Next Street and Forest Boyce prevailing over Poppy's Shadow|
Overall it was a great trip. Seeing the world of horse racing from so many unique angles is always interesting and a lot of fun. Certainly worth the time spent in the car. Hope you enjoy the pictures! I'm headed to Sunland Park for the Sunland Derby next weekend which I'm very excited for. Slowly getting to 40 racetracks!