The Expressive Hands of Horse Racing at Santa Anita

The Life
From top left clockwise: A manicured handicapper; Happy Birthday by Santa Anita trumpeter Jay Cohen; the hands of Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens; the hands of 96-year-old Santa Anita icon John Shear. (Julie June Stewart photo)

In the early morning hours at Santa Anita, horses and exercise riders gather at the gap. As they wait, some horses are jumpy and anxious. They swirl and twirl as their rider whirls around to control them. One large, chestnut Thoroughbred stood calmly in the sunlight in front of me. With his left hand holding the reins loosely, the rider’s right hand slowly gave his horse a neck massage. He started at the poll and worked down the bridle path and mane. Then he would lean forward and rub the neck finding various pressure points as he kneaded and knitted the muscles. His horse responded and sometimes turned his head backwards in a stretch. It was an expression of love and caring. As other horses acted up, his horse stood peacefully enjoying the moment. He rode onto the track and I lost him in the mélange of the morning.

The racetrack is a place where one can immerse themselves in the beauty of the day. Santa Anita racetrack is known as “The Great Race Place” for a reason. It’s gorgeous, no matter what the weather is. With the San Gabriel Mountains as a majestic background, world-class Thoroughbreds charge furiously down the stretch lending to the excitement and exquisiteness of the day.

It can be easy to experience sensory overload between the crowds and the races. There is so much to behold. I decided it was a good day to pay attention to the details. In particular, I focused on hands.  With so many passionate people present, hands are very expressive at the track. There is so much personality displayed in how people use their hands. They can be energetic, emphatic and dramatic. 

A groom with Paradise Road in the winner's circle. (Julie June Stewart photo)

As I walked around, I could easily see the differences. There are the calloused, capable and caring hands of the grooms. Sometimes they grip the lead line tightly while at other times their hand is relaxed and loose depending on the response of their horse as they lead them around the walking ring. Strong muscular hands used to hard work. They use their hands to calm and control the attitudes of their horses. After the race, the grooms will show up on the track carrying halters and buckets of cool water.  They will remove the horse’s tongue tie and sponge down their face before walking back to the barns.

There is lots of love at the track. The minute the escort ponies line up in the tunnel, they attract a crowd. A little girl is shown how to hold her palm flat while offering the pony a pretty peppermint. She squeals in joy when the horse slobbers on her hand and her mom laughs with her. Hands from all directions reach out to pet the next pony as he lowers his head for loving pats. It is a tradition and the ponies are wonderful ambassadors for the sport. Everyone wants to pet a horse. Even TV personality Zoe Cadman lavishes love on the Santa Anita carriage horse when her segment is complete. Trumpeter Jay Cohen delights a smiling fan by playing her Happy Birthday as people nearby clap. Young girls use their cell phones for selfies to capture their day with the horses. 

In the walking ring, the jockeys wait patiently. Their hands are like sensitive barometers that register every quiver, movement and nuance of the horse they ride. As they stand in the sun, most of them clasp their hands behind their backs after the ritualistic handshakes with the connections. When they hear “riders up,” their hands suddenly become alive as they bounce into the saddle. It’s time to be busy. They might unbraid the hair closest to the saddle for a hand grip and they also tie a knot in their reins.  While their legs are quiet, their hands reassure their horse with pats on the neck. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has his cool, iron hands resting quietly in the saddle as the consummate rider heads to the track. 

The hands of railbirds. (Julie June Stewart photo)

The local railbirds line the fence of the walking ring. With programs in hand, they survey the horses walking to the track. Iconic Santa Anita employee John Shear (96 years old) sits on the park bench with friends. His heroic hands are resting in his lap. There is beauty in how his knobby and knotted hands reflect years of hard work at the track. Up in the boxes, a woman’s soft alabaster manicured hands neatly mark her selections. Blue-collar hands that have worked for years pull out some dollar bills before heading to the teller. As the race starts, handicapper Kirk Stephens hikes his hands up with his binoculars to intently watch the race. The fan in the next box joyously holds her tickets up in the air as she celebrates her win!   

It’s fun to watch people during a big race. Their hands become the symbol of how they feel. If they are encouraging their horse forward, their hands clench their program in a tight roll as they pound the program into their other hand. Thwack! Thwack! “C’mon! C’mon! You can do it!” All around, hands are punching the sky. There are the active fans who jump up and down with each stride. There are the ones who lean forward as they encourage their horse to push their nose in front of their rival.  There are the screamers, the yellers and the laughing ones who cheer with the huggers and the high-fivers. 

After the race, the jockeys return with muddy hands holding the reins. To the winner goes the garland as the grooms shield the eyes of the horse while the flowers are draped on its neck. The winning jockey will often point his hand to the sky in thanks. It’s time for high fives, hoorays and handshakes. The groom will proudly escort the horse and rider to the winner’s circle with his hand clenched in a tight grip on the shank. The rest of the team will proudly place their hands on the back of the horse while their photo is taken for posterity. 

Trainer John Shirreffs. (Julie June Stewart photo)

Trainer John Shirreffs meets with the media and talks about his Derby prospect. The camera man adjusts his camera to get the best angle. Shirreffs fingers weave together and he keeps his hands close to his chest. Nearby, champagne is being opened by the track staff and within minutes of winning, there are smiles in the sunlight as champagne toasts are hoisted to the sky. 

The next morning as I walked the barns, I met groom Daniel Robles and his charge Term of Art who had raced the day before in the Santa Anita Derby. As Robles stood with him, the tall, magnificent Thoroughbred lowered his head into Roble’s arms and relaxed.  He closed his eyes while Robles caressed him. It was a magical moment between man and horse. It reminded me of the morning before when I met the rider giving his horse a neck massage.

There is a lot to behold at the track but if you keep your eyes open and look for the details, you will notice the richness of love through creative hands, loving hands, winning hands and iconic hands. What you will see at the racetrack are the hands that reflect years of life and experience. Whether they are bejeweled and manicured or gnarled and weathered, they reach for the best in life and reflect their own unique journey. It is well worth noticing.

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