by Fran Jurga | July 26, 2009 | Fran Jurga's Hoof Blog
Out for a leisurely Sunday drive? Drivers in New York State are probably a little jittery today. It's Sunday, and there shouldn't be many trucks on the road. Yet the highways are jammed, and these big rigs aren't just any trucks. They're big air-ride trailers and horse vans of every size and shape, some carrying six or more horses each. It's Brook Ledge and Sallee Day on the Northway. The windows are down and you can see bay heads inside, nodding sleepily.
And not just any horses: these are some of the best Thoroughbreds in the country. Hundreds of them are landing at airports and moving from training centers and tracks all over the US and Canada.
It's an equine migration. A reverse diaspora. A gathering of the Thoroughbred clan. For these van drivers, all roads lead to Saratoga Springs, New York, where today is "open house" day for the locals, featuring some always-exciting jump racing. The betting windows open on Wednesday. And the stall doors are wide open to welcome the new arrivals.
The vans will unload horses and just turn around and go get more. Today is the last day of racing at New York's Belmont Park so vets and farriers and exercise riders might have a few days off before things get going "up north", although some are already there working.
The horses will skitter down the ramps and blink as they look around and see all the old shade trees, the painted-a-hundred-times wooden stables and the remains of the original racetrack from 1863. They'll notice immediately that this place doesn't look and smell like Long Island...and it's awfully quiet compared to the New York City tracks that crouch beneath expressways and airport landing patterns.
That was a van ride back in time.
This is a place where a colt can get some sleep. Where a filly can stretch her legs. Where a veteran campaigner's hives might clear up and a career might turn around. Where legends begin.
So let's go back in time with the blog today, too. One of my favorite scenes from any horse-racing movie is the road scene from MGM's 1937 hit Thoroughbreds Don't Cry, which was the film that brought Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland together. You'll see a little bit of the road scene in this clip. Judy sings "Got a Pair of New Shoes" and, of course, I always like to think that the horse is singing along.
This was probably also the first horsey-road-trip scene from a major motion picture, as well as one of the most musical. Horse vans and trailers were a relatively new thing.
Timing is everything: This film was made in 1937, the year that War Admiral won the Kentucky Derby and Seabiscuit was rising to ever higher highs and lower lows out west. They would meet in their famous match race the following year.
Also in 1937, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable made the horse-racing classic film Saratoga about New York's horseracing summer capital but Harlow became ill and died during the filming, though she was only 26 years old.
The makers of Thoroughbreds Don't Cry couldn't have known what else would be going on that year or how famous their young stars would become.
You can watch the whole film on YouTube or stream/order it through Netflix; I've given you the trailer here as motivation.
If you have the time, click here to listen to the taping of Judy Garland singing the song in the film. You'll be humming it before you know it.
One of the best parts of these old horse movies is the chance to see the old vehicles used to transport the horses, including the fake open-window trailer in this clip. I always watch what's going on in the background more than what's going on in the foreground.
The New York Thruway and the Northway would be a much more interesting ride today if those neat old styles were still in use. This drawing from Popular Mechanics in 1924 shows a state-of-the-art over-the-road racehorse van...complete with a flagpole. The article with it said that it could reach and maintain a speed of 50 miles per hour, which was something for the day.
Of course, after Labor Day there will be a reverse migration as the horses abandon Saratoga and scatter to the corners of the globe. But there's something about today, of all days of the summer,
that makes you feel like a giant magnet has caught on all the horseshoes of all the best racehorses in the world and is pulling them up the Northway to Exit 14.
And not a single horse is resisting the pull of that magnet. A trip to Saratoga in August is good for us all.
I'm willing to bet on that.
Join Hoofcare & Lameness on Tuesdays in August in Saratoga Springs at the Parting Glass Pub and Restaurant back room, 40 Lake Avenue, for educational lectures and information about hoof-related care of horses. "Saratoga Safe + Sound" will bring together farriers, veterinarians, trainers, and interesting people from all corners of the horse world (literally) in a casual setting. CLICK HERE for more information or call 978 281 3222; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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