- Associated Press - Monday, January 20, 2014

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) - Each year, Oaklawn Park draws visitors from across the country to Hot Springs with its Southern hospitality and tradition of thoroughbred racing, but many may not realize that it takes hundreds of people - from locals to traveling workers - behind the scenes to keep the horses conditioned and ready for the meet.

“On the barn side alone, we have on average 500 positions when our barns are filled to capacity,” said Jennifer Hoyt, media relations manager for Oaklawn Park. “We’ve had people come from as far away as Canada, and we have people come in from New Mexico, Texas, New York, and our largest group of horsemen comes from Kentucky.”

All horsemen, from hotwalkers to jockeys, must be licensed. By the end of the day Tuesday, nearly 600 workers had been licensed, with more coming in each day.

Capacity for Oaklawn is 1,550 horses. In 2013, around 1,400 horses were housed. Hoyt said it will be no question the barns will be filled to capacity this meet.

Beginning in November, Oaklawn’s 44 barns start filling up first with workers, then with horses.

“When the workers come in, it’s basically bare bones, and for a good day and a half they start bedding the stalls with straw, hanging doors and organizing the tack and equipment,” Hoyt said. “Then the horses start to come in and the track opens for training.”

According to Hoyt, it is all about putting together a great team to have a successful barn.

“When you think about it, the trainer in each barn is like the coach,” she said. “And their hotwalkers, grooms, exercise riders and assistants are their team. The most successful barns are the ones with the best teams.”

It all starts around 4 a.m. each day. The horses are fed and the stables are cleaned. After that, the horses are brought out to get ready for the day.

“The horses have to be groomed before getting ready for exercise,” Hoyt said. “They’re taken up to the track where most horses train for about half an hour.”

After their morning workout, the horses are brought back to the barns to be washed and cooled out, which takes approximately 30 minutes.

Each horse’s tack has to be cleaned and put away for the next morning’s workout, and by noon most workers are finished with work for the day with the exception of afternoon feed schedules.

For about five months, this is the schedule for each barn seven days a week, with many trainers offering a “fun day” to give people time off. For many families, this is their daily routine.

According to Hoyt, roughly 40 percent of workers in the barn are local people who work at farms during the off season. Many of them have worked at Oaklawn for decades.

“We’ve got a lot of workers that have been doing this for years, and a lot of them are husbands and wives or fathers and sons,” she said. “It takes a lot of dedication and hard work, and most are here from the first of December to the end of April.”

Each barn houses anywhere from 40 to 50 horses, which translates to around 10 grooms, 10 hotwalkers and five exercise riders. Hoyt said each groom and hotwalker is responsible for about three or four horses every day.

Hoyt said she has worked at various tracks, doing just about every job the barns demand. None of the jobs are easy, and while there is money in the racing industry, she said a lot of people are not in it for that.

“I think a lot of people, when they think of horsemen, think they’re just in it for the money - and a lot of them do make good money,” she said. “But these people love these horses and it’s really that love of working with horses that keeps them in these jobs. That’s what it all boils down to.”

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Information from: The Sentinel-Record, http://www.hotsr.com

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