- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

RICHMOND — No horse makes it to the starting gate at Colonial Downs without meeting Walt Soes. On a typical weekday at the track, Mr. Soes, the official horse identifier, finishes his paperwork in the Virginia Racing office in the afternoon. Then he heads to the other side of the track for the afternoon races - sometimes on his Harley.

The horses for the first race make their way slowly down from the barns. By 4:15 p.m. Mr. Soes is waiting between the rail of the main track and the jockey club.

Each groom recognizes Mr. Soes and stops on the way to the paddock. Clipboard in hand, blue towel in his pocket, Mr. Soes approaches the horse and flips its upper lip inside out.

A few horses dance with nerves and some object, flipping their heads and backing away. However, most just gaze into the distance, politely ignoring the tall, neat man studying the inside of their upper lip.

“Every day a groom is like, ‘Have I got the right horse?’ - like nobody would dare bring the wrong horse,” Mr. Soes said. “But just think if somebody does bring the wrong horse. The public is betting on it, the integrity of the sport, and if there wasn’t anybody checking, it would be pretty tempting for these guys to bring a $10,000 horse and run him in a $5,000 race.”

Every Thoroughbred racing at a recognized track in the United States is tattooed. Mr. Soes’ clipboard carries a sheet with the name and post position of every horse entered in the next race. On the right edge of the paper, across from the horse’s name, there’s a printout of what its tattoo should say.

American-bred Thoroughbreds have a letter indicating the year of birth, followed by the registration number assigned by the Jockey Club.

That tattoo and the horse’s markings, as described on its Jockey Club-issued registration and on the sheet Mr. Soes carries, are used to identify every horse that races at Colonial Downs and every thoroughbred track across the country. Horses with markings - a splash of white on the face, some white around the legs - tend to be recognizable. But most Thoroughbreds are some shade of brown and plenty of them come in a plain wrapper.

Mr. Soes checks those for whorls, or cowlicks. Such markings and hair patterns become even more important on older horses with fading tattoos.

Mr. Soes previously verified the identities of racehorses for 14 years at Oaklawn, home of the Arkansas Derby. He has turned the lips of some of the biggest names to wear a bridle: Cigar, Smarty Jones, Curlin. “I’ve had some good horse slobbers on me,” he said, laughing.

He’s also seen plenty of bad tattoos - hard to read or faded before their time. But now that he and other identifiers can leave one another notes on a database, so such tattoos also have become part of the identification process.

This is Mr. Soes’ first season at Colonial Downs and as one of 60 licensed technicians tattooing horses.

“Here I’m complaining ‘Man, these guys aren’t doing it right.” he said. “But it’s not easy, getting in front of those horses.”

A trainer with a horse ready for its first start schedules a morning appointment. Mr. Soes arrives with a large black case issued by the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau that holds individual letters and numbers made up of little needles mounted on a handle.

Mr. Soes pulls the horse’s registration papers, on file with the racing office. There’s a receipt stapled to them, stating the $60 fee for tattooing has been paid to the bureau.

Before he inks an identification number on the horse, he has to be absolutely certain he’s got the right one. Mr. Soes goes through a more thorough version of his track-side process of checking the physical description. If the markings aren’t close enough to the registration, he rejects the horse and a corrected certificate has to be issued before it can be tattooed.

With a good handler, the process goes smoothly. Mr. Soes uses a special twitch that exposes the inside of the lip at the same time it causes a calming release of endorphins. He swabs the skin clean, then applies the first character with deliberate care. It’s not strength that makes a clear tattoo, he explained. Having the skin stretched taut helps. Rocking each character a little, making sure the ink gets in around the edges also helps.

When he has applied the last digit, Mr. Soes wipes away the excess ink and photographs the number for the bureau.

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