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Horse Racing: Getting all 'A's for horse sense

Sunday, October 05, 2003

By Pohla Smith, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Heather Hull, an exercise rider who grooms for her husband/trainer, William Hull, at the Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort, has her own trainer's license and a degree from Michigan State University in equine studies.

Still, she found she had much to learn -- and unlearn -- when she took a 30-hour certificate program for grooms that the local Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association offered this summer with the co-sponsorship of Mountaineer.

"It was amazing how much you don't know," said Hull, 35, of New Cumberland, W.Va. "You just learn from being around somebody whether it's right or not. To find out things that have been scientifically proven helps a lot."

The program, offered in both English and Spanish, included lessons in anatomy, horseshoeing, proper bandaging of legs, barn safety, the horse digestive system and the mouth. The lessons were half power point presentations and half hands-on with horses from the track.

For example, the 27 students who were certified learned that about 80 percent of racehorses have stomach ulcers because of the stress of being cooped up in stalls. The condition requires expensive medication.

"In class, we learned if we keep hay in front of them at all times, it helps their stomach juices," Hull said. "Now we're throwing our horses hay all the time. It makes sense because when they're out in the wild they're grazing all day. [The hay] is a lot cheaper then the medicine you'd be putting them on."

The designers of the program included experts from the HBPA Education Committee, Louisiana Tech's equine program and a retired equine extension specialist from Texas A&M University.

Gail Morrow, a Mountaineer trainer and local HBPA vice president, learned about the program when she attended a workshop in Houston. She requested and received permission from the horsemen's board of directors to stage the program at a cost of about $300 per student.

Thirty-one took the course free of charge, but four did not get certified, primarily because they did not meet the 80 percent attendance requirement, Morrow said.

The lowest score on the written test was 91 out of 100.

"[The program coordinator] said it was the highest cumulative score of any track, and even Santa Anita has put it on," Morrow added.

Students needed a West Virginia race track license to enroll, otherwise the only qualification necessary was a hunger to learn.

"It seems like a lot of the best grooms at the track were the ones who came," Morrow said. "People like that know they don't know everything and want to improve.

"There were probably a half-dozen who never handled racehorses. A couple were owners who wanted to learn the right way of doing things so they could understand better what their trainers tell them.

"What was unique was, one of the security people took it. He said he wanted to learn how to catch loose horses on the back side," Morrow said.

A horse owner from North Carolina also commuted to Chester, W.Va. for the classes each Sunday through Tuesday. Heather and William Hull believe they already are seeing an improvement in their horses.

Along with giving them hay all day long, they also now allow horses racing on Lasix -- to prevent pulmonary bleeding -- to have a little water in the hours between the injection and the race. Many trainers and vets believed water would lead to more bleeding. Instead, Heather Hull learned, denying water left the horses dehydrated before they even got to the track.

"We ran two horses the other night and both won," Heather Hull said. "We think it's because of the grooms elite program."

Morrow said she hopes to stage the program again next year -- perhaps even an advanced course as well.

"It will depend on funding by the board of the HBPA," she said. "But there's been such positive feedback, I'm sure we'll do it again."

Horse bits

Art Major, the 2002 pacing colt of the year and winner of eight starts and $1.08 million this year, has been retired to stand stud after a recent illness ... Driver-trainer John Simpson Jr. has been elected to the Living Hall of Fame of harness racing ... Trainer Dale Capuano had 14 victories out of his first 30 starts in the current summer-fall meet at Pimlico; that total includes a 3-for-3 day on Sept. 25.

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