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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Breeders' Cup Inside Scoop with Torrie Needham

The Breeders' Cup, a series of horse races that span two days' race cards is an annual horseracing event. Millions of racing fans and spectators tune in to watch and enjoy races online and on specialty network, HRTV (Horseracing Television, Inc.).

Thousands attend Santa Anita racetrack, Arcadia, CA, the first Friday and Saturday in November hoping to cash in, looking for fun, and reveling in the physical awe that accompanies one thousand pounds of weight, hammering the dirt and turf atop four dainty legs. Four fragile hooves.

Five Friday races. Nine Saturday races. Fourteen opportunities to turn a two dollar bet into a twenty-thousand dollar payout.

In celebration of the Breeders' Cup's 30th Anniversary, I'm interviewing an accomplished, interesting, and dedicated horse woman whose witnessed the rush of the starting gate whoosh every year since its 1983 inception.

Torrie Ann Needham's 30+ year career includes backside and racetrack photography. She's also a skilled exercise rider, having galloped such horses as Eclipse Award winning, Lemhi Gold, and multiple stakes' winners, Mountain Cat, Sir Pete, Adored and Love You Dear. A few of the horses she's ponied include John Henry, Theatrical, Smile, Trinninberg and Afleet, Commemorate and Spectacular Love. Torrie's also a highly sought-after assistant trainer, having worked with Troy Young, Steve Asmussen, Tom Amoss and Donnie VonHemel. Most recently she worked with Dallas Keen Stables during the Del Mar summer 2013 meet, San Diego, CA.

During the 2013 Breeders' Cup extravaganza Torrie planted herself alongside and behind the starting gate, at the final turn, along the final stretch and at the finish line. The breathtaking images and magical moments Torrie captured can be viewed online at JockeyWorld.org.

Want to feel like you were live at the races? Continue reading the following interview and experience first-hand what it was like to breathe in the air of million dollar superstar racehorses as they whipped by at speeds exceeding 35 mph.

Hi Torrie! Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed.
And off to the races we go...

When you arrive in the barn in the morning, do you wake up the horses or are they already alert and staring at you: About time, lady! Where's my hay? I'm hungry."
TN: Typically, the horses are already being groomed and stalls are being cleaned when I arrive at 4:30 a.m. The horses have already eaten up their first grain feeding, that was set at 3:30 a.m. by one of the grooms. All the grooms generally get started by 4 a.m.

What's been the most rewarding aspect of working in the horseracing industry for you?
TN:  I have been blessed my whole career to have worked with many of the Top trainers and horses. The most rewarding thing would be to watch the young horses coming into the barn as babies, developing into mature racehorses and WINNING.

Do you have any advice for any readers interested in creating a career with racehorses? First steps? Helpful organizations to join?
TN: Never ever give up would be the best advice I can offer up. Whatever your goal is in the racing industry, maybe riding isn't your thing, so then you can become a vet's assistant, clocker, groom, hot walker, crossing guard, etc., etc. There is no limit to the careers associated with race horses. Whatever your skill happens to be, there will be a career in racing. Working on the "Backside," or the "Frontside" of the track, has its rewards.
There are several ways to get involved in racing. Be it at a farm, college or the track itself.
I recommend joining JockeyWorld.org for a vast amount of information and interaction with those who actually work at the track. North American Racing Academy (NARA) in Lexington, KY, is a place to learn to be an exercise rider or jockey.
There are race horse farms in nearly every state, where you can go and learn to be a groom or hot walker before trying your skills at the track.

What is your memorable moment from the 2013 Breeders' Cup?
TN: That's easy. The finish of the Classic where my favorite horse from last year's BC, Mucho Macho Man, won in a dueling stretch, drove over Will Take Charge and Declaration of War by a nose and neck, respectively.

With all of your venerable experience, how do you choose which horses to favor or root for?
TN: Certain horses will just, simply put, catch my eye just looking at them. I don't complicate things by reading that horse's PPs (past performances). And that's who I will ultimately root for.

Where's your favorite physical location to watch the races?
TN: Absolutely the best seat in the house other than the race horse, I like to watch from the back of the Pony.

To take pictures? Why?
TN: Everywhere is a photo opp, but my favorite is at the starting gate. I love to shoot candid shots, and when the assistant starter is taking a horse from the pony, I like photographing the assistant starter, the horse and the jockey, as they are loading into the gate. Lots of personality shows in all their faces. And very few other photographers, if any, will be there. So I hopefully catch shots out of the ordinary.

What was your favorite race on Friday's card? Why?
TN: Gotta say, Goldencents. I was blessed to have taken him to the gate in the Kentucky Derby, though he didn't run well that day. Since I had a connection to him I was rooting for him to win the BC Dirt Mile and thought the distance was a better race for him than the one and a quarter mile Kentucky Derby. Goldencents actually made the lead at one point in the Kentucky Derby but was tired at one mile, so I was sure he'd run good in the BC Dirt Mile. That's his best distance in my personal opinion. Was thrilled he won.

On Saturday's card?
TN: As I mentioned earlier, the BC Classic was my favorite race of the day. I love Mucho Macho Man. Here's a horse that truly caught my eye and took my breath away during last year's BC Classic, when I viewed him through the lens of my camera on his way to the gate. I was a fan from that point on.

Which states or countries do the horses who compete in the Breeders' Cup races come from?
TN: The majority of the Breeders' Cup entries are from the U.S., Canada and Europe. But many other countries have been represented such as, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

Secret Compass, a beautiful dark bay, trained by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert and owned by Westrock Stables, broke down and needed to be euthanized during Saturday's opening race. How did this event impact the rest of the day's race card, if at all?
TN: With the unfortunate demise of Secret Compass, I personally didn't feel much of an impact by the fans for the rest of the day's race card. Secret Compass was out of the naked eye of the fans, thank God. Though the fans I think had to notice the absence of jockey Johnny Velazquez. All of John's remaining mounts had substitute jockeys as John was injured in the fall.

As an avid horse lover, how do unfortunate situations like Secret Compass affect you?
TN: There is no doubt that all of us who work at the track and love the horses like we all do, that the horses who leave us too soon, due to illness or injury, does affect our lives. Each one takes a piece of our heart with them. With that being said, it is by all means not the objective we seek when we enter a horse in a race, to see that horse injured. Unfortunately, illness or injury is the downside of the racing industry and all means are taken to detour any and all such instances. The one thing that is a constant, is the fact that a veterinarian is on the grounds basically 24/7, along with grooms or night watchmen. Nothing goes undetected. The health and safety of the horse takes preference above all else at the track. They are professional athletes and are treated as such, at all times.

What are some of the tasks of an assistant trainer?
TN: Assistant trainers are the extra eyes and ears for the trainer. Overseeing every aspect of the goings on at the barn, the track and the paddock. Assistant trainers are second in charge. Barn managers if you will. From coordinating the daily morning workouts, feeding programs, vendors such as the blacksmith, tack shops, feed companies and all Veterinary work. Working with the grooms and hot walkers and jumping in and lending a helping hand when an employee is busy or absent. An Assistant Trainer knows how to do everyone's jobs on the ground. Many, but not all, are exercise riders, as well.

What is a typical race day's regimen for a competing horse?
TN: On race day, depending on the trainer's schedule and the horse, most horses running that day will typically get bathed, walked and fed a little earlier than normal depending on post time of their race. Sometimes a horse will track that morning for very light exercise, such as jogging one time around the track or very easy gallop. Most often, they have the morning off, though.
If a horse is on any race day medication, such as Lasix, the meds will be administered 4 hours out or 4 hours from post time of that scheduled race for that particular horse. At which all feed and water will be removed 4 hours out, as well. Many trainers like to ice the front legs before running, usually 30-45 minutes before the call to the paddock. The horse will hopefully rest during that time. Then approximately one hour before post time, the groom will start brushing, bandaging (if needed) and tacking the runner with the bridle.
Races are called to the paddock approximately 1 hour before post time.

How is a race horse's morning workout regimen altered when in training for a Breeders' Cup race?
TN: Here again, the trainer has a plan laid out for each horse leading up to a race, be it a claiming race or a Breeders' Cup race. So altering a training schedule would depend upon each individual horse and the condition of the track, such as a muddy track as opposed to a fast dry track. Track conditions play a huge role in the training of any horse and no truer than a horse pointed to a Breeders' Cup race. Trainers will watch their horses train every day, and monitor the training accordingly.

What is a typical recovery routine for a horse running a race? Are there carrots and cookies all around back at the barn or is it an athlete diet as usual, back to business?
TN: After a horse has run, the cool out time is usually 45 minutes to 1 hour. Horses will walk and water off slowly during that time, as well as get bathed. Horses who have won a race or that have been randomly drawn to drug test, will be taken to the test barn until the horse has been given a urine test. After that the horse is free to return to its barn. If a horse refused a urine test, as some horses do, they will return to their own stall with a certified technician that will follow the horse back to their stall and retrieve the urine sample there. All winners are tested. 1 to 2 horses will randomly test in some races, not all. It's random.

Along with the fourteen races, do you ever get a chance to enjoy any of the non-racetrack events or activities that take place during Breeders' Cup week? Parties, dinners, or fundraisers?
TN: Since this year was my first year to be officially credentialed as a press photographer, I was associated with JockeyWorld.org, and was able to photograph all aspects of the Breeders' Cup. I attended the Breeders' Cup draw and Evening with the Stars, while also having access to the press box. I thoroughly enjoyed the night of "Evening with the Stars," held in the paddock area where several well known jockeys and trainers recounted some of their Breeders' Cup wins. Jockeys like Laffit Pincay Jr., Chris McCarron, Angel Cordero, and Jerry Bailey. Trainers such as Jack Van Berg, Wayne Lucas, Richard Mandella and Bill Mott were on hand.

Del Mar racetrack is currently undergoing track surface renovations and changes. Any inside word on whether or not a future Breeders' Cup might run in San Diego?
TN: I know Del Mar has been widening the turf course and I recently photographed the progression of the renovation. As for the running of the Breeders' Cup at Del Mar in the future, I really don't know since the main track is Synthetic surface, I have not heard of or know that the Breeders' Cup will hold their event on a synthetic track. Time will tell on this issue and maybe Del Mar will switch back to a dirt surface.

What is your favorite memory from any Breeder's Cup race or moment in the past thirty years?
TN: That's easy, the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic where Zenyatta just missed winning her 20th start and retiring unbeaten. I will never forget watching from the living room of my mom's home. My husband and my mom sitting there wondering who was in front, where is Zenyatta but dead last by many lengths, how will she make that much ground up? And me riding her every step of the way when she reached the stretch as she passed by every horse on her way to victory only to get beat a head by Blame.

If you could be Breeders' Cup President for a day, what one policy, rule, race or activity would you change or introduce?
TN: Oh boy, that's a tough question. I don't know how to answer that, except to say, that the BC does not [currently] allow the 2 year-olds to run on Lasix medication. I would hope [in the future] that rule will eventually apply to all races. Race day medication is a very controversial matter in the racing industry and needs to be remedied.

Do you have any favorite non-profit or charitable organizations that cater to jockeys or specialize in the care of Thoroughbreds following the end of their racing careers?
TN: Jockey World.org
       Disabled Jockeys Fund
       Remember Me Rescue

Thanks Tiffany, it was my pleasure, anytime!
And thank you, Torrie, for sharing your knowledge, time and insight!

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