By Chris Lomon
The life of a groom is like no other at the racetrack. Early mornings. Late nights. Long hours. Missing out on family gatherings. Each one has a different story to share, but it’s a common bond that unites them: a profound love of horses.
Within 30 minutes after her alarm goes off at four in the morning, Alexa Wisnoski, a Thoroughbred groom for the past two years, is in her car, preparing for the 60-minute trek from her home in Port Perry, ON to Woodbine Racetrack, the Toronto horse racing oval that lies just northeast of Pearson International Airport.
Travel mug of coffee in tow, she pulls out of her driveway into the morning darkness, and just like clockwork, immediately starts to think the one thought that is always top of mind.
“All I do is think about the horses’ legs,” she says with a hint of sheepish laughter. “That would be what goes through my head as soon as I turn on the car. You want their legs to be clean, nice and tight, no swelling – every day, the first thing you do is look at your horse’s legs. And all day long, you think about their legs. The person in the stands might not realize you’ve spent hours, blood, sweat and tears making sure their legs look right, but it’s a necessity for us.”
It’s but one aspect – albeit a crucial one – of what a groom does on a daily basis.
Glitz and glamour, it is not. There’s no such thing as 9 to 5. No weekends off during racing season. Meticulous detail. Out of the spotlight.
Yet each and every task a groom performs, notes Sue Leslie, is integral to the success of the horse and its connections.
“Grooms deserve a lot more recognition than they get,” says Leslie, who has held numerous roles over her 40 years in Thoroughbred racing, including time as a trainer and now as president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) Ontario and Ontario Racing board member. “They are critical to the care of the horse and the success of the trainer. A good groom is invaluable to an outfit. I think trainers are very aware of the contribution of their grooms, and for the most part, they are appreciative of their contribution. I think the grooms really are the unsung heroes.
“They nurse these horses every day. They are the first ones to put their hands on the horses in the morning. They are the ones that see the scratches, the mucous, the eyes running, the heat in the knee, that they didn’t eat their dinner last night – a good groom brings all that vital information to the assistant trainer and the trainer. It’s not that the assistant trainers and trainers don’t go over their horses every day because they do, but the first touch, the first glance, the first awareness of the condition of the horse in the morning – it’s the groom.”
For Wisnoski, born and raised around horses, there’s nothing else she’d be rather be doing at this point in her life.
In spite of the demands, none of it dampens her enthusiasm for what she does.
“My mom has been riding ever since she was a kid,” says Wisnoski. “When she moved to Canada [from Germany, near the Black Forest] – her dad actually bred Trakehner horses [the oldest warmblood breed in the world] in Manitoba. So that’s what I grew up with. My grandpa loved horse racing and when he came to visit us in Ontario, we would go to the racetrack. I was a kid, so obviously I didn’t know too much about the sport, but I thought it was really cool.
“About seven years ago, my mom, who was a chiropractor, also became certified to treat animals. My horse needed a bunch of back adjustments, and she said, ‘I can do this.’ Next thing you know, she’s my own personal horse chiropractor. A couple of years later, we met a man by the name of Saul McHugh. He was at a barn with two yearlings, talking to us about the racetrack and how there was a need for a chiropractor, so my mom should work with him. That’s what got us going to the track. I’d go with my mom, just helping her out, holding horses and carrying her big box around. I kind of got a backstage feel to what it was like and I thought it was so amazing. I had been working in boarding barns my whole life and riding my own, so I had a lot of experience with horses. I thought being a groom would be a really cool job if I could get into it.”
A chance meeting with trainer Tony Gattellaro provided that opportunity.
The Woodbine-based conditioner, who has 20 horses in Barn No. 3, initially had an offer in mind for Wisnoski’s mother.
“When I told him I was there with my mom and told him what she did, he said that he was looking for a chiropractor. I was actually going to school at York University at the time, but there was a strike and it lasted way too long. I needed a job and Tony said he was looking for someone and I started working for him as a hotwalker. A couple of months roll by, and one of his grooms was leaving – I had been watching and learning, seeing the routine and schedules – and I said, ‘If you’re looking for a groom, I’d be happy to try this out. I want to do it.’ Next thing you know I’m grooming horses. I’ve been having a great time ever since.”
So too is Libby Desjardins, another groom in the Gattellaro barn.
Like Wisnoski, she has a longstanding association with horses, albeit in a much different arena.
The 23-year-old, born in Harrow, ON, is an accomplished barrel racer. The experience took her throughout Ontario where she competed on the provincial rodeo circuit.
It eventually led her to the racetrack.
“I worked for a couple that breed and train barrel horses in my hometown,” recalls Desjardins, who now lives in Guelph, ON. “I started helping them out with training and helping around the barn and then competing a little bit on the provincial rodeo circuit. That gave me my connection with horses, but that’s also what brought me to Woodbine.
Libby Desjardins (John Watkins photo)
“I’ve been involved with horses most of my life and I had the opportunity three years ago to work at the yearling sale at Woodbine,” she continues. “I was working for the consignors, showing the yearlings to the buyers. That was my first real exposure to Thoroughbreds and I fell in love with the racetrack atmosphere. That’s where I met Tony. He offered me a job, so I started as a hotwalker for him, and became a groom a few months after I started.”
Like every groom in the Gattellaro barn, she’s responsible for five horses.
It took less than the running of a six-furlong race for Desjardins to fall in love with her job.
“Coming in each morning, I’m thinking about the horses. Working at the track, horses are your life. It’s hard getting into the routine of getting up early and making that drive in, but once you get used to it, it’s great. It’s a nice way to start your day, coming in before the sun comes up and the barn starts to come alive… it’s a really cool feeling.”
A 2005 graduate of the Olds College Groom School program (in Alberta), Amanda Gregory, from Strathmore, a town of around 12,000 people located 40 kilometres east of Calgary, began her racetrack career as a groom before becoming a trainer.
Recently, she returned to the groom ranks, working full-time for trainer Stuart Simon.
Even during her days as a conditioner, Gregory, who grew up on a farm, often groomed her own horses.
“Grooms do the great majority of the back-breaking labour in the day-to day-operation,” she offers. “They sacrifice so much of their time and life to the horses as well as working odd hours. They often miss out on many functions and spend time away from family. They do all of this for the love of the animals. They do a lot of things that go under the radar. For me, that would be the long hours that they put in. Rain, snow, boiling-hot temperatures, they are always there.”
For grooms to not only be there, but stay there, so to speak, an equal measure of dedication and sacrifice isn’t just a prerequisite – it’s a necessity.
Stakes winning trainer Katerina Vassilieva, who recently eclipsed the $2 million mark in career purse earnings, understands not everyone is cut out to be a groom.
She also doesn’t consider the calling to be a job, in the traditional sense of the word.
“I tell people that are new to the business that it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” says Vassilieva. “You’ve really got to love it. It’s not a punch-clock job. There’s so much more that goes into it. You really have to love the horses and love what you do.”
That would be an accurate way to describe Joel Garcia, who has been a groom in Vassilieva’s barn since August, along with a seasonal stint five years ago.
The Mexico-born Garcia lives in one of the dorms on the Woodbine backstretch, just a short walk from where he works.
Katerina Vassilieva and Joel Garcia (John Watkins photo)
“He’s an invaluable member of the team,” praises Vassilieva. “He’s very knowledgeable and he always puts the horses first before his own needs. He’s always here when I need him to be. He’ll come back in the night to put on their blankets and fill up their water – whatever needs doing. Being in the dorm, that’s very reassuring knowing he’s available 24/7. It’s indispensable to have someone like that. “
Gattellaro, who set career-high marks in wins and purse earnings in 2018, concurs.
Tony Gattellaro (left)
“To me, it’s a level of comfort with the horse. The horse, when it returns every day, it’s just like a little kid. They want to be nurtured and have a friend. And that’s what we use our grooms for. Yes, they do bring the horse over, yes they do clean the stalls, but they are basically that horse’s companion. It’s very, very important.”
As is the attention to detail. A successful groom, he asserts, is someone committed to doing “the little things that make a big difference.”
While those efforts might go unnoticed by a vast majority of those sitting in the grandstand on race days, it’s always a topic of discussion amongst horsepeople, including other grooms.
“It’s the simple things… the way a horse looks coming over to the race,” starts Gattellaro. “The grooms, they do braids, checkerboard patterns, or the horse has a stuffed animal the grooms have identified that they like. Bedding, feed – it’s the little things you notice that make your horse happy, those things that the average person might not pick up on. But those small details are so important.”
They are also a source of pride for the grooms.
Janeen Lalsingh, who has worked for over 15 years as part of trainer Malcolm Pierce’s outfit, ensures every horse she cares for looks immaculate the moment they make the walk over from the barn to the paddock.
“My connection with my horses is based on respect, unconditional love, kindness and patience,” says Lalsingh. “And I love spoiling my horses with affection and treats. I believe happy horses perform better. When you walk into the barn and you are greeted by their morning nickers and you realize how lucky you are that you get to play with horses all day, it puts a smile on your face. You take great pride in making sure they are healthy and happy. It’s the same for their appearance.”
Janeen Lalsingh (John Watkins photo)
A plan to work one year at Woodbine before moving on didn’t quite pan out for Lalsingh.
Not that’s she’s complaining.
“I grew up with Thoroughbreds in Trinidad and would work on the family farm on the weekends and vacations,” she says. “I had the opportunity to work as a groom at Woodbine and it was only supposed to be a year for the experience. I loved it and it made me a happier person working with horses. And I’m still here many, many years later.”
Wisnoski appreciates why Lalsingh chose to stay put.
The horses find a way to make you want to stay, admits Wisnoski.
And it’s not only the mild-mannered Thoroughbreds that manage to win a groom over.
A particular mare in the Gattellaro barn serves as a perfect example.
“I love making that bond with horses,” Wisnoski says with a grin. “One of my horses, Sweet Shades, she’s a witch. That’s her nickname… not my name for her. Before I even started there, I wanted to work with her. She was a handful. Going in that stall was dangerous, but I was determined to make her happy enough to let anyone go in there and touch her. It was a personal goal for me. I love that. They all have different personalities. You love them unconditionally and you love watching them win.”
Alexa Wisnoski and Sweet Shades
Each time a horse loads into the starting gate, it can bring out a range of emotions for the grooms.
Most grooms, admittedly, aren’t shy about raising their decibel level in the final strides of a race.
“They get really excited to see their horses doing well,” says Vassilieva. “It’s a sense of pride for them, as it is for us. That’s how it should be because of the time they spend with them. You can sense the connection. It’s like watching a family member doing well at a sports activity.”
“Nothing beats that incredible feeling you get cheering your horse when it crosses the finish first, knowing your hard work, long hours, blood, sweat and tears contributed to that win,” adds Lalsingh.
Yet another example, says Leslie, of the unique connection between groom and horse.
“The grooms really experience the highs and lows of horse racing, in some ways, more than anyone else. The pride they feel when their horse wins and the failure they feel when they believe the horse didn’t run his race, it shows that bond and care they have for the horses. In my 40 years in this business, I’ve seen plenty of grooms with tears running their faces for a variety of reasons. It’s an emotional, sincere and special relationship between horse and groom.”
Leslie would like to see grooms get similar recognition as trainers and jockeys.
“I think their dedication is remarkable. The connection that exists between them and a horse is a pretty powerful thing, and it’s overlooked a lot of the time.”
One place it’s not overlooked is at the Sovereign Awards.
Canada’s annual gala that celebrates the country’s top horses and humans includes a category for grooms.
The 2017 honour went to Alfredo Ramos. Born on November 10, 1953 in Nicaragua, Ramos came to Canada in the late 1980s and began working with horses in 1989. He’s worked for Rod Wright, Rita Schnitzler, Tino and Kevin Attard, and has been employed by Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield since 2008.
Alfredo Ramos (John Watkins photo)
“It was something so special for me and my family back home – a dream come true,” says Ramos of his Sovereign.
Before there’s time to ask another question, he smiles and politely interjects.
“The best thing, though, is to come every morning and hug and kiss my horses. They are part of my family.”
That type of closeness can make it all the more difficult when it’s time for a groom to bid farewell to a horse under their watch.
Leslie has seen the look more times than she can count.
“The longer they care for the horse, the more the bond grows with time. Sometimes it’s very heartbreaking for the grooms. When the horse’s career is over for whatever reason – retired, going to be bred, claimed, bought by another owner – that’s an emotional time for them. It truly is a remarkable bond.”
A bond that keeps them coming back, rain or shine, before sunrise or the dark of night, standing in the winner’s circle or walking back to the barn after a loss.
Wisnoski offers up a simple reason as to why the complex life of a groom is so engrossing.
And she does so in the form of a question.
“If you love your job, it really doesn’t feel like work, right?”
Main photo by Mr. Will Wong