Rachel Alexandra was easy to ID, with that interesting brown oval of fur interrupting the white blaze down her nose.
Songbird had a distinctive spot of white on her forehead that looked like the silhouette of a bird in flight.
They called Secretariat “Big Red” for a reason.
Nevertheless, “I know he’s passed away, but Secretariat could be standing right here, and I wouldn’t know it,” Michele Jennings said with a chuckle on April 25.
“Right here” was the Oklahoma Training Track fenceline on East Avenue at Saratoga Race Course, and there weren’t any horses passing by — Secretariat or otherwise — a week and a half after workouts had been scheduled to start, but postponed because of COVID-19.
Pretty much a ghost town.
A gray ghost named Trix was on the grounds somewhere, though, and Jennings can easily tell the difference between him and Lady Grey (they look identical to me, both with spectacular smoky coats and long, flowing tails).
Trix isn’t a horse, but a cat — specifically an exceedingly fluffy Maine coon cat — and, for Jennings, he’s easy to spot. But not so easy to catch. And Trix needed help. That’s why she’s here every day, even if the usual bustle and noise of the racetrack isn’t.
It’ll be awhile before the horse colony can return to Saratoga, but there’s still a feral cat colony on the Oklahoma that lives on, healthy and happy because of the diligent attention of Jennings, a volunteer feline advocate who represents the Moore Foundation and cares for the Oklahoma track cats on a daily basis.
Spookums, Ringo, Moose, Stormy Cat, Snickers, Callie-tee, Leon, Rosie, Tortie, Fluffernutter …
It would be like herding cats for me to relay the specific background of each, but suffice to say that they and dozens more have all resided on the Oklahoma in the 10 years since Jennings started feeding and caring for the colony, and getting them spayed or neutered, and vaccinated.
That has included several litters of kittens, none of them owned by anybody and left to their own devices. Some of the cats have been left behind when the Thoroughbred racing season ended, but most have settled in on their own from who knows where, and are truly feral, never having lived in domestication.
Besides feeding them and keeping their water bowls stocked, even in the dead of snowy single-digit temperature winter, Jennings keeps an eye on them in case they need veterinary care. In those cases, after what can be hair-raising adventures trying to trap them, she always explores the possibility that a feral can be socialized at her home in Schuylerville to the point where it can be adopted out, never to return to the racetrack.
It doesn’t always work.
“There’s one who’s shown up injured several times, and he would sooner rip my face off than let me try and socialize him,” she said. “I actually have to use thick gloves and tongs to feed him and clean his cage, because he lunges at me. He’s an aggressive feral, when he’s confined.
“But, you do the best you can. That’s OK. Hey, that’s their life.”
Jennings has 11 cats permanently at her house, of which six are former track cats.
The ancient Lady Grey used to want no part of house life — or not much of any other human contact, for that matter — but Jennings brought her home last July, and she’s been there ever since, even rediscovering the long-lost inner kitten in herself.
“I could actually pet her every once in awhile at the track,” Jennings said. “She would just start to get that look like, ‘Oh, this is kind of nice.’ Then it’s, ‘Wait, you’re touching me! You’re touching me! Agh!’
“Which she actually still does. When I can pet her, oh, my gosh, she is purring, drooling and absolutely loving it. But it’s on her terms. Sometimes I can’t get near her and she runs away. But she’s happy. She’s recently discovered toys. It’s like watching a kitten, and she’s at least 15 years old.”
The 501(c)(3) nonprofit Moore Foundation was established in 1999 by Susan Moore, a long-time Thoroughbred owner with her husband, John, who wanted to start a program to help abandoned and homeless cats.
The Oklahoma component was a natural extension of that, since it isn’t hard to stumble across cats on a racetrack backstretch.
Many of them are typical barn cats, pets of the trainers and workers who leave town with their caregivers when racing shifts to a different venue. To say that the cuteness overload gray tabby kitten Monday was a distraction when we were trying to interview trainer Danny Gargan about his Travers horse Tax last summer would be a huge understatement.
Many of them are feral, though. When Jennings jumped on board with the Moore Foundation 10 years ago, she said there were about 40-50 ferals on the Oklahoma (the backstretch of the actual flat track itself, for some reason, doesn’t appear to have any).
That number is down to about 10 or so, and Jennings maintains feeding stations in three spots near where they tend to be, the blacksmith shop/maintenance yard inside the main Union Avenue entrance; another barn near there; and Jimmy Jerkens’ barn 75 well back off the first turn.
She’s usually there in late afternoon, when it’s quiet, even during racing season. These days, it’s quiet all the time.
“I always try to be very respectful during racing season,” she said. “I’m here for the cats, not the horses, but I appreciate the value of the horses, so I try to be respectful. Not every trainer wants me climbing up in their hayloft.
“I’m not a sports person in general. I love horses, I love all animals, but quite honestly, I don’t care about racing season. I don’t know one horse from the next. They’re beautiful, but I don’t care, which actually makes me good doing this, because I’m not distracted by the horses, I’m not bringing people in to see the horses. I do my thing, and I go.”
The latest hard case is Trix, a bowl of fluff who in no way resembles the rainbow-colored breakfast cereal, but had a brother named Cocoa Puff, and, well … he is full of tricks, anyway.
The cats have their devices; Jennings has hers, including a net-on-a-pole deal and a cage with a remote control door activator that’s right out of Wile E. Coyote’s playbook.
In recent weeks, Trix, a perfectly happy Oklahoma denizen since he was born 9 years ago, was showing evidence of a possible urinary tract infection, so, while all the horse stalls have been empty, Jennings spent hours inside one of them waiting for Trix to enter a nearby stall, where the trap awaited.
It took her three attempts, but she finally got him.
He’s been to the vet, is recovering nicely at Jennings’ house, and like his grandmother Lady Grey, is showing signs that he doesn’t need or want to go back to the track.
Slowly but surely, at the ripe old age of 9, he has now discovered toys. And couches.
We don’t know when the horses will be back to the Oklahoma, but it doesn’t look like Trix will be there when they do.
“The trick with feral cats is you just don’t take anything personally. It’s all on their terms,” Jennings said. “My goal isn’t necessarily to socialize them, if they’re happy at the track but have to come and live with me [for medical attention]. I’m OK with them being feral cats at my house, as long as they’re happy.
“But I’m also a doofy cat lady, so I have to try.”