Saratoga Race Course: For Alarçon, groom of Maple Leaf Mel, sense of loss runs deep — TAG at the Track

Alejandro Alarcon, the groom of Maple Leaf Mel, speaks on Wednesday at trainer Melanie Giddings' stalls at Saratoga Race Course.

Alejandro Alarcon, the groom of Maple Leaf Mel, speaks on Wednesday at trainer Melanie Giddings' stalls at Saratoga Race Course.

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Editor’s note: Alejandro Alarçon’s comments were translated by Sheriza Serravento, assistant director of Backstretch Employee Service Team in Saratoga.

Alejandro Alarçon sits in a folding chair near the shedrow of barn 69 on the Saratoga backstretch. Nearly within arm’s reach are buckets and vases of flowers, and just beyond them, the floral blanket for the Grade I Test is draped over a barn railing. 

When Maple Leaf Mel arrived as a 2-year-old to train with Jeremiah Englehart, Alarçon was her groom. When Englehart’s assistant Melanie Giddings decided to go out on her own earlier this year, owner Bill Parcells transferred Giddings’ namesake to her barn, and Alarçon went with both of them — not because he had to, but because he wanted to.

“I always ask people what they want to do, what they’d be happiest doing,” said Giddings, holding a scoopful of feed as she took a quick break from late-morning feeding. “Alejandro wanted to come with us. Financially, I didn’t have enough horses for it to be a good idea, but it didn’t matter. We made it happen.”

Alarçon probably spent more time with Maple Leaf Mel than any other human over the last year or so. He was with her at Saratoga last summer when she broke her maiden and then won the Seeking the Ante Stakes. He was with her at Aqueduct Racetrack when she won the East View Stakes. He was with her at Pimlico when she won the Miss Preakness, her first graded stakes attempt and her first graded stakes win. He was with her at Belmont Park when she won Victory Ride Stakes, another Grade III, and he was with her last Saturday when, steps from the finish line, she suffered a catastrophic injury to her right front leg, an injury from which she could not recover.

“I was trying to get to her, and security wouldn’t let me,” he said in Spanish, before continuing in English. “I told them, ‘She’s my horse!’” 

He stopped, tears streaming down his face, unable to continue, his hand on his heart.

“I wanted to hug her,” he said. “It was the only way that I could say goodbye to her.” 

Alarçon has been working with horses in the United States since 2010, when he emigrated from his home in Chile. Describing himself as “not a good student,” he got his parents’ permission to train as an exercise rider, a job that brought him to the Valparaíso Sporting Club and three other tracks in Chile. He also worked at a private training facility, breaking young horses and earning enough to purchase real estate that he could leave to his children when they got married. 

When he got to the U.S., he worked as an exercise rider for trainers Dominic Galluscio and Rene Araya, eventually getting out of the saddle to groom and hotwalk horses. 

“I want to give Todd Pletcher a big thank you,” he said. “I worked for him for nine or 10 years, and he used to say to me, ‘You know, you’re like a veterinarian.’ He is a great trainer, and he was great to me. I’m honored to have worked for him.” 

“Alejandro is here at 3, 3:30 every morning,” said Giddings. “Not a lot of grooms are too excited to work with babies. They’re like little kids: you love them, but they can be super-annoying. They don’t know about bandages or getting their feet picked.”

“Not this guy,” she said, pointing to Alarçon. “When babies come in, he’s so excited. He takes a lot of pride in teaching the horses.”

And not only the horses: Alarçon said that he’d love to start a school to show people how to take care of horses, what to look for, how to treat them.

“Some grooms have bad habits,” he said. “They don’t value what they’re doing.” 

His children would like him to retire and go home to Chile. Alarçon isn’t interested.

“I tell them, ‘You’re like little birds. You’ve grown out of the nest. Don’t worry about me and let me enjoy what I love the most,’” he said. 

Maple Leaf Mel is among the horses he’s loved the most; she was the clear winner of the Test before her injury, but it’s not her race record that impressed him.

“She was the most noble horse we ever had,” he said, tears filling his eyes. “She let everybody love her. When she realized that we loved her, when she recognized that we would do anything for her, she started loving us back. She would let me sleep with her in the morning; I’d lie down and she’d put her head on my chest and just relax.” 

Alarçon spoke expansively about what he’s learned about horses in his 40 years working with them, about the need to check their legs every day, often twice, about the importance of trainers listening to grooms, the people who know their horses better than anyone else in the barn, about his ability to detect injuries and illness. He also spoke candidly about the challenges of the job and its physical demands, about dental and health problems that make him feel “embarrassed,” about employers who have ignored or overlooked his concerns. 

But even with his family thousands of miles away, and even when dealing with heartbreak that makes it difficult for him to speak, his face lights up when he talks about the horses in his care. 

“I’ve given my life to them, and they’ve given me their love in return,” he said. “It’s been a little crazy, but I am in a great place.” 

Categories: At The Track, Saratoga County, Saratoga Springs, Sports

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