The phrase “horse sense” denotes a compliment, like “eagle eye” or “ears like a bat.” It means you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. Spend time with horses and you’ll see they’re not only playful but surprisingly prudent (with a few rebels sprinkled in the mix, of course). Spending time with horses is exactly what Saratoga Race Course’s Horse Sense exhibit lets you do.
This is the first year that a horse’s pen has been so accessible to visitors at the track. It sits underneath a striped tent in the backyard, for all the world like a missing piece of the Saratoga County Fair. You can walk right up. You can stroke the horse’s shimmering mane and feed him hay.
When visitors hear the name of the horse on display, a few of them ask whether he’ll be performing a rap show later that night: 50 Cent couldn’t be more gentle, in reality. The 10-year-old quarter horse pokes out his head when he sees people approaching. It’s as if he’s asking to be nuzzled. When visitors stroke his blaze — the wide white stripe down the middle of his face — he blinks slowly at them with big, placid brown eyes. He’s in the tent from 12 to 3 p.m. every racing day.
The line to get into the tent sometimes stretches all the way back to the main walking path, about 20 feet away from 50 Cent. If the most telling sign of a good show is in its repeat customers, then 50 Cent has proved himself. Kids and adults who have met him over the meet have been coming back daily, said Greg Velez, the New York Racing Association groom who stands beside 50 Cent.
Feeding 50 Cent can be “ticklish,” in the experience of Anthony Velez, Greg’s 9-year old son who has spent many days at the race course with his father. With a practiced hand, he tore out a tuft of hay from the corner of 50 Cent’s stall. “Get a big handful. Horses get pretty hungry,” Velez advised.
Rule of thumb
He grew up around horses, so he knows that the key rule of feeding them is to keep your hand flat and your thumb tucked in.
Bring peppermint Life Savers to the Horse Sense tent if you want to see 50 Cent at his happiest. “He likes apples, carrots, oatmeal cookies, and peanuts, but what he really wants to eat are peppermint Life Savers,” Velez said.
The Horse Sense tent draws many young children, including 3-year old Declan Phelan. “Like Lightning McQueen!” he observed, pointing at 50 Cent from a few feet away. When his grandmother set him down on the ground to allow her to answer a phone call, Declan darted over to touch the horse’s nose.
Few first-graders have the ability to fire off similes or metaphors, so it’s quite an accomplishment when a 3-year-old makes the connection between a horse and a race car. This is exactly what Chris Kay, NYRA’s president and CEO, had in mind for the Horse Sense pavilion. Kay noticed that race course culture appeals less to the younger generation than its parents. “I want people to establish that connection with the horse," he said. "I would love to be able to see a new generation fall in love with horse racing.”
So rarely does a spectator sport translate into such an up-close experience. This goes for the sport of horse racing as much as the sport of baseball. But those who have met a baseball player in the dugout, or touched a horse who once ran on the track — well, they’ll never look at the television screen the same way again.