The first weekend of May, all eyes turn to horseracing, as the Kentucky Derby draws in fans who try to pick a winner in the Run for the Roses.
For real horse people, though, racing is a way of life – one they wouldn’t exchange for anything.
The track at Buffalo Raceway was humming Friday despite a steady drizzle.
As race time approached, drivers and trainers made adjustments for the soggy running surface before taking their horses out for warmups. The Big Race coming Saturday at Churchill Downs was not much of a factor.
Maria Rice was focused on Noble Legend, a strong, slightly unpredictable 5-year-old who set a track record for his age last year. He’s one of 16 horses owned by Maria and her husband, Jack.
Jack Rice is the one who got her into harness racing.
“I’ve been training since I met my husband in 2000,” Maria Rice said. “But I’ve had horses my whole life.”
Yes, she said, she’ll watch the Derby on Saturday. But except for those two minutes, her attention will be on the hometown track, where she’ll be sending out horses in six different races and hoping they come in winners.
The winning is important, says longtime horseman Ron Beback, because you have to win to pay the bills.
“They're expensive,” he said, of his horses. “It would be an expensive hobby.”
Beyond that, though, Beback said he is in harness racing for the same reason as everyone else: “For the love of the game. The best part is when you put your time in all week and the horse wins. That’s the most rewarding.”
Beback, who has four horses now, said racing is the only thing he ever wanted to do.
“I got into horses when I was 17. I worked in Florida and came up here a year later as a groom. I got my first horse at 20 and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.
For Mike Carrubba and Amanda Benson, horseracing is a second job. She works with 4-H and he’s a firefighter. But, they also have six horses, carrying on a family tradition.
“My family’s been in it forever,” Carrubba said. “We’ve always been in harness racing.”
Benson switched to the races after growing up with show horses in Saratoga.
She was getting a gentle 10-year-old, Urgently, ready for his race Friday. Urgently was more interested in the treats she had tucked into her jacket pocket.
“People don’t realize how spoiled they actually are. We take better care of them than we take of ourselves,” Carrubba said, with a smile. “They all have their own personalities.”
Benson agreed and said that could be the reason that they tend to keep their horses longer than other owners, and why she tries to find them good homes when they can no longer race.
“Once you do this, it’s in your blood,” she said, as Urgently nudged her for another treat.
The love of the business has stayed with Steve Weaver for 35 years. He’s raced horses all over the country, he said, and is owner and trainer of three horses now. His father is the one who got him interested, although it was from the other side of the track.
“He brought me to the races with him,” Weaver said. “I just fell in love with it. I bought my first horse when I was 17. I worked two jobs and saved, and instead of buying a car, I bought a horse.”
He has been at it ever since.
His horse, Dash for Cash, came in third in his race on Friday.
“He’s a nice little horse,” Weaver said. “I bought him for $6,000 and he’s brought in $25,000 in six months.”
“It’s a good business,” he said. “It has a lot of ups and downs, but I enjoy it.”
Denny Bucceri, an owner, trainer and driver, has five horses. Friday he was racing Traffic Cop, but, when asked how old the horse was, he had to check whether he was 5 or 6.
“It’s hard to keep track of them – just as far as ages go. Everything else, I know everything about all of them,” he said.
He doesn’t do it for just a living, he said, but because “it’s fun.”
He added, “We’re having a great year.”
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