Taking the ‘Brrr’ out of Winter
How horsepeople cope with frigid weather
story by Evan Pattak
It’s one of those bitter winter mornings when Jack Frost isn’t nipping at your nose; he’s attacking it with a pickaxe. And here comes a horsewoman working a trotter. Must be a rookie. . . . Look at the way she’s dressed: No hat. Light gloves. Sneakers, for goodness’ sake.
Wait. That’s no greenhorn. It’s Linda Toscano—Hall of Famer Linda Toscano—and she’s dressed like that?
“My feet don’t get cold—I’m lucky there—so I wear sneakers or winter sneakers,” Toscano explained. “I might wear earmuffs, but I don’t wear a hat as often as I should. I wear layers, a winter suit with a couple layers underneath it. I prefer a nice, soft pair of leather gloves. After your hands freeze and thaw, they don’t usually freeze a second time. I’ll wear a gaiter over my mouth because I don’t like getting hit with cold stone dust.”
Toscano’s stoic approach appears typical of trainers, drivers and caretakers forced to endure winter’s indignities. They just fasten their chinstraps and get on with it.
Hall of Fame driver David Miller, who has spent past winters driving at Pompano Park, takes protective measures but acknowledges these can be, well, cold comfort.
“When I order colors, I tell them, give me the heaviest you’ve got,” Miller said. “And they have heated vests now. But basically, things are pretty much the same.
You just have to grin and bear it. It’s winter. What can you do?”
For all that, today’s horsemen and horsewomen may be better prepared to endure freezing temperatures than earlier generations were, for several reasons. For one, they tend not to keep their horses out as long. Notes Jim King Jr., Delaware-based trainer of 2019 Horse of the Year Shartin N, among other standouts:
“We don’t spend as much time on the track as we did years ago. Horses don’t go as far when you jog them or train them.”
Trainers who unfailingly worked their horses two trips have rethought that position.
“Back in the day, we trained two trips,” Toscano said. “One thing I can say: I do doubleheaders, but rarely do I go two trips until the weather breaks.”
Hall of Famer Dave Palone observes that drivers, as well as trainers, are benefiting from reduced exposure.
“What’s helped us is they’ve cut the post parades down over the years,” he said. “We’re only out there six or seven minutes at the most.”
Yet another advantage for today’s practitioners: better equipment. Hall of Famer Tim Tetrick, who grew up experiencing the numbing winters of Chicago, recalls the hardships faced by his father, horseman Tom D. Tetrick.
“I remember that he wore metal-rim glasses,” he said. “He’d come off the track, and they’d be frozen to his face. When he took off his glasses, they’d pull the skin off. He would have marks where the glasses froze to him. We all use plastic now, which doesn’t seem to freeze.”
Basic clothing, notes retired Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Takter, has improved as well.
“When I was younger, I never had a big problem with the cold—more with when I got wet and then cold,” Takter said. “Now the suits we have are waterproof.”
In fact, today’s horsemen and horsewomen may have lockers full of
temperature-specific clothes, as Palone reports:
“We have suits now for every type of weather—extra cold, just cold, a little bit cold. I must have 80 different suits to put on.”
King finds relief from an unusual source.
“Those COVID masks aren’t that bad an idea in the winter,” he said. “They work pretty good.”
If even these improved garments still leave them cold, horsemen and horsewomen can add some heated outerwear that haberdashers have developed largely for outdoor sports enthusiasts. There are heated accessories to keep you toasty from toe to head.
Although Takter is semi-retired and spends his winters mostly in Florida, he says he occasionally uses heated gloves when he’s up north. Tetrick has a heated vest that he’s donned “maybe once.” Hall of Famer Yannick Gingras is a more regular user of such devices.
“It’s the extremities that get cold, so I definitely use hand warmers, feet warmers, stuff like that. They work well,” Gingras said. “The only thing is, between races, sometimes you go inside the paddock for 10 minutes, you get a little warm, you’re sweating a little, you go back out, then you’re colder. You have to try and manage it just right. [Hand and feet warmers] activate with air. They work for four or five hours, then you put them in the garbage. They’re not perfect, but it’s winter. You make the best of it.”
Marcus Miller, who was raised in northern Illinois and now drives at tracks throughout the East, also uses a heated vest in extreme cold. His model, powered by rechargeable batteries, cost him about $100.
“You can keep it on a low setting, and with our suits, it keeps you warm enough,” he said. “If your core is warm, it makes it a lot easier to keep your hands warm. The batteries last for seven or eight hours—enough to get you through a card.
“One little trick I use is wearing latex rubber gloves underneath my summer gloves—until it gets into the single digits. They’re not as bulky, so you can still feel the lines.”
By the way, when the weather dictates, Miller wears his battery-operated vest during actual races without running afoul of any regulations. TC Lane, chief operating officer for the USTA, confirms that battery-powered gear doesn’t violate USTA rules provided there’s no interaction between horse and batteries. Most racing jurisdictions, however, have their own sets of regulations, so if you plan to use battery-operated wearables in races, you might want to run that by local racing officials.
Advances in clothing notwithstanding, making the best of it, as Gingras said, remains the most common approach to cold-weather training and driving. Toscano points out that horsemen and horsewomen have more important concerns than their own comfort.
“I don’t think we worry about us,” she said. “We cough, we sneeze, we manage to get though it. But if a horse sneezes, the world comes to an end.” HB
Evan Pattak is a veteran harness writer, publicist, on-air analyst/commentator and owner. He provides public relations services to the MSOA. To comment on this story, email us at email@example.com.