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Beating the Heat

Shortly before the fourth race on Friday, someone draped a wet blanket over Shakopee. The 85 degree temperature had been tolerable earlier with humidity levels close to 30. All of that changed as humidity levels climbed 15 points and the air suddenly stopped moving.

How do you stay cool on a night like this someone asked jockey Tanner Riggs. A bystander responded before the rider could. “You ride real fast and create a breeze,” he mused.

“Look at those flags,” added trainer Larry Donlin. “They’re just hanging.”

Welcome to summer, Minnesota style.

Heat is forecast for the next several days. Riders can attend to their own needs and keep hydrated with extra water intake. How about the horses they ride.

Trainers from Phoenix, and there are several on the grounds, are accustomed to dealing with far more heat than is usual in Minnesota, but there is the element known as humidity that is absent in Arizona.

“The big difference between here and Phoenix is that the humidity is not as bad,” said David Van Winkle, who trains in Arizona fall and winter and returns to Minnesota each spring.

Van Winkle deals with the heat in several ways. “You have to monitor them when they run,” he said. “You have to back off a bit with the training. You need fans in the barns and an ample supply of water at all times.”

Precautions are necessary, particularly immediately after a race, to avoid heat stroke. “You have to be careful with that,” Van Winkle added. “We try to hose the horses down once or twice even before we saddle them. We try to keep them comfortable until the race and then afterwards, too.”

Humid weather can be particularly bothersome because it interferes with a horse’s ability to sweat, just as it does with humans.

Hall of Fame rider Scott Stevens said he can lose a pound a race on a night like Friday. Nik Goodwin agreed.

A horse? Some have been known to be down 100 pounds or more the morning after a race, particularly after a route race.

“We give our horses electrolytes in their feed every night,” Van Winkle added. “You can buy it in paste form, too, and give them it orally.”

Trainer Valorie Lund brought a stable to Canterbury from Turf Paradise in Phoenix, too. She was in Des Moines Thursday morning. “The horses were really hot there,” she said. “It was very humid down there.”

Lund says that the humidity takes a bigger toll on horses than simple heat. “Humidity is much harder on them than dry heat,” she said. “Horses take the heat OK if it’s dry. It’s the humidity. They are really a desert animal. In Washington state in the high desert it gets very hot and very cold and they survive it.”

A card at Churchill Downs was cancelled the other night because of the Kentucky heat and humidity. Lund was there two summers ago during a record heat spell. “It was very, very hot,” she recalled. “Their hottest summer on record.”

Lund cautions her help to be extra careful with her horses in the heat. “We keep them well hydrated, as cool as possible. We keep fans on them (in the barn). The minute they pull up after a race I caution my guys to get water on them. The best and fastest way to cool a horse is to hose them on the head and between the hind legs.”

Lund will also have her help dunk a horse’s blinkers in ice water before putting them on. “Blinkers will hold heat, too,” she said.

There are even more ways to cool a horse. “We’ll put menthol in the water and then sponge them with it,” Lund said.

All of the aforementioned measures will be used repeatedly in the coming days. The forecast is hot, hot, hot.

This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.