North of Philadelphia, in Bensalem, there is a mile-long dirt track, established in 1974. Then it was called the Keystone Racetrack. Now it is known as Parx Casino and Racing, on 417 acres, with 1,400 stalls for thoroughbred race horses. Throughout the day over 100 jockeys and 300 trainers will ride and train their hopeful winners.
Young trainer Frances McNeely of EquiVine Farm in Unionville, Pa., has nine stalls, each with a horse, many of whom she has had since birth. She works with them daily to turn them into top-notch race horses.
Although McNeely is competitive, her focus is on the well-being of the horses, and she works tirelessly to make sure they are fit enough, smart enough, and in the best possible health before they take the track.
Parx Racing was thrown into the spotlight in 2004 when a small chestnut colt named Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Smarty Jones was born in Chester County, Pa., and was trained by John Servis at the track.
At Parx, each young horse that an owner sees as a potential racer is paired with a trainer, so it can begin its life on the track. Early morning jockeys mount their assigned horses and exercise them around the track under the watchful eyes of the trainer.
Both trainer and rider try to find where the horse is most comfortable along the rail. They check its stamina and speed, and they make sure the horse is prepared to race.
Later in the morning, a small area of the track is sectioned off for gate practice. The younger horses have to learn how to get loaded in and to leave the starting gates safely. The horses are tested on entering and exiting the gate. Trainer and jockey discuss the horse’s reactions, foot stance, and how straight the animal leaves the gate. The horse must receive a gate card in order to be certified to race.
By the afternoon, most of the horses are being washed off or resting in their stalls, while a small group of horses and jockeys get ready for the first race.