Donna Hjort follows the same routine seven days a week, 365 days a year. She wakes up at dawn and trucks on over from her home in San Pablo to racetrack, where she tends to her favorite creatures in the world: horses.
A petit yet steadfast woman, Hjort’s choice of occupation is one that is rarely associated with women. She is a racehorse trainer, breeder and owner.
“There’s nothing else I’d rather do,” she said on a recent Wednesday morning while “mucking the stall,” sweeping the hay from one horse stall to be replaced by a fresh heap.
Hjort became hooked on horses and the game of horseracing at the age of 7 after watching a race on television.
“The feeling, it’s just something that grabs you inside,” she said. Hjort has been a trainer for 27 years.
Of the roughly 100 racehorse trainers at the Golden Gate Fields, about a dozen are women. While men undoubtedly dominate the field as groomers, trainers and jockeys, female trainers like Hjort say the calling is just as innate to women. Their passion for horses is absolute and their determination to prepare a horse for a race is unwavering.
“You’re going to have people thinking you can’t do it,” said Hjort. She has often heard male trainers say, “Oh, it’s just a woman trainer.”
“But I don’t take crap from any of them.”
Poking its head out from the next stall was Red Hot N Pretty, a 3-year-old horse – or filly – that Hjort has raised since birth. Hjort said Red Hot N Pretty is her current pride and joy. She’s a quick learner and well on her way to becoming a competitive racehorse.
Women trainers say it’s their mix of assertiveness and compassion toward their horses that makes them adept at training.
IT’S A WOMEN’S WORLD
“Women fit in quite nicely to the game,” said Aggie Ordonez, 44. Ordonez lives in Martinez and has trained horses at Golden Gate Fields for the last 13 years.
“We’re natural caregivers. Some of us are also shrewd businesswomen with a competitive spirit.”
Ordonez was born into the game. Her father was Peter Anderson, a top-notch jockey. Ordonez recalls hiding in her father’s car many early mornings so she could make it to the barn and watch him ride. She said she was always fascinated by the horses’ intelligence and commitment to completing a race.
“My dad never anticipated that his daughter would follow in his footsteps,” said Ordonez.
Once she grew up, she worked in the press box of various racetracks, interviewing horse trainers and owners after a game. But she soon realized that something was missing.
“I found myself envious of the trainers in front of the camera, of the relationships they had with their horse. I missed what I had already experienced as a kid,” said Ordonez.
The intensity that lights up in a horse’s eyes when one points its nose to the track is what ultimately led Ordonez to leave the press box for the racetrack to train horses.
A HARD DAY’S, WEEK’S, YEAR’S WORK
These trainers will also tell you, however, that it is a long road to that finish line. The glamour of a race is preceded by years of conditioning and getting to know the horses.
By 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Hjort had already fed Red Hot N Pretty her breakfast, taken her on a walk around the track, and bathed and washed her — some of the many activities involved in conditioning a racehorse. Hjort said that, over the years, she’s learned to be patient and flexible with each horse and to notice their individual needs.
“They talk in their own way, the look in their eyes will tell you a lot,” said Hjort.
Once, Hjort had a 2-year-old filly that wasn’t performing well. She had taken the horse for “a work,” which is when trainers put a jockey on the horse and time their run to gauge how fit they are. This is how they can tell when a horse is about ready to begin racing professionally.
But, on this particular day, Hjort noticed the horse was moving slower than usual. After inspecting his body she found that one of his ankles wasn’t responding normally. A trip to the veterinarian revealed that the horse had a joint infection and had to be injected with cortisone, which is something that rarely happens to a young horse.
“You have to pay attention,” said Hjort. “Don’t ever think that a little thing doesn’t matter.”
Ordonez agrees. To watch a horse grow and to develop a training plan that fits its personality takes time.
Ordonez recalled the case of “Crazy Thinking.” Crazy Thinking was an odd character and she liked to do everything her way. Ordonez said Crazy Thinking had a particular aversion to the stalls from which horses are released when they catapult into a race. Months went by before Ordonez learned to keep the horse calm and steady as she walked her into the stall.
“Each horse is a puzzle and I love the challenge of figuring out what makes them happy and healthy,” said Ordonez. “In my barn I don’t have a rule book. I respond to what they’re telling me.”
Crazy Thinking went on to become one of the fastest horses Ordonez has ever trained, winning eight races in her career.
“She was one of my favorites because she was consistent and gave it her all,” said Ordonez, noting that horses in general are powerful and determined creatures.
MORE THAN JUST A GAME
Trainers are also business people who have to keep tabs. They are just as responsible for supplying the feed of each horse, keeping a payroll for groomers and exercise riders, and pretty much managing the owner’s investment. They’re also responsible for determining when a horse is ready for the big race.
“It’s a business. You’re not just going out and playing with horses,” said Ordonez.
From the outside, it may seem like the horseracing industry is part of another era. Indeed, Hjort and Ordonez are used to the surprised reactions they get from people when they say what they do for a living. They also said they see fewer people — both men and women — getting into the game.
Still, for those who are in it, there is nothing like the thrill of watching a horse you’ve trained day in and day out, that you’ve patiently learned to adapt to and discern its way of learning, cross the finish line to glory.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a poor loser,” said Ordonez. “But to win, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
This article originally appeared on Albany Patch. Author Nancy Lopez interned at Piedmont Patch last summer.
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