The race before the gate opens

It’s 5 a.m. Friday. The roads are flooded, the wind is blowing, and Pam Ritter has already been in the stable for an hour preparing for Keeneland’s opening day.

“You can’t do this as a job. If you do that, you’ll burn out,” Ritter says. “I’m lucky that this is my life.”

Ritter is on a team of people working to prepare two horses, Vanquished and Embellishment, for the track on Friday, the spring season’s opening day. The day lasts more than 12 hours as the team feeds, washes, warms up and rides the horses in preparation for a short but crucial stint around the track.

Although the two horses are not slated to run until the afternoon, the stable used by trainer Michael Matz is already in full motion. Walkers lead horses around the stable to warm up their legs and keep them moving, and grooms clean the horses’ coats and hooves.

Around 6 a.m., Ritter and other exercise riders begin walking the horses, including Vanquished and Embellishment, around the stable a second time.

Matz, a slim, intense man, watches the horses as they pass. A former Olympic competitor, Matz has been a trainer for 10 years, and although he is not very talkative, he commands respect in the stable for his method and his history in the sport.

In the racing arena, he is perhaps best known recently for training Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, euthanized in 2007 from injuries suffered after shattering his leg in the Preakness Stakes the year before.

Walking with the exercise riders up to the track at about 7:15 a.m., Matz says that while working with horses is exhausting, having a winning horse at the end of the day makes it worthwhile. But it doesn’t always go according to plan, he says.

“Sometimes you think you think you have a handle on everything,” Matz says. “You want it, and something goes wrong, and it’s very devastating.”

By 7:30 a.m., a small crowd has gathered to watch the horses run the track. Matz’s team makes several trips to the track, and the riders alternate walking and galloping the horses. As the hours pass, the crowd grows, and the pace at the stable quickens.

The rides are cold and exhausting, but Ritter doesn’t miss a beat as she begins feeding the horses at 10:30 a.m. She said she’s used to days like this — she’s been riding since she was 3 years old.

As a rider, Ritter has broken both of her legs, her arm and her neck, but she’s never thought about quitting. In fact, before becoming an exercise rider in 1983, she worked briefly as a jockey, but struggled to meet the sport’s strict weight requirement. Before her first race, she didn’t eat or drink for two days to slim down to the required 110 pounds. Although Ritter loved riding in races — her first time on the track she was so happy she was laughing — it was too much.

Despite the difficulties, Ritter stuck with horses, and she now moves with the rest of Matz’s team across the country to compete. Ritter has no children of her own because she’s too involved with horses. In fact, Ritter often says the horses are like children, each with its own personality. Embellishment, who will race at 2:45 p.m., is sweet and eager to please.

At 2 p.m., Embellishment moves into holding, where Keeneland officials check the branding inside her mouth to make sure it’s the right horse. As Embellishment stands in the stall, four members of the team stand outside, watching the current race and talking about their horses’ odds — both Embellishment and Vanquished are favored to win in their respective races.

After clearing inspection, the horses move to the Winner’s Circle. Then they take their position behind the gate.

The gate opens. Ritter leans against the fence as the crowd roars behind her. Embellishment, the favorite, has dropped to last of the eight horses by the halfway mark, ultimately losing the race.

Walking briskly back to the stall to move Vanquished to holding, Ritter tries to stay positive. As long as the horses get back in one piece, she says, it will be OK. Back at the stall, she pets Vanquished on the nose as the horse is prepped to leave.

“Mama, you’ve got to pull through, OK?” Ritter says.

Vanquished runs at 3:45 p.m. Out of the gate, she stays in the middle of the pack, finishing second. After 11 hours of work and four minutes of running, the races are over.

But before Ritter can go home for the night, there’s still more than two hours of work to be done, like cleaning the stable and braiding the horses. Ritter is tired after working what would be a 13-hour day, but she keeps going.

“I’ve always been told, ‘Get a life,’ but I say I have the best life possible,” she says.