Thank you: A little racing gratitude

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You can’t call it a movement yet, or even a groundswell really. No, Racing Gratitude is more like the current flickering in an old neon sign. You know the kind. Zzzpppptttt…Eat at Joe’s…Pttzzzffftt…Rheingold Extra Dry Beer – To Go…Tkkkzzzrrrrmmmtt…Clancy’s Tavern.

Dr. Jennifer Durenberger – once a state veterinarian in New York and the director of racing for the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, accredited steward, NTRA veterinary consultant, studious yogi, avid runner and aspiring mindfulness coach – would like to be the person responsible for switching on the light of Racing Gratitude.

But she needs help. She’s got an idea, the @RacingGratitude Twitter handle, some thought processes and hopefully worthy participants. Too often, she said recently, racing ends up reflecting anything but gratitude. People gripe about medication rules, wonder why they lost a bet, get mad at horses, worry about races filling, sweat decisions by jockeys, hate on negative attention from the outside world, get jealous of someone else’s success.

Instead, Durenberger figures, spread a little thankfulness. If you work in racing, you must like it. You enjoy horses, the backstretch, the smells, the sights, the feels.

“This is my 25th year working in horse racing, and it’s been nothing but good to me,” Durenberger said in an email. “This is a sport unlike any other. It embraces you, if you let it, and it won’t let you go. The racing community is one of the most dedicated, vibrant and participatory communities in the world. I always tell people, nobody works in racing because the pay is great and the hours are good. We’re here because of a shared passion. But sometimes – especially when the long days get longer and the pressure cooker is on – we can start to overlook some of those little things. I wanted to do something positive to give back.”

She’s not sure if it’ll work, or if anyone will notice, but she knows it can’t hurt. The veterinarian in her knows horses feel positive – and negative – vibes from humans.

“Absolutely,” she said. “We all know horses are exceptionally responsive to the energy around them. When that energy is negative, it affects them negatively. When that energy is positive, they thrive. When you’re working around a horse who really trusts his environment, that will come across in everything he does.”

The concept makes sense and has its roots in far bigger spots than racing. Corporate America embraces a positive attitude as a key to professional and personal success. Durenberger, whose other goal in all of this is to launch a wellness practice for horses and humans. For the horses, it’s sports massage, acupressure, myofascial release, reiki. For the people, it’s some general mindfulness training and stress reduction.

All of it depends on a little gratitude.

“Gratitude is a positive state of mind that arises when you train yourself to notice and appreciate the little things around you in the moment,” Durenberger said. “It works by taking sensory input – and this includes smell and touch, not just sight and sound – and connecting that with a positive feeling. Practicing gratitude can literally rewire our brains.”

So, spread a little gratitude and see if it helps you – and the horses. It’s there, every day, if you look. So far at the meet . . . I’ve seen leading trainer Todd Pletcher stop and sign autographs for and chat with three children in the clubhouse; I’ve been congratulated about 100 times for my Eclipse Award (didn’t know that many people noticed); I’ve watched Larry Jones win (and lose) a Grade 1 stakes with dignity; I’ve seen two grooms participate in an evening bible-study session while rolling bandages; I’ve smiled at @racinggratitude tweets about the first scoop of poultice (think Skippy only whitish gray) and the smell asthmador (think Vick’s); I’ve rubbed the forehead of Gary Contessa’s lead pony (who looked like he needed it); I’ve gotten emails from faithful readers of The Special (who come back every year); I’ve watched my sons take photos and meet horses and talk to adults with confidence; I’ve seen a Special intern win a $1,000 scholarship at the track; I’ve seen a donkey and a horse happily living together in a stall behind two webbings . . . I’ve seen gratitude.

Of course, this place can foster its share of whatever the opposite of gratitude is.

“Saratoga can be an especially stressful time – both for our equine athletes and for the people that work with them,” Durenberger said. “Practicing gratitude is proven to reduce stress and anxiety, strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure, and generally promote feelings of psychological and physical well-being. Who wouldn’t benefit from that during the craziest six weeks of the year?”


So get to work people. Gratitude matters. See you on Twitter – and at the track.