In The Shadows of the Backstretch Part III

In Part 3 of this series leading up to the release of our documentary feature, In The Shadows of the Backstretch, I invited my wife and the films co-director, Kim, to guest blog, sharing her take on the film. -Sean

“Horses have a way of taking over people’s lives” - Michael Korda

I won’t attempt here to explain the allure of the horse. Many have already done so, the majority with both more eloquence and insight than I can hope to offer. But I promised Sean that I would write something for this blog series, and I can’t think of anything more worthy than the creatures that drove us to the documentary in the first place. In order to explore the role that horses have played in the making of our film, I must first address the ways in which horses have influenced, if not taken over, my own life.

Let me start by saying that I have never owned a horse, nor have any horses in any way depended on me for their well being (probably a good thing for the species). So I don’t know what it feels like to have to wake up early each morning to feed, water, check on or train them. I understand only by word of mouth how expensive horses can be, not only financially but also emotionally, physically, and in regards to the time it takes to care for them. Growing up, however, I was at least to some extent the cliché of the girl who loves horses. Living in Queens, I didn’t have all that much exposure to them, but that hardly stood in my way. I read all of the required books - from Black Beauty to the Black Stallion to any young adult book I came across with a horse on the front cover. I remember fantasizing about owning a horse. (I would keep it in the empty grass lot I could see from my childhood dentist’s chair.) I envied the characters in books who somehow, usually accidentally, came across abandoned or unwanted horses that became theirs. I even envied a character who was kicked in the shoulder by one “found” horse, because it was more contact with horses than I had.

Kim with her brothers and some horses.

Of course none of this is especially unusual. Horses do, indeed, have a way of taking over people’s lives. I did manage to convince my mom to bring me for riding lessons. Not at a fancy, expensive barn with a riding ring and jumping arena but at a local, somewhat rundown barn that offered trail lessons in Forest Park (and had an awesome Rottweiler who would hang out outside as you waited for your horse). I never owned proper equestrian clothing, nor did I become a barn rat (or even learn the basics of grooming and tacking, at least until much later). But I was exposed enough so that I continued to seek out opportunities to ride throughout my life - whether it be the occasional lesson at a variety of barns or plenty of trail rides when the opportunity arose.

Centrina, one of the oldest horses at Barn 47 and quite a beauty.

All of this is simply to explain why, when the opportunity arose to do a documentary on a horse trainer at Belmont, there was little chance that Sean would be able to turn it down. Having been roped into more than one trail ride (despite his active dislike of riding), Sean was more than aware of my interest in horses. I can’t say for sure that we wouldn’t have done the documentary if I wasn’t so interested in horses, but I know that it was a big reason why we signed on. And while horse racing is about a lot of things (people, money, tradition, competition, to name a few), it was the horses themselves that led us to film a documentary about it. The truth is, neither Sean nor I knew or cared much about horse racing when we started. Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot more in the process, although I can’t say that either of us became huge racing fans as a result.

Kim and sound engineer, Steve O, hanging out with D'dominator.

But while the racing itself didn’t completely win us over, the horses certainly did. From the moment we stepped foot on the grounds of Belmont, these powerful and graceful creatures were on magnificent display. Racing has a complicated relationship with the horse. They are celebrated as athletes, admired for their “heart” and “spirit,” but are too often taken advantage of and manipulated to the point of exhaustion, lameness or death. They are in many ways treated better than the grooms and hot-walkers that take care of them (certainly a worthy topic for another documentary), but in ways that serve the needs and desires of the people who profit from them, not their own. We have discussed and debated with each other the particular form our documentary will take.  Without a doubt, the human story of the Martin family, with its 3 generations of trainers, is the focal point. But while the subjects of our documentary are human, what makes them of particular interest for us (and hopefully our audience) is their relationship with horses.

It would be a ridiculous understatement to suggest that horses took over the lives of Pancho, Jose, and Carlos. We learn what we do about the Martin family through their relationships with the horses they train. From the numerous times Pancho saw the value in a horse that others passed over, to how Jose learned and practiced the horsemanship of his father, and finally in the ways in which Carlos puts the well being of his horses above all else. I believe that we can see the person who Carlos is in the moments he spends with his horses. Whether he is this person because of his history with horses or he has this history because of the person he is I am not sure. In either case, there is no doubt that horses have taken over and defined Carlos’ life. I can’t imagine who he would be without them. In a very real way, we owe our documentary to the horses of barn #47.

-Kim Rybacki

Kim and Moonwalk Beauty