By Pete Freedman
By Dallas Observer
By Dallas Observer
By Brantley Hargrove
By City of Ate
By Dallas Observer Staff
By Seth Cohn
By Pete Freedman
Sports talk-show hosts have long debated whether horses know when they win a race. Do they, in other words, experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? It is an interesting question but one we'll likely never have a definitive answer to because the horses won't talk.
One thing about winning racehorses we do know: Shortly after they've run a mile or so with a small person on their back, getting whipped most of the way, they would rather you not try to sneak up behind them and collect their urine. This, Bryan Higgins can confirm. He is a test technician at Grand Prairie's Lone Star Park. His unenviable job is to obtain 8 ounces from winning and placing horses to ensure they are not actually Ben Johnson--who, despite being hopped up on Canadian steroids, never tried to kick his sample-taker.
"There was this one horse last season that pinned me against a wall," says the 33-year-old Higgins. "I can't remember her name. She kicked me three times before I could move. But she missed my ribs, just got soft tissue."
But maybe you've recently been laid off, are desperate for work and don't mind dodging hooves for $10 per hour. Well, then, you will need two main tools to apply for a spot alongside Higgins and the rest of the test tech crew. The first is a whistle of the sort you make with your own two lips. Racehorses are conditioned from birth to urinate when they hear a certain cadence of whistling (birders, think the northern pygmy owl). This response is advantageous to a racehorse because full bladders do not generally produce faster times.
So after Higgins has snuffed his Marlboro Light under his Nike sneaker and given his horse a bucket of water and waited awhile, he will expertly observe "signs" that the animal is ready to urinate. "After 20 minutes," he says, "the male is going to drop, OK? I don't know how explicit you want me to be, but his penis is going to drop. I'll tell the guy walking him, the hot walker, ëLet's try it.'" Higgins will take the horse to a stall and start his whistle. Your reporter asked him to demonstrate his technique, and--I don't know how explicit you want your reporter to be--he felt the urge to relieve himself, so winsome was Higgins' whistling.
The second tool a test tech needs is a stick. Higgins could hold his 8-ounce sample cup with his bare hands, but horses, especially female horses, aren't known for their micturitional accuracy. Higgins claims he has not been hit in the course of duty, a feat made possible by something known around the test barn as Thunder Stick, which really isn't a stick at all. It is a 3-foot length of white PVC pipe, one end of which features a loop into which the sample cup is placed. Along its shaft, Higgins has written, with a black Sharpie, "Thunder Stick."
"Everybody has a favorite," Higgins says. "One of my buddies who works there, he always prefers this really long stick. He stays way away from the horse. I don't like the really long stick, because a young colt will eye you, and he'll see if you're trying to hide that stick behind your back. And he won't calm down till he's comfortable. You know. So I prefer the smaller stick."
Which is not to suggest that the smaller stick named Thunder Stick can always keep Higgins dry. He has to divide each sample. Half goes to Austin for testing; half remains in the test barn refrigerator set aside for horse urine (not to be confused with the adjacent refrigerator intended solely for personal use, storing brown-bag dinners and the like). In short, spills will happen. "I don't wear anything really, really nice," Higgins says. "I try to wear something that I don't mind if I spill a little urine on it." (A sensible policy that your reporter has adopted.)
No, Higgins' job is not a glamorous one. But maybe you're not dissuaded and you'd still like to apply, even knowing what you now know. Like him, maybe you just enjoy "being around the environment of the track." Well, there is one more thing you should know. For some of us, it is the most unpleasant part of the job: Wagering is not allowed.
Quarter horse racing at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie begins September 20 and continues through December 1. Call 888-4-RACING for more information. Good luck.