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The horse knows what day it is

GRANTS PASS — Early Habit will act up this morning in her stall. She always does when she's slated to run.

"She's the sweetest, gentlest horse imaginable except on her race days," said Harvey Boyle, Early Habit's groom and trainer Mary Boyle's husband. "Then you can't keep her from looking at the track."

The gray mare also bobs, nickers and sticks out her tongue like an aardvark as she strains to see the Downs.

"Some horses just know when they're entered. It's what they call 'racey,'" said Harvey.

Early Habit ran a dandy 51/2 furlongs last Sunday. Unfortunately, it was a 61/2-furlong race. Today, she'll go the shorter distance and should win it by a nose, or maybe a tongue.

The featured sixth race of the day is sponsored by the Oregon Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders. Its purse of $4,700 has drawn a field of five winning geldings and colts whose records show they share a trait: They hate to lose.

Among them is Captain Gavel, now well rested after taking his last outing June 23. He is trained by Margie Cantrell and Chris Daley. They have two more entries on today's card, Anasazi Maiden in the second and Don Jackson's horse Divot in the fourth. Tad Skaggs will ride all three.

That brings us to the most congested contest for top jockey in years. Skaggs, Hugo Herrera, Troy Stillwell and Tim Neal have 10 wins apiece, followed by Jose Guerrero and April Boag with eight each and Ruben Camacho with six. All will be riding with a vengeance this weekend.

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IT TAKES MORE than horses, jockeys and trainers to make a meet. Consider, for example, Roger Nielsen, who lumbers out to photograph the winning horse after every race.

Nielsen, 82, has been doing this at Grants Pass for 47 years. He's a sizable man who played basketball at Washington State College in 1948, then went on to better things, such as roping calves and bulldogging steers in rodeos.

"They'd give me the biggest ones. I could handle them," Nielsen said.

Along the way, he learned how to take pictures. Now, he memorializes the winner's circles at Grants Pass, Prineville, Tillamook and Burns. "Then I go home to Milton-Freewater."

Or consider Darlene McDonnel. Normally she breeds and trains Icelandic horses, but she's a pony rider at the Downs, too, restraining belligerent horses during the post parade. She rides Sonny.

"He's big — half thoroughbred, half mustang — from the Umatilla Tribe out of Pendleton," she said. "He loves the work. He likes to bump. Icelandic horses are totally the wrong flavor for a pony horse, but they're wonderful for therapeutic riding."

Or consider farrier Jimmy Quillum. He grew up shoeing horses on the White Swan Reservation outside Yakima, where he was one of six adopted kids. He's been walking around with a heavily taped arm this week.

"I'm always getting kicked," he said. "So far I've shoed 50 or so horses here. Most of them have won money."

These people and scores more with special skills sustain horse racing. Grooms, vets, gate crews, timers, track crews, outriders, gallop girls, pari-mutuel crews, breeders, owners, reporters, announcers, stewards, racing secretaries, barn managers and racing directors keep this economic engine humming.

It's phenomenal if you think about it.

Grants Pass horse racing ends this weekend. Races start at 1 p.m. both days.

Dan Guthrie can be reached at guthrie23@centurylink.net