Three more racing days at Belmont, before the racing action moves upstate. The transition will take place next week, after Belmont ends its spring/summer meet on Sunday; Saratoga opens one week from today.
Though the racing action will shift locations, life on the Belmont backstretch will, of course, continue; a large community of horses will stay in Elmont, and with them grooms, assistants, and a small army of equine caretakers.
But it’s not only the downstate horses that will require care through the Saratoga meet; scattered around Belmont’s mammoth landscape are three feline colonies, and as it has every day for years, a small and anonymous group of volunteers will make sure that they, too, are taken care of during the summer exodus.
If you’ve ever taken a tour of the Belmont backstretch, you might have paused not far from the barn of trainer Dominic Galluscio, where more than two dozen well-fed, well-cared-for cats live in a mostly enclosed fenced-in area. Each morning, an SUV pulls up near this area, and out jumps Laurie, armed with bags of dry food and multiple cans; the nearly feral animals who live here turn practically domestic as they approach and meow, knowing that their human guardian angel has arrived.
Laurie—she asks that her last name not be used, saying, “This isn’t about me. It’s about the cats”—has spent much of her life around the racetrack, working in a variety of capacities, at one point training her own horses. Now, she devotes her time and energy to feral cat colonies in New York City and on Long Island, working with All About Spay Neuter to try to reduce the number of unwanted kittens born every year.
She goes to Belmont every day, stopping at the three colonies that live there, feeding the cats, making sure that they’re healthy, checking that no one has been injured. With help, she’s trapped, neutered, and released the cats back to their colonies, and in at least one case, she knows that every cat in the colony has been neutered.
“We take care of the sick ones,” she said, “and if we can, we find homes for the ones who can live inside.” She works with local vets, and not uncommonly, she’ll bring to her home the cats who need recovery or recuperation time. If they’re domestic enough, she finds homes for them.
We drive around the backstretch, checking out each community of cats. The feline residents hear her voice and they magically appear; one fellow literally descends from a tangle of trees and vines to welcome her. They don’t get close enough to pet—they are feral, after all—but they approach, and sit, and observe. Were it not for their setting, you’d think that they were simply well-tended neighborhood cats.
Laurie doesn’t work alone; she has the financial and logistical support of All About Spay Neuter, and she relies on a small group of backstretch workers for help. Her primary colleague lives near one of the colonies; he works on the backstretch, and in younger days he galloped some of racing’s stars–Dr. Fager was one of his.
Now, he does less rigorous work in the barns, and every afternoon, he washes the cats’ dishes and makes sure that they have water. Years ago, he adopted one of the colony cats, and that cat will now stop by to say hello and oversee Laurie’s work.
We drive past one barn, and a black and white cat lolls nearby. Laurie calls to a nearby groom, “Is that Pam?” He smiles and says yes; this particular barn has taken in several cats from the colonies. They live in the hayloft, they are domesticated, they are spayed. They bask in the affection of the humans that have adopted them, who take care of the cats in infirmity, injury, and old age.
Laurie’s work is funded by All About Spay Neuter, by donations, and by the personal contributions of those who care for the cats. The group is a member of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, and each year, it’s given space at the adoption showcase at the cat show held in New York. Laurie says with satisfaction that at the most recent show, she was able to adopt out all 18 kittens that needed homes.
In the past few weeks, All About Spay Neuter has rescued fifty kittens that need foster or adoptive homes, and a number of older cats that will be tested, treated, and spayed. If they’re adoptable, Laurie and her colleagues will find homes for them; if not, the cats will be released back where they were found.
Life will go on at Belmont, even as the Spa gears up for its summer meet. And when racing goes to Aqueduct in the winter, Laurie and her small band will continue feeding and caring for the Belmont cats: small shelters filled with straw are scattered through the colonies, offering warmth and protection from cold weather, snow, and rain.
The notion of the barn cat is often more charming in imagination than in reality; illness, cold, and injury can be the lot of the feline that makes its home on a backstretch. But thanks to Laurie and the other volunteers, and to All About Spay Neuter and its donors, several dozen of the Belmont cats lead relatively safe and comfortable lives. They are clean and healthy and well-fed.
Three more racing days at Belmont, and so far, the feline equines have built up quite a sum in the Madison Fund. When the meet concludes on Sunday, All About Spay Neuter will get at least half of the Belmont spring/summer donation. The organization accepts donations of both cash and materials; a list of items it needs can be found here.