Last Friday morning, the thermometer in Saratoga Springs read -8 degrees. On February 24th, it was -17. In weather like that, most sensible human beings throw another log on the fire or grab another blanket, pour a hot drink, and refuse to leave the house.
But not Michele Jennings, who regardless of temperature or precipitation, treks every day—road safety permitting–to the seemingly deserted Oklahoma training track, her truck packed with water, cat food, and—perhaps most important—a shovel.
A resident of Schuylerville, just east of Saratoga, Jennings is the year-round caretaker of the cat colonies at the Oklahoma. With the veterinary support of Quaintance House in Greenwich, New York and the financial support of The Moore Foundation, Jennings feeds the three colonies, which includes a couple of dozen cats; she shovels routes to the feeding stations; she arranges spaying and neutering; and she keeps a watchful eye for health issues, transporting sick cats to Quaintance House for treatment and often to her own home for recuperation.
Several years ago, The Moore Foundation—established by Thoroughbred owners Susan and John Moore—coordinated with the New York Racing Association on the cats’ care, with NYRA making an annual donation to cover a portion of the estimated $12,000 annual cost. Last year, cost-cutting led to a reduction in the donation, but The Moore Foundation recently learned that NYRA will continue its contributions this year, covering 25% of The Moore Foundation’s costs.
“You do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do,” said Joanie Omeste, NYRA’s community relations manager.
“We wanted to continue the good work of The Moore Foundation and also provide early notice for their budgetary planning,” added John Durso, director of communications and media relations at NYRA.
With temperatures regularly below zero and snow piled up nearly to rooftops, the cats don’t venture too far from their barns. They head to the haylofts and into empty stalls, burrowing with each other and in the straw left behind by the equine summer residents.
“There are little kitty superhighways through the snow to the barns I can’t shovel to,” Jennings said. “One cat makes a path and the rest of them stick to it.”
The hostile weather means that the cats need more calories to stay warm, so Jennings brings both canned and dry food every day; they also need more help in staving off illness, and in December, one of the cats—who usually shy from human contact—allowed himself to be caught so that Jennings could get him treated for an abscess.
And that smart guy realized that the indoor life was much better than the feral life, so surrendering himself to Jennings’s ministrations, he turned into a snuggly, blanket-kneading, purring machine, and soon, abscess healed, found himself in a forever, adoptive home.
Jennings has the Oklahoma pretty much to herself at this time of year; that will change in a month, when the track opens for training (if the snow ever melts, that is, and the temperature in Saratoga ever gets above freezing).
But despite—or maybe because of—the solitude, and despite the inhospitable conditions, Jennings embraces her daily visits.
“I remember telling you,” she said, “that there were days in the winter that it was challenging to go to the track, on my days off when I had no other reason to leave the house on a cold winter day, but as soon as I got there, it was worth it.
“I’m not sure when, but that is no longer true. It has become such a regular part of my day that I don’t even give it a second thought anymore. I’d miss them (and worry!) if I didn’t see them every day.”
And, no doubt, they would miss her, the friendly woman with the big truck, who, thanks to The Moore Foundation, Quaintance House, and NYRA, comes bearing gifts, every day.
If you wish to contribute to the care of the Oklahoma cats, you can do so by donating to The Moore Foundation or Quaintance House. Donations of food can also be made directly to Michele Jennings through special arrangement; please leave a comment if you’re interested in doing that.