On the coldest morning of the year, Oscar Orellana stood outside in shadow, bowed at the waist, and plunged his bare right hand into a bucket of water. Orellana seemed untouched by the gnawing wind as he sponged a dark colt with a hand the color of raw salmon.
National Airport reported a wind-chill temperature of minus 3 degrees Friday morning, which had little meaning at Laurel Race Course. As cold caught up with winter last week, trainers still trained, grooms groomed and riders rode, most with a minimum of modification and complaint.
It's hard to tell who has it worst. Grooms operate with one numb hand. Exercise riders take horses onto the track during the coldest hours, although they can dress for it. Jockeys must layer delicately to meet weight constraints, and more bemoan the sting of pebbles and ice pellets kicked back during a race than the crying wind. The horses seem least disturbed.
On Tuesday, post parades were shortened to six minutes to protect the riders, who covered exposed flesh and wore any combination of undergarments beneath flimsy silks: tight T-shirts (to seal in warmth) and turtlenecks, leotards, nylons, lightweight thermal underwear and a second pair of riding pants. Some had ski masks and two pairs of gloves, and many had weight in mind; on such a day, a rider can pack two to three additional pounds in extra clothing.
"When it gets cold like that, you don't know whether you have the reins in your hands or not," said jockey Mark Johnston. "Coming back, your hands are usually numb."
Frank Douglas dresses lightly, and says he forgoes a facial wrap because it impairs his breathing. More than once he's removed his goggles after a race to find welts on his nose and cheekbones from unidentified flying objects.
"I'd rather take the pain," he said.
Exercise riders are not as vulnerable to the sting because they operate in less-confined spaces. Still, Carol Mahoney came off the track Wednesday with only a thin band of flesh showing between dark goggles and a turtleneck pulled up to her nose.
"You don't mind it when it's around freezing, but when it's in the teens, it hurts," she said. "It's pure misery. You can manage to stay warm, but the horses feel so good it makes it double tough. They want to go. You've got to wear goggles, otherwise your eyes will tear so much you can't see."
Mahoney found refuge briefly in trainer Charlie Hadry's warm little office in Barn 21, then zipped up her green down jacket, lit a cigarette and headed for her next assignment. She galloped eight that morning and considered it unextraordinary.
"It could be worse," she said. "Last year when it was real bad, I was getting on 10 or 11."
Out on the racetrack, some 30 horses exercised vigorously, but the majority galloped without strain. Powdery clouds rose from the dirt with every step, then vanished.
"In this kind of weather, the racetrack gets so damn dry," Hadry said. "It takes a lot out of the horses. They can't get a hold of it."
Trainer Ferris Allen commended track maintenance but said winterization of the racing surface, however unavoidable, creates problems of its own.
"You worry about chapped and broken skin, cracked heels, those types of things," he said. "Especially with chemicals they put on the racetrack to keep it from freezing."
Luigi Gino said he won't train his horses fast in the extreme cold, primarily to guard against stiffening muscles.
"We just go a little easier with them," he said. "You want to be careful. When it's so cold, even their little whiskers freeze. If I have to do something important, I just two-minute-lick them. The weather will break in a few days; then you can catch up. When you back off on them, you don't want to feed them as much as when they're training."
According to Pat Brackett, a state veterinarian at the thoroughbred tracks, cold weather is not harmful to racehorses. If anything, she says, it enlivens them.
"Most horses like cold better than they like heat," Brackett said. "It doesn't affect horses as much as it affects people. They have their winter coats, fur coats with no drafts. If the track is good and not frozen, I don't think winter is all that hard on them."
Rosalind White could have been in a climate-controlled office, but she left her job as a communications specialist to work on the backstretch. A frigid morning last week brought no signs of regret.
"I'm used to putting on 15 pairs of long underwear," said White, a University of Maryland graduate who grooms stakes-winner Reputed Testamony. "I've had a cold for months. I can't get rid of it.
"The barn is warm and so are the stalls once you get in there with the horses with all that body heat. Actually, sometimes if I'm picking up a stall or brushing a horse, I get hot. I might even get out of this jacket."
Not far away, Oscar Orellana had bathed his last horse of the day and was looking for moisturizing cream. His right hand was as hard and dry as wood and so badly chapped that a half-inch cut had appeared in the middle of his palm. Blue tape covered a crackled thumb.
Orellana said he often feels sparks within his fingertips, although "it only happens in winter." After 25 years on the racetrack, he knows one inescapable conclusion about winter racing: The weather may be cold, but it's almost always permitting.