Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Stirrup Memories: Los Gatos horse riders travel the happy trails

Photograph by George Sakkestad
Los Gatos resident Barry Waitte has come a long way since his days as a vice president at Apple Computer. These days, Waitte spends most of his time preparing for and competing in endurance horse races.

By Kaustuv Basu

Barry Waitte was about as far away from the wide open spaces as anyone could be when he went to work for a brand-new computer company back in the 1980s.

Silicon Valley was just being born when Waitte was among Apple Computer's first 1,000 employees more than two decades ago. He was a member of the sales and marketing team and rose through the ranks to become a corporate vice president.

His saddle was a desk chair, and as he rode it each day he would look out on cubicles and computers with Interstate 280 looming on the horizon.

These days, though, it's a very different ride for Waitte. The Los Gatos resident has given up his desk for a horse, and the corporate world for those wide open spaces. Waitte is a champion in endurance horse racing.

The horse bug

Barry Waitte first got acquainted with horses at the Cooper-Garrod farms in Saratoga. It helped, of course, that his wife Carol had grown up with horses.

Around the same time that Waitte was getting to know horses, he befriended Godfrey and Suzanne Sullivan. The Sullivans, who live in Saratoga, are crazy about horses. The Waitte family was about to join that club. And it was no ordinary club.

The Sullivans and the Waittes are part of a select group that competes in endurance horse racing. What that means is that they take part in a race where horse and rider have to cover anywhere from 25 to 100 miles, usually under grueling conditions and a very strict set of rules.

The toughest race in this category is called the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile race from near Lake Tahoe to Auburn.

As a way of introducing Waitte to the sport, the Sullivans asked him to be part of the crew during that race. Waitte was instantly smitten. "It hit me like a rock. I knew at that point that this is what I wanted to do," he says.

As friends of Waitte will tell you, he does not like to do things halfway. He loves wine, so he bought a winery in Napa. He has worked in the technology industry; now he is a venture capitalist who finances start-ups. So it followed logically that if he wanted to be part of the endurance racing world, he would have to buy a ranch--a real ranch with horses in it.

That's just what he did.

"I was driving by Hicks Road one day, and I see this place up in the Los Gatos mountains for sale," Waitte says. The moment he laid his eyes on the huge expanse of property, he knew he wanted to own it.

But there was a problem. The place was a dump. It had been neglected for years. "This place is kind of hidden. It was like a slum before. We had to remove 40 Dumpsters of trash," Waitte says.

The ranch

The trash has long disappeared from the Hicks Road property. Waitte now calls the place Hicks Creek Ranch. And like any true ranch, it smells of horses. In fact, Waitte owns 12 horses.

Here, on a few acres carved out in the hills, he has brought together a small community of horse lovers.

There is Heather Reynolds, a champion endurance rider who trains all of the horses at the ranch. Her husband, Jeremy Reynolds, is a farrier, who ensures that the thoroughbreds at the stable have been outfitted with the correct horseshoes. "It's one of the most important jobs in the business," Waitte says.

But there's more.

Waitte also has a veterinarian living on the property. As he explains, that is one of the most important jobs in the business, too. "Many a time, we've knocked on the vet's door in the middle of the night when one of our horses is not doing so well," Waitte says.

Hicks Creek Ranch is one of the best facilities for horses in the area, according to Waitte.

On a typical day, the horses can be seen in their stalls, munching on food. Some have blankets wrapped around them, others are wearing masks to keep off the flies. By all accounts, this is an expensive sport.

The horses are on a very strict diet of yeast, corn, safflower oil, magnesium and different kinds of vitamins, among other things.

In a nearby shed, where the food for the horses are kept, there are all kinds of feed charts with the names of the horses on them. "We also feed them beet pulp and rice bran," Waitte says.

The ranch has a contraption called the Euro Sizer, a fenced-off chute used to exercise the horses. A maximum of five horses are allowed inside at one time, and they are made to canter around at a desired pace with the help of a computer program.

"For endurance racing, we don't start training the horses until they are 5 because their bodies haven't stopped developing," he says. "When they're about a 7 1/2, we unleash them."

Training for endurance racing is a bit like training for a marathon, according to Waitte. "They are worked every day but ridden three times a week. We hike in the hills and also take them to the beach," he says.

For Waitte, this is a far cry from his life in the high-tech industry.

"I was one of the first thousand employees at Apple Computers," says Waitte. By the time he left Apple Inc. in 1994, he had become one of its vice presidents.

Waitte then went on to work for a digital design company. He finally retired in 1999. "I haven't worked for a company since, though I'm a venture capitalist now," he says. Soon after he retired, he was bitten by the endurance racing bug.

The endurance race

Carol Waitte grew up with horses when she lived in central Washington state. "I was part of the Bay Area's tech industry," she says. But like her husband, she too decided to opt for a less frenetic lifestyle. Because of their friendship with the Sullivans, both of them soon started spending a lot of time with horses.

Endurance racing started in the United States in 1955 with a race called the Tevis Cup that is widely recognized as one of the most difficult in the business.

Waitte says that there are more than 7,000 active riders in the country right now. Most of the horses that take part in these races are Arabians.

Typically, a 100-mile race is expected to be completed by a horse within a deadline of 24 hours. "During the ride, the horses and riders are subject to strict rules concerning the safety of the horse," Waitte says.

A veterinary exam, known as a vet check, takes place every 20 miles or so. "Horses that do not pass the test are pulled from the ride," says Waitte. "Typically the winners in a 100-mile race take about 10 hours to finish the race. For some competitions, it can go up to 15."

The last major competition that the Hicks Creek Ranch team participated in was in Elkton, Md., last October. The North American Endurance Championship is one of the biggest races in the world. The Pacific South Team--comprised of three members from Los Gatos and three from other areas of California--won the gold medal in the team event.

Heather Reynolds, who was part of the Pacific South team, is one of the biggest names in the business. She has more than 30 wins, including a first place in the Tevis Cup.

"I spend a lot of hours riding on the trail. The trick is to remember that each horse is different. There is no perfect horse," says Reynolds. Endurance racing has taken her to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates as well as the Mojave Desert.

"It can be a lonely sport. You can go for hours without seeing anyone," says Waitte.

"It's not an easy sport. But once you do it, it can be very addictive," adds Carol.

As for the horses, they get a four-week break after taking part in a 100-mile race. Waitte, of course, is always preparing for the next big race. His sights are now firmly set on the World Cup, which will be held in Germany later this year.

It's a far cry from those days when he was riding off into the sunset each day--stuck in commuter traffic on his drive home from Apple Computer.

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