He Tattoos, Reads Horse Lips At Remington Park

Saturday, March 17th 2007, 2:26 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ In 35 years, Jerry Banks has seen a lot of horse lips _ up close and personal.

Banks is the horse identifier and lip tattoo specialist at Remington Park, and it's up to him to make sure the proper horses are entered into races.

He has an odd job, but an important one to be sure.

The idea is to keep horse racing from getting ringers, horses that don't belong in particular races. It makes for a fair game, and a lot of the public's money is riding on the outcome of each event.

Horses are identified by tattoo numbers on the inside of the upper lip. Those numbers have to get there somehow, and it's Banks and Sara, his wife and assistant, who put them there.

The application of a tattoo is an interesting process. Banks applies five or six numbers, depending on the breed, to the upper lip. Before the tattoo is applied, a twitch, which is a metal tool that looks like a very large nutcracker, is applied to the lip. When the twitch is turned upward, the inside of the lip is exposed, and Banks uses tattoo dies to print the letters or numbers. Only Banks, Sara and one horse handler are in the stall during the process.

Banks is 65, but after working his position nearly every day over a 35-year period, he is in top physical condition. Currently he's giving about 30 tattoos a day, two or three times a week.

``It's calmed down quite a bit,'' he said. ``But business is solid. I probably do 1,500 a year, including about 300 out on farms. It's a tough job, but I've never been hurt doing this, knock on wood,'' Banks said.

``Most of them are mild mannered. It's usually a calm process.''

After the tattoo work is done, Banks takes a picture of the horse's tattoo number and sends it off to the AQHA or the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau for records.

Banks worked for the American Quarter Horse Association in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1971, tattoos became mandatory for quarter horses. Thoroughbreds had tattoos long before that.

He said tattoos cost $60 for thoroughbreds and quarter horses and $55 for paints and appaloosas. The horsemen write a check to the association in charge of the breed.

``I'm under contract with each of the breed organizations, and I'm paid by the head,'' he said. ``I get $19 for thoroughbreds and quarter horses and $15 for appaloosas and paints. It takes about five minutes to do one.''

He said the tattoo markings depend on the breed. With thoroughbreds, its a letter and then a registration number. With quarter horses and paints, it's whatever is on the books or registration papers.

``It's challenging, and the best part is that I get to see all the good horses,'' he said. ``That's what I like about it the most.''

Each breed gets its own set of tools. There are clusters of needles at the end of the die, and ink is dipped into a container. They are about six inches long and made of stainless steel. With each application, the tools are dipped in soap and disinfectants and then soaked.

Banks is about five months away from retirement from his state job, which is identifier. But his work won't stop.

``I'll probably continue to do the tattoos two or three days a week,'' he said.