The Home Stretch
The Home Stretch
For 40 days every summer, from late July to early September, Thoroughbred racing’s elite come to upstate New York’s Saratoga Race Course, stately venue that can accommodate more than 50,000 people, inside and out, that has been in use almost continuously since 1864. Standing in the paddock, where the horses are saddled before each race, the trainers, jockeys, and owners socialize and take pictures with the well-heeled clientele. The guests examine the runners, check their racing programs—which offer detailed information about each horse in the race—and decide where to place their money.
Before the racetrack was built, Saratoga Springs was a spa town, where New York City’s wealthy would come during the summer months to get a break from the city’s heat. They would partake of the area’s natural mineral springs and also eat and drink and flirt—it was a place to see and be seen. In 1863, John Morrissey, a gambler, bare-knuckle fighter, and casino owner, teamed up with some of those city folks to give Saratoga visitors something else to do with their time: attend and bet on horse races.
Today, in the clubhouse boxes, Saratoga remains a place of old-fashioned gentility: men wear jackets and some of the women wear hats. Even those whose economic status falls far below that of the One Percent delight in getting dressed up “to go racing.” As bettors head to the windows to cash their tickets, the owner and trainer of the winning horse stride from the clubhouse into the winner’s circle, posing in the Saratoga sunshine with their horse—beaming, because, as the saying goes, “There’s nothing like winning at Saratoga.”
While winning horse and humans pose and preen, a group of mostly men, mostly Hispanic, stream through the winner’s circle and onto the track itself. They’re carrying towels, buckets, and lead shanks, which look like dog leashes, if the dog you’re walking weighs 1,200 pounds. The grooms hose off their nonwinning charges, give them a drink of water, sponge their faces, and lead the horses back to the barn, away from the riot of flowers and photographers, through the gate and onto the backstretch.
It’s because of these horses that they do this exhausting, low-wage work, sometimes living on the backstretch for decades, eschewing the comforts that most of us take for granted.
Mario Ruiz sits at the bar at the Horseshoe Inn, located across the street from the backstretch entrance. He’s got a beer and some Quick Draw lottery tickets; racing is on all the televisions, and he seems to know the dozen or so other people sitting around him. It’s early afternoon, and his work for the day is done. A bulky, round-faced man, Ruiz seems preternaturally cheerful, especially for someone who gets up before dawn every day and works outside with temperamental animals, rain or shine, hot or cold.
Ruiz, 55, has been doing this routine for 34 years, moving from racetrack to racetrack, working first as a hotwalker, then a groom, then a foreman, and finally an assistant trainer—the backstretch equivalent of the corporate ladder. He came from his home in Mexico City to New York’s Belmont Park for his first job, hotwalking for trainer Stephen DiMauro Sr. He’d never worked with horses before.
This summer he’s back hotwalking, guiding the horses around the shed row—the covered path in a barn outside the horses’ stalls—to warm them up for their morning exercise or cool them down afterward. The pace can be monotonous, as he holds a horse with a shank, always standing on the left side of the animal, always turning left. (It’s thought that the practice of mounting and guiding horses from the left started because soldiers generally carried their swords on their left sides, and horses were often used during wartime.)
Hotwalking may sound unremarkable, but handling a high-strung animal can seldom be considered routine. These horses, even the least accomplished of them, are wildly expensive: their owners have paid tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars for them, and the animals can cost more than $100 a day to maintain, not including vet bills.
Ruiz would like to find work as a foreman at Saratoga, but such jobs are in short supply. Rather than working directly with horses, foremen manage the barn and its staff, making sure that all the employees have shown up and that the barn is in good working order. The pay is better—hundreds of dollars a week better—but the hours are longer. Ruiz jokes that when he previously held that position, there were days that he was so busy, he felt like he should wear a diaper. Once, Ruiz left a foreman position because the trainer stopped “staking” the barn staff—that is, giving them a percentage of the horse’s earnings; recently, after a trip back to Mexico, he returned to his position only to be told by the assistant trainer that he’d hired someone else.
Turnover among barn staff isn’t unusual; still, he can’t help feeling some resentment about what happened, particularly the timing.
“I came back three days before Mother’s Day just to go back to work,” he said. “If I’d known, I’d have stayed to celebrate with my mother.”
He speaks appreciatively of Mark Casse, the trainer who currently employs him, saying that although he’s only hotwalking, this is one of the best jobs he’s had. Nevertheless, he keeps his eyes open for an opportunity to return to work as a foreman.
Omar Delcid, 20, is the foreman in the barn where Ruiz currently works. He arrives at 4:30 a.m. to check on each horse—there are about a dozen per barn—to make sure that they’re all healthy and ready to train, and that he’s fully staffed for the day. He’ll take a little break around lunch, then come back to the barn to supervise the afternoon feeding, making sure each horse gets the correct mixture of oats, vitamins, and medication in a meal tailored to its specific needs.
Delcid grew up around horses and decided he wanted to be a trainer when he was 15. His father was a groom in the barn where he currently works, and though his parents would have liked him to go to college—something that he says he’ll do someday—he seized the opportunity to work in the barn. He glows when he talks about working with horses; unlike some of the more veteran barn staff, he has nothing cynical or jaded about him. He’s working for a top trainer, with high-quality horses, at a premier racetrack. He’s living the dream.
For his part, Ruiz spends about seven months in Saratoga, from April to November, and five months at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, from December to March. He builds in a break of about a month to visit family in Mexico. It’s a schedule he’s followed for years, and one that he crafted himself. Unlike most hotwalkers, who live on the backstretch, he lives in an apartment away from the track, where the rent is covered by his trainer.
I meet Ruiz one morning as he grazes a horse in the grass outside the barn after training. Keeping up a steady conversation, he is ever mindful of the animal at the end of the shank he’s holding, and he lets the horse lead the way, patiently letting him search for the sweetest grass.
“I like to socialize, so I’m basically just in my room to sleep,” he says. “I get up, go to work, clean up, and then go socialize outside the backstretch.”
The backstretch at Saratoga opens in April, before the racing season commences, and horses and employees ship in from all over the country—Kentucky, Florida, California, Maryland. Many will come from Long Island and Queens, where the New York Racing Association, which runs Saratoga Race Course, has two other tracks, Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack, both of which also provide dormitories for workers.
For many backstretch employees, particularly hotwalkers and grooms, the stable area at Saratoga will be their home until Labor Day or shortly thereafter. Some will stay until October or early November, when the Oklahoma Training Track, just across the street from the racecourse, closes. Like the main track, the Oklahoma has barns and dormitories; it’s the oldest part of the Saratoga complex, and though it has a racetrack, it is used strictly for training and not for racing. Employees will live in dormitories, eat at backstretch kitchens, and do their laundry and get medical care at facilities set up specifically for their use. The dormitories are rent-free, and a variety of support organizations—funded by trainers, owners, the New York Racing Association, and private donors—provide additional services; at Belmont Park, employees can drop their kids off at Anna House, a childcare and early-childhood-education center that sits on track property and opens at 5:00 a.m. every day of the year. Tuition is priced on a sliding scale, with families paying what they can afford, and donations covering the balance.
The day begins at 4:30 a.m. with the hotwalkers, who warm up the horses up for the exercise riders. Then comes training, from 5:30 to 10:30 a.m., depending on the weather and the amount of light. Because most racing begins in the early afternoon, a predawn start allows training to be completed with time for a break before the first race. Some exercise riders are aspiring or former jockeys, some come from the horse-show world, and some simply love being on a horse but can’t make the low weights required to ride as a jockey. When training hours are done, so are the exercise riders. Many will then head to an afternoon racetrack job: Some work as parking attendants, some as jockey assistants known as valets, some as mutuel clerks who take bets.
The backstretch workers are the first people the horses see each morning, and the last ones they see at night. They know the horses they work with intimately, and it’s because of these relationships that they throw themselves into such exhausting, low-wage work. Some live on the backstretch for decades, eschewing the comforts that most of us find essential and take for granted, leaving their homes to live in places where their independence is limited, and where the work can take a toll on their bodies and their minds.
Given the inherent risks of working with horses—getting bitten, getting kicked, getting stepped on, getting thrown—the cost to owners and trainers of workers’ compensation insurance is exorbitant, especially to cover the people who ride the horses. This includes not just the jockeys but also the exercise riders, who get on half a dozen horses every day, some of which are young and inexperienced and not all that thrilled about being on a racetrack with dozens of other horses and having a human weighing down their back.
Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST), a nonprofit located at Belmont Park, provides a variety of support for grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders, and other people who work on the backstretch, including insurance subsidies of up to $100 per month per premium for qualifying backstretch workers. Workers then purchase health insurance via the New York State Health Exchange, which was created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). (If workers are unable to purchase an ACA plan, BEST covers the full cost of primary care and most specialist visits, often thanks to discounted or free services in nearby hospitals.) BEST also assists workers with obtaining workers’ compensation and disability coverage and provides a term life insurance policy for all workers at no cost.
In the mainstream media, which generally covers racing only around the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown—or if there’s a scandal or crisis—a backstretch life is generally depicted as one with little luxury in the best of circumstances, but the trainers who employ the stable workers and the organizations that exist to support them provide enough rewards, of one sort or another, to keep a transient population steadily employed.
The New York Racing Association offers the one of the higher purses (the racing term for prize money) in the country. This summer, the stakes races at Saratoga alone will offer a total of $18.8 million in purses. The course thus attracts the finest horses and most successful trainers and jockeys in the United States, and sometimes from abroad as well. This is not to say that every race is full of high-profile contenders; even at Saratoga, low-level competitors are a regular part of most racing days. But for the most part, the state’s lucrative racing program can offer backstretch employees an opportunity to live reasonably well, though living conditions do not approach even the modest accommodations of a summer camp.
NYRA, which operates as a nonprofit—and which, since the turn of this century, has been a financially troubled company that perennially operated under a deficit—had neglected backstretch housing for decades. Pest infestations were common, housing lacked air-conditioning, and the sparse room furnishings were of low quality. As a result of an infusion of revenue from a casino that opened at Aqueduct Racetrack in 2011, some of which was allocated to capital improvements, the company undertook a multiyear project to upgrade living quarters at Belmont Park and at Saratoga. Scattered across both backstretches are buildings that look like modest hotels or motels; men live two to a room, with bathroom facilities at the end of the building.
On a July afternoon, three men, two of them African American and one Jamaican, sit outside one of those renovated dorms, steps from the barns where they worked that morning walking hots. Lowest on the wage scale, in part because their work is generally done by late morning, hotwalkers at Saratoga make about $350 to $400 a week. (Grooms can make around $600.) But low pay doesn’t equal low skill: a hotwalker cannot afford to lose control of his grip—letting a horse run loose on a crowded backstretch could cost the horse, or a human who gets in the way, its life. Like any animal, horses have minds of their own. It’s one thing for a dog to pull a leash because he’s seen a squirrel, but when a 1,200-pound animal does it—whether through mischievousness or playfulness or fear—it’s quite another.
Zeke Williams has been working at the track for 40 years. Now 57, he looks much younger than his age. He started as a busboy at Fair Ground Race Course in New Orleans, but horses lured him away from the frontside to the stables. Like many workers, he started as a hotwalker, then became a groom. Grooms are assigned to two or three horses, working with them throughout the day, checking on their health, feeding them, cleaning their stalls, grazing them, getting them ready to race. As a groom, Williams made around $400 per week, and he was eventually drawn to New York because that's where his trainer spends the summer. (New York also has higher prize earnings in the state, of which 1 percent is sometimes distributed to backstretch workers).
“I prefer hotwalking to grooming,” Williams says, as he stands near the betting windows during an afternoon of racing. “My back and my knees are real bad.”
Trainers are required to post open positions publicly, online or in local papers, but most backstretch jobs are filled via word of mouth. Even across states, the racing community is a small one, and almost everyone knows somebody who’s looking for something when a job needs filling. Williams arrived in Saratoga in mid-June from trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn at Churchill Downs in Kentucky. He had convinced a fellow hotwalker and longtime friend, Curry Edwards, to join him in Saratoga, where he has been coming for decades. (It was Edwards’s first summer there.)
Like many successful trainers, Asmussen has horses stabled at different tracks simultaneously, and he follows the high-level racing circuit around the country: Kentucky, New York, Louisiana. Inducted into Thoroughbred racing's Hall of Fame, Asmussen trained Gun Runner, voted American Horse of the Year in 2017; the year before, he trained Creator, the winner of the Belmont Stakes. Williams worked with both horses.
“I took them off the van when they were babies,” Asmussen says with pride. “I like them when they’re babies. I usually get the tough horses, the ones that are going to rear up, so that I can teach them how to act.”
During the races that afternoon, Curry Edwards steps away to place a bet. He and Williams come to the frontside most afternoons for the races; in the evenings, Edwards sits at the grill outside their dorm room, where he cooks barbecue feasts, inviting trainers and other horse people from across the track. The convivial gatherings have gained him a reputation at more than one track and are open to pretty much everyone, though within the community, Latin Americans (who now make up the majority of the backstretch workforce) and African Americans (who historically held those positions) often coexist uneasily.
“Spanish speakers have made it real hard,” Williams claims. “They work for less money. We used to get one percent of every purse a trainer won, and now some don’t want to pay it.”
Low pay doesn’t equal low skill: a hotwalker cannot afford to lose control of his grip—letting a horse run loose on a crowded backstretch could cost the horse, or a human who gets in the way, its life.
Days later, Edwards listens intently as fellow hotwalker Bedster “Tuba” Elliott intones from a backstretch picnic table about the importance of communication. Originally from Jamaica, Elliott was the manager of the reggae band Burning Spear for more than 20 years and speaks with the cadence of a pastor, dropping wisdom and leaving no doubt that he practices what he preaches.
“Communication,” he says in a lilting accent. “Communication is the key.”
Edwards, who calls himself a man of God and makes few decisions without praying on them first, agrees.
“It is,” he says amiably, with not a scintilla of vitriol. “But how can we communicate when my roommate doesn’t speak English?”
A standout basketball star from Louisville, Kentucky, Edwards played college ball but never made it to the pros. His high school coach was the late Thoroughbred trainer Jerry Romans, whose son Dale was a few years ahead of Edwards in school and is now one of the top trainers in the country. After trying his hand at a few other endeavors, including a stint in the military and a tour in Iraq, Edwards headed to the racetrack.
“I didn’t know,” he says with a somewhat rueful laugh, “that 30 years later this would be my job.”
Edwards explains that he decided to come to Saratoga—a place he’d never been in two decades working on the track—after he was called “nigger” by an employer on the backstretch at Canterbury Park in Minnesota. Uncertain whether Asmussen would have him back after he quit on the trainer to go to Minnesota, Edwards prayed, looking for guidance about whether to come to Saratoga. Now that he’s here, he prays about whether he should stay. (Since this interview, Edwards has again moved on.) He also prays each morning before work for the people and the horses he works with.
“I didn’t understand it at first,” he says, “but now I know that God wants me to take care of His animals. I keep coming back to it. And wherever there’s a racetrack, I’m at home.”
“I’ll always be around horses. When they retire, we go to the farms they’re at and look for them. We get so attached to them.”
Martha Julio Garcia spends her entire day at the track. The 40-year-old walks hots in the morning at the barn of Claude “Shug” McGaughey, another Hall of Famer, which she’s been doing for 20 years. In the afternoon, she heads to the frontside. An employee of Centerplate, which runs most of NYRA’s concessions, Julio Garcia works at food counters at Belmont and at a Mike’s Hard Lemonade stand at Saratoga, in one of the busiest areas of the track. As she sets up one morning, shortly before the gates open at 11:00 a.m., she chokes up when asked about her work.
“I love to work with the horses in the morning,” she says. “It’s the best part of my life.”
Julio Garcia had never worked with horses before emigrating from Mexico 20 years ago at the suggestion of her ex-husband. For the most part, she’s lived “outside,” as many employees put it, “not inside,” a distinction that conjures up unintended parallels with prison. But she’s also resided—twice—in a backstretch dorm, an experience she doesn’t care to repeat.
“There can be sometimes three people to a room,” she says. “It’s very small, very tight, very uncomfortable. People are messy with toilet paper, and it’s disgusting.”
Backstretch residences are single sex, and children are not permitted to live in them. Perhaps not surprisingly, men are more comfortable living at the track than do women, who tell stories of harassment and feeling unsafe. Yet, for financial reasons, many of them stay.
Alejandra Ortiz, 43, has lived on the backstretch, working as a hotwalker, since 2000. She was diagnosed with brain cancer while working at Belmont. Because on-track housing is available only to those currently employed at the track, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin kept Ortiz on the payroll so she could keep her room and her benefits. (Doctors at Saratoga cared for her pro bono at first, and then she eventually received health insurance.) BEST, which coordinates services at all three NYRA tracks, lined up volunteers to drive Ortiz to treatment and appointments, to prepare food for her, and to take her out to eat and run errands.
Cancer treatment is hard enough in the best of circumstances; the idea of dealing with side effects and discomfort in a crude dorm room is nearly unfathomable. Yet this summer, an aged backstretch worker who requires medical equipment to survive a life-threatening illness has refused to move out of his dorm room at Belmont Park. Though he has been offered the chance to move “outside,” he has told representatives of support organizations, “I want to stay on the track.”
Ortiz is not among those who speak glowingly about their lives. She admits to being lonely and scared, and she is well aware of the physical risks of her job, wary of the horses’ strength even as she works confidently with them, knowing that she’s one kick away from catastrophic injury. She speaks with distaste of bedbugs and a lack of privacy, and of the discrimination and harassment that are a part of daily life.
“You just have to put up with it,” she says, speaking through a translator. “When you complain, nothing happens.”
Women are often wary of speaking up because of potential community backlash. Several years ago, a woman confidentially reported a rape to one of the backstretch services, but she refused to go to the police because of the social consequences of reporting: if the accused ended up losing his job or going to prison, the woman would be ostracized and subject to criticism not only from the community at the track, but also back home. (A small village or city in Latin America might have a number of residents who end up working at the same track in the US.) That price, the woman decided, was too high to pay.
Christopher Garraway was a professional jockey for 15 years in his native Trinidad. He’s tall and lanky and deceptively thin, the prodigious muscles needed to control a running racehorse nearly invisible beneath his jeans, T-shirt, and safety gear. Now 54, he’s been riding horses at the track for more than 30 years.
“I used to go to the track with my dad in Trinidad and Tobago,” he tells me one morning outside the barn where he works after he has finished riding. “All I wanted to do was ride horses, and he did everything in his power to make sure that I could become a jockey.”
When Garraway could no longer ride competitively, he immigrated first to Canada, where he worked for 15 years as an exercise rider, then to the United States.
“There are a lot more tracks here,” he says. “You get to go all over with your horses, and I love traveling.” Earlier that morning, he had exercised Flameaway, a multiple-graded stakes winner who had run in the Kentucky Derby in May, and who had finished second in the Jim Dandy, one of Saratoga’s races for three-year-old horses, a few days before. As Garraway dismounted a horse that trains on one of Saratoga’s grass surfaces, he exuded exhilaration.
“There’s a high you feel when a horse is in full motion,” he explained, a high that keeps him in the saddle despite multiple broken bones and three staples in his knee.
“I’ve gotten hurt so many times, but that’s the game,” he added. “I don’t have to do it; I choose to do it. When you get close to the horses, they’re like family, like your kids. I go into Flameaway’s stall, and he starts searching in my pockets for candies. He knows I always have them for him.”
Garraway doesn’t even want to contemplate a life different from the one he’s got.
“I don’t ever want to not be able to do this,” he says. “I’ll always be around horses. When they retire, we go to the farms they’re at and look for them. We get so attached to them.”
At Saratoga and the dozens of Thoroughbred racetracks across the United States, the horses are the raison d’être. Their care and safety are the priority of the stable workers, the trainers, the security guards, the people who direct cars, the exercise riders, the starting gate crew. Concern for them can supersede concern for backstretch employees; it’s easier to raise money to help horses than it is to help the people who take care of them.
Yet despite the peripatetic lifestyle, uncertainty, and low pay, the risk of illness and accidents, discrimination and other hardships, backstretch employees stick with it. Some do it because it’s all they know, some because they are creating a better life for their children and families, and others because it’s their best and only option. But many stick with it simply because they love it.
“That feeling you get when your horse wins,” says Omar Delcid, the young foreman, standing outside the barn one morning after the end of training. “No money, nothing can compare to that.”