Sometimes a Great Notion…A Community Called the Backstretch

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Belmont Child Care Association benefactor and board chairman Michael Dubb enjoying a quiet moment with the children at Anna House. Photo by Michael McWheeney.
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Shannon Aburto and her sons Blake and Cash, with her horse Ruby Dusk at the stables on Saratoga’s backstretch, where Shannon works. Both boys attend the Anna House programs at Belmont. Photo by Cathleen Duffy.

In a well-known photograph published by the Knickerbocker Press in 1934, horses are led up Circular Street past the Batcheller Mansion to the Saratoga Race Course. Before there were fancy trailers to transport Thoroughbreds, they had to be disembarked from trains and led across town—an annual procession that gave visibility to the very backbone of the racing industry, the hardworking backstretch workers who are the first to arrive and the last to leave the track. We sense their arrival in early spring as the horse crossings on Union Avenue are once again stationed with guards, but we rarely consider the impact they have on the industry that is so crucial to the local economy. Without the backstretch workers, there could be no “meet.”

 

In the 1980s, reports of inhumane living conditions on the backside of race tracks throughout the nation gave rise to several service organizations. Stories of squalid conditions swept the media, particularly regarding Saratoga, the nation’s oldest and most lavish setting for racing. In 1989, the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) was founded to provide free health and social services including medical care, insurance, transportation and substance abuse programs for workers at the New York Racing Association’s three tracks: Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. The Race Track Chaplaincy also began serving track employees by offering both spiritual and social programs including non-denominational religious services, recreational activities, holiday celebrations for workers and their families, and outreach to the entire racing industry. At Saratoga, retired Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, who “found the calling,” can frequently be found ministering for the chaplaincy. In grand style, Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson created the Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation Program, currently in its ninth year, offering a full calendar of fun events and catered dinners for the families of the backstretch.

 

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Cash Aburto at the bilingual childcare program funded by Anna House at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Saratoga Springs. Photo by Cathleen Duffy.
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From left, camper Tatiann Jennette, volunteer Virginia Passaniti and camper Sandra Garcia, with Jenn Veitch, program coordinator, standing, at New Life Fellowship in Wilton. Photo by Cathleen Duffy.

Most recently, the Center United for Support of Backstretch Workers, codirected by Marcia Pappas and Doris Spell-Acosta, opened in the basement of 24 Circular St. (Nolan House). This dynamic duo opened a free store to help track workers with medical assistance, immigration questions, and family concerns of any nature. Their mission is to “support and improve the lives of the Saratoga Race Track backstretch workers…” Their associate Phyllis Frederick volunteers as the store’s Acquisition Chair and has worked to assist track workers for over nine years. They hope to fill any cracks that may exist in the system for workers and consider their venture “one stop shopping” for people at the track.

Dormitory conditions have improved, yet the $29 million budgeted by NYRA for building new lodging is slated for Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga Springs. The few new dorms are equipped with air conditioning and are slightly more spacious, but the hope remains that more units will soon be completed at Saratoga. A visit to the backside will reveal a number of the older dorms in need of attention, though air conditioners have been added in several. Hendrickson, who served until recently as Governor Cuomo’s advisor to the board, and NYRA Board Member Michael Dubb have expressed concern for the length of time it is taking to get the job done. Both continually show a commitment to the well-being of track workers, and an understanding that any entity is only as strong as its weakest link. Strengthening every link is the key to success.

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Natalie Rutigliano, an outrider at the track, with her sons Agustus and baby Maximus, and rescue horse Fabio. Natalie uses Anna House while at Belmont, but hires a babysitter at Saratoga as there are no centers that care for infants at 4:30a.m. Photo by Cathleen Duffy.

The backstretch is a world unto itself that few venture to experience. It is not the glamorous spectacle we conjure when we head for the race course. Although tours are offered during the racing season, only an extended visit can relay the full spectrum of devotion required to get just one horse to the finish line. The grounds follow a seemingly never-ending duplication of barns and dormitories categorized by trainer. The colors and emblems for the trainer mark each stable, and each stable has its own league of backstretch workers. The hierarchy descends from trainer to assistant trainer, foreman, assistant foreman, exercise rider, groom, hot walker and stable worker. While technically all work on the backstretch, only the bottom half of the crew are commonly thought to be “backstretch workers.” They work from 5 a.m., seven days a week (breaking after the morning workouts when possible), often for as many as 12 hours a day and live in dormitories adjacent to the barns they serve.

When we think of backstretch workers, the images of Latino men may come to mind, not women and children or families. But the truth is that although the majority of workers these days are Latino, the backstretch is a multi-cultural community. And it is a community that includes children (who are not allowed to stay on the backstretch). A few families interviewed have chosen to live in the area year-round, although they still work the NYRA circuit. But the vast majority cannot afford to do so or prefer to live downstate. The one common problem they face is childcare. Imagine needing a babysitter at 5 a.m. If one were to be found, imagine the cost. The notion of having to leave children in the car or unattended in order to barely scrape by is heartbreaking and unimaginable, yet one mother who was found to have brought her children into her room on the track was immediately thrown out and had to live in her car. These are the stories we do not hear— the sacrifices that no one should have to make or endure. We must “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” wrote Margaret Meade. Such a group of citizens included “winningest” jockey Jerry Bailey, who went to Michael Dubb to help remedy the situation.

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From left, Jonathan Herrera, Arron Mogrovejo, Kimberly Cano and Sebastian Munoz in fireman-and-Spiderman gear at St. Paul’s Christian Childhood Center in Saratoga. Photo by Cathleen Duffy.
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Sandra and Rosa Garcia and Tatiann Jennette pull purple taffy at New Life Fellowship in Wilton, while their parents are all working at the track. Photo by Cathleen Duffy.

In 1998, the Belmont Child Care Association (BCCA) was formed. While in its planning stages, Eugene Melnyk donated $1 million to the endeavor. In 2002 Dubb, board chairman of BCCA and founder of the Beechwood Organization (one of the largest homebuilders in the U.S.), built Anna House and donated it to the BCCA to serve the families of the backstretch. Named in honor of Melnyk, whose daughter Anna was then two years old, Anna House opened its doors on Jan. 1, 2003. In January 2010, Dubb expanded the center with the two extensions to meet the needs of the backstretch families.

Anna House provides childcare for children from infancy to kindergarten and operates 365 days a year from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., with additional after-school care, tutoring programs and special activities. “I think it’s the happiest place in racing,” says Libby Imperio, president of the Anna House board. “It makes you feel so joyful.” She shared that Anna House has been working with Michele Riggi, who will be contributing dance classes at the National Museum of Dance to the children of the backstretch workers; the program will include children up to the age of 16. Until this expansion of activities, there was no programming for teens.

Anna House is run and accredited under Bright Horizons Family Solutions, the largest provider of employer-sponsored child care in the country. Director Joanne Adams shared that Anna House serves 75 children in the Early Childhood Education program and another 40 youngsters in its after school and preschool programs, both at no additional cost to the family. The “Kids Helping Kids” hands-on community outreach project teaches children the importance of giving back.

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Bilingual teachers, from left, Emylie Montalv, Christy Albertin and Rebecca Young stand behind Kimberly Cano, Aaron Mongrovejo, Johnathan Herrera and Sebastian Munzo at the childcare program funded by Anna House at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Saratoga. Photo by Cathleen Duffy.
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Making cookies, from left, are Kimberly Gonzalez, Diana Fierros-Garcia, Kayla Figueroa, Crystal Garcia and Allanna Holley at New Life Fellowship in Wilton. Kayla, 12, has attended the camp since second grade, while both parents work on the backstretch. Photo by Cathleen Duffy.

BCCA’s commitment to backstretch families extends to their time in Saratoga: it currently spends $20,000 funding child care programs in Saratoga Springs during the meet. Dubb expressed the desire to meet the needs of families while in Saratoga, but shared that many of the NYRA families choose not to come to our meet. Dubb says that he is “ready, willing and able (to establish a satellite location here) when we can quantify exactly what we need.” He stated that a lot of people leave their kids at home when they are upstate, making it unclear if there is truly a need. Imperio, the board president (who is in Saratoga for the entire meet as an owner), says that the board has investigated a few possible site locations, but have found “nothing that is quite right.” Currently BCCA funds child care at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Lake Avenue for young children and also helps to fund the activity program for older children run by Nick Caras of the Track Chaplaincy. Each week the older group spends time at various local attractions or programs.

A visit to the early childhood classroom at St. Paul’s Christian Childhood Center at the end of the 2015 meet found a group of youngsters actively engaged in a bi-lingual classroom— enjoying activities and playing happily with one another. They were comfortable and engaging, sharing their names by way of animated introduction and sharing their toys, inviting this visitor to join in the fun. The center’s director, Christy Albertin, gave a tour of the center which includes a grassy outdoor play area.

Likewise, the visit to the Chaplaincy’s final week of programming at New Life Fellowship on Old Gick Road was big fun. Jennette, a wannabe disco queen, was tirelessly attempting to outdo the girls in a disco video, and groups of youngsters were playing games in the main area of the church. Jen Veitch, who supervises the program, was in the kitchen with a group of older girls who were whipping up a vat of cookie dough. The young pastry chefs had grown up as “track brats,” many of them traveling to Payson Park in Florida, as well as the NYRA tracks. Kayla Figuerra, a 12-year-old who has been involved in the Chaplaincy program since second grade, was very self-assured and spoke proudly of her father, Luis, who is a foreman and her mother, Tricia, both with Bill Mott stables. Kimberly Gonzalez, Diana Fierros-Garcia and Allana Holley all shared their stories of growing up in a backstretch family as they bounced to the serenading radio beats. Veitch shared that the group “really is a family. They spend the summer together every year and really look forward to seeing each other.” She “really enjoys it” and is glad that the “kids are taken care of when their parents are working all day long, having the safety of knowing that their kids aren’t just hanging out.”

One of the mothers whose children attend both Anna House and the summer programs here in Saratoga shared her story. Hailing from Pennsylvania, she loved the country and horses and wanted to work with the ponies. She shared her feelings of being overlooked when searching for assistance because she is not Hispanic, in addition to the restrictions that the track has placed on women with children. Anna House was a real lifesaver for her and her two children, she said. She could not give enough accolades to its pre-school program and the superb services and is very happy that programming in Saratoga exists.

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Anna House Daycare Center. Image provided by Anna House.

Another backstretch mom, Natalie has been a NYRA outrider since 2007, and started out as a pony girl 15 years ago. Again, the love of horses keeps her married to the track. She also retrains retired Thoroughbreds to become pony horses. Natalie is the mother of two children, a five-year-old and a young infant. She is in Saratoga from April to November and at Belmont from November to April (the yearly routine for many of the workers). She loves Anna House as well: “It is one of the best facilities I have ever been to… (and) will take care of your babies at six weeks old.” Her toddler loves it as well. During the months in Saratoga, Natalie must use a babysitter, as there are no centers that care for infants, particularly starting at 4:30 a.m.

The backstretch is filled with allure—and passion for the sport and the Thoroughbred. Pat, a woman who was promoted to foreman at Bill Mott Stable, shared that she came to the track and fell so madly in love with the horses that she went to the backstretch and offered to volunteer mucking stalls—anything to be around them. She eventually quit her professional law career to work on the backstretch and has climbed the ranks from stall-mucker to assistant foreman. While she kept track of every detail of the morning routine, we watched the procession of Thoroughbreds cool down from their morning workout. As a local, housing had never been an issue for her, nor did she have to deal with any culture shock other than going from working in an office to working in a barn. Her enthusiasm and love for her work was infectious. When asked if she experienced any disparity as a backstretch worker in the industry, she shared that she had only good experiences, as her fellow stable workers were busy walking, washing and caring for the horses.

Although Thoroughbreds no longer are paraded through town, evidence of their presence is all around. The traffic crawls on that stretch of Union Avenue. Track workers ride bicycles laden with grocery bags through town. Efforts continue to create a day care center similar to Anna House in Saratoga for the families of the backstretch workers.

Belmont Child Care Association’s 19th annual benefit, “Cirque du BCCA,” was be held at the Hall of Springs in the Spa State Park on Aug. 24. Visit belmont-childcare.org for more information.