Belmont Park Race Track gives back
A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Hofstra University’s Pulse Magazine.
With its first race in 1905, the Belmont Park Race Track, located in Elmont, on Long Island has become synonymous with multi-millionaires, high stakes, and the glamour of the upper echelon. Outsiders looking in, are unaware of the true “backbone” of the racing industry. Behind the notoriety of the “Champion Track” there are the hundreds of employees cleaning, grooming and training the multiple prized horses.
While fans get caught up in the numbers and the history of the track, the behind-the-scene backstretch workers are often overlooked and forgotten. “Backstretch,” refers to the area adjacent to the racetrack; where horses are stabled and where many of their caretakers live in temporary housing. “Backstretch” is the term coined to describe workers within the racetrack that go unseen. Backstretch employees, number more than 1,500 and are predominantly immigrants from South American countries including Mexico and Guatemala. Upon arriving in the U.S. they speak minimal English, and work 7 days a week, starting as early as 3:30 A.M. Hours include holidays and sometimes over 50 hours a week.
Executive Director of the Backstretch Employee Service Team, Paul Ruchames, provides health and social welfare support for Backstrech workers. Ruchames explains that Belmont’s backstretch jobs mainly look desirable to workers coming from labor-intensive backgrounds in economically declining countries.
“The economies of those countries are really struggling,” said Ruchames. “So this looks like a great opportunity even though no Americans will come here because of the opposite.”
Working long hours, almost every day of the year may not seem optimal to the typical American worker, but for immigrant communities, this job is an opportunity to provide for their families, making them dedicated employees and an integral component of the racing community.
“They are the backbone of our industry,” said Joanne Adams, Executive Director of Belmont Child Care Association, Inc. “If they’re not up walking the horses, feeding the horses, getting the horses ready for training, washing them, and really looking after them, then where are we?”
Backstretch workers are vital to the track by caring for the horses of a multi-million dollar industry. Although workers are vital to the industry, it does not mean that they can make ends meet often. Many backstretch workers are commonly paid less than $400 per week, leaving little funding for food and childcare.
In response, the track has created programs to help backstretch workers in need. Employees are offered free housing on the 430-acre, racing, training and barn complex. Family members of backstretch workers are not allowed to stay on the property. In response, resources like the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, New York Division provides much needed assistance to workers’ loved ones.
Chaplaincy members including Program Director Nick Caras, has built relationships with the backstretch employees, and believes there is a need to provide a variety of helpful resources. Caras and his team help employees’ families find proper clothing, access to a food pantry, recreational activities and field trips to NYC.
“We holistically take care of the entire person,” said Caras. “We take care of the immediate needs, like getting them clothes, and then doing events to add to their lives, and at some point maybe introduce them to Christ, but they can do with that what they want.”
The backstretch workers seek help from the Chaplaincy division in creating a supportive environment for their families. The Chaplaincy works closely with both B.E.S.T and the BCCA to assist the workers financially and listen to what the backstretch community needs to improve their overall quality of life.
Under Adam’s direction, the BCCA’s state of the art, million–dollar child care facility, Anna’s House, is working to support the health of the younger generations of the backstretch employees. With parents working the majority of the day and little access to day care programs, Anna’s House provides a solution that is a step up from babysitting.
“There is an early invention here that these children would not be getting at home,” said Adams. “Some children would otherwise be sleeping in a car all morning. Their parents have no resources so we have to be there for them.”
With early childhood education and enrichment programs for infants to children 5 years old, Anna’s House is a resource catering to children who often cannot speak or read English. One goal of Anna’s House is to help the children of backstretch employees catch up to the English-speaking kids that they will encounter in the future. By teaching children numbers, letters and good hygiene, the BCCA is a support for these kids whose parents are busy working on the track.
“It’s amazing,” says Adams.“You feel that you can offer these kids at least a start that
they would otherwise not have. It’s really fulfilling to see them grow and learn.”
Anna’s House is continuing education with after–school programs for elementary and middle schoolers. It has expanded its efforts to include yoga, chess, outdoor programs, family based events, holiday dinners and toy drives.
“I think it’s incumbent upon those involved in Thoroughbred racing to help and over-see the care of workers, and especially their children,” said Adams. “It’s so important to the racing industry that we all take the time and look after them to make the effort to help the families as best we can.”
Still, the backstretch community is commonly unseen to those outside the inner workings of the New York Racing Association. They are the quiet gears of Belmont, working day in and day out to keep the superstars of the track in premium condition, furthering the history of New York’s great racing tradition.
“I don’t think anyone in the industry would oppose that they are the backbone here,” said Caras. “They are dedicated, caring, loving people.”