The biggest day of the year, and just another day at work
Elmont, N.Y. – On Saturday, June 7, New York’s Belmont Park will open its gates to a not-so-familiar kind of herd. An expected attendance of 100,000 plus will flood the park for the 146th Belmont Stakes, hoping to see California Chrome make history as the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years. Many of these people have never been to Belmont (nor will they return), and this is fine with their hosts for the afternoon. No, not the horses who could probably care less, but rather the hundreds of men and women making up the “backstretch” community – those who care for the horses, track, and the grounds which will host this prestigious event.
The workers will arise long before their guests. They will likely report for duty before some ticketholders even go to sleep, taking the their positions for earlier-than-usual 3 a.m. shifts and preparing for what is both the biggest day of the year and just another day at work. They are the groomers, the feeders, the exercise riders, the stable custodians, and they make the operation run behind the bright lights of the horse racing stage.
Behind them are the caretakers’ caretakers, an organization for whom behind the scenes is the scene. Along with Chaplain Humberto Chavez, program director Nick Caras, and a host of others, the Race Track Chaplaincy of America New York works to ensure that members of the backstretch – they often refer to themselves as a family – do not go neglected or unnoticed.
A Family of Faith
The RTCANY is a faith-based and non-profit organization focused on the spiritual needs of the racetrack’s unsung heroes, and on a Wednesday afternoon less than two weeks before the Belmont Stakes they are taking a team photo on a soccer field. The field lies at the end of one of Belmont’s narrow and twisty roads, where nearby a dump truck is re-arranging horse manure.
Among their many services (childcare, field trips, and food and toy giveaways during holidays) the RTCANY hosts a soccer league to help give backstretch members a break from their routine and enhance their community. On this day, the previous year’s winners of the New York league made up of backstretch workers are receiving their championship jackets.
“Many people are away from their families, so we try and show them somebody cares for them” says Caras, who has been with the RTCANY since 1991. Caras pulls up to the soccer field in a Chaplaincy van, greeting and joking with the Belmont workers who are here today either to play or watch their friends and family.
“We’re that trusted brother in the family,” explains Chavez, who similar to Caras is deeply rooted in the racing community. He’s held the position of Senior Chaplain for the past 11 years, and reinforces that although the RTCANY focuses on assistance through prayer, that is not their only emphasis. “They can come to us and we won’t discard their religious background or their financial background,” he says.
The Chaplaincy has served many purposes since its New York division was established in 1986 to serve the Saratoga, Aquaduct, and Belmont tracks. Long hours and lonely nights are commonplace for workers here, who are often supporting families on low wages, sometimes families who are thousands of miles away. The RTCANY can’t fix this, but even field trips to the beach or movie theater can make some difference.
Edward Escobar, or “Flaco” as he is referred to by his racing family, has seen the impact the RTCANY has had since he arrived at Belmont in 1995 as a parking attendant. He credits the Chaplaincy-hosted excursions and the child day-care as two of the most impressive changes, and says the organization has made life both easier and more enjoyable for him and his family.
When asked how conditions were before these programs began, he simply states: “No trips, no fun.”
Escobar will be up bright and early on Saturday; he is now an exercise rider, and says the Stakes will bring a manageable excitement to the track. There is of course competition amongst riders and those working in different stables, but at the end of the day they are one community no matter what.
As players huddle together for their photo, Caras and Chavez hustle over to join. Wearing a loose-fitting team jacket is a man who only sticks out because of his jeans and lack of soccer cleats. It is Edgar Prado, Hall of Fame jockey and two-time Belmont Stakes winner who now helps to sponsor the soccer program.
“These people … they put in so much time to this business and all we can do is [give] something back to them,” says Prado.
Prado takes pictures and speaks with everyone gathered around, some of whom he’s gotten to know already during his 15-year racing career.
The Same Community
As excited as many Belmont employees will be for the Stakes, some may not even be awake after having worked all day to watch the running of the race just before 7 p.m. local time on Saturday. No matter who wins, tomorrow is another day at the track – one with much less fanfare, but the same family feel, same work to do, same community.
“There’s a lot of glamour and glitz that goes along with the race for the upper echelon,” says Caras. “We want to show the people that work every morning at four o’clock or four-thirty in the morning that we respect them and we thank them.”
Understand the Lingo
Triple Crown: An award for winning three victories by one horse in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. The last time this award was given was 1978. This year California Chrome is up for the title.
Backside: Refers to the area adjacent to a racetrack where the horses are stabled and stable employees have temporary living accommodations. When referred to the race track employees, this term is commonly interchanged with “backstretch.”
Hot Walker: The main responsibility of a hot walker is to walk the horses, specifically after a race or workout to cool the horse down. They may also be required to give the horse a bath, aid in supporting the overall wellness of the horse and keep the barn area clean.
Grooms: Grooms provide daily care and maintenance for the horses. Their responsibilities may include preparing the food and water, grooming and bathing, or administering first aid.
Exercise Rider: An exercise rider is responsible for riding racehorses in workouts according to the instructions of the trainer. This is a position that requires both experience and skill.