JC / Railbird


On the Backstretch

I tweeted last week about working on the backstretch at Suffolk Downs and Saratoga several years ago, something I’ve talked about here and there before. My time as a hotwalker was a rich experience — I’ll always be glad I did it, not least because it gave me a glimpse behind the scenes and another perspective on racing that still informs my involvement as a fan and bettor.

What led to the thread on Twitter was trainer Gary Contessa’s quoted remarks from the Albany Law School’s Saratoga Institute on Equine, Racing, and Gaming Law Conference. “Nobody in America wants this job,” he said of working on the backstretch and the need for immigrant labor. I wanted to push back on the idea that the fault mostly lies with workers, which is how the issue often seems portrayed to me, letting owners and trainers dodge responsibility for working and living conditions that can be onerous.

I expanded the tweets into an opinion piece for the Thoroughbred Daily News, and now that it’s out there, I have a couple of things to add:

I refer to “passion” toward the end in a half-formed thought. Embedded in that mention was a criticism of how the word gets (ab)used, and not just by people in racing — “passion” for work is everywhere these days, and it sometimes gets twisted to mean that if you’re passionate about work, you’ll tolerate every demand it makes, which is handy for employers — reject some terms, and the problem isn’t with the work, it’s with you, and your lack of passion.

If anything comes of writing this piece, I hope it’s that more stories about working on the backstretch get told, from all different perspectives — major circuits and big barns, small tracks and family-run operations, immigrant and non-immigrant. I also hope it might lead to a constructive conversation about working conditions, backstretch culture, and resources for workers.

Ride of a Lifetime, In the Morning

Spare a few moments in praise of the exercise riders who gallop Kentucky Derby contenders, often from the start of their racing careers:

As is the case with grooms and hot walkers, these individuals are not listed on the official race chart, or in the program, or in most of the media coverage leading up to or following the big event. There will be no trophy or postrace TV interview on a national network for the one whose horse wins the Derby. Ask how they feel as they gallop their charges beneath the Twin Spires, however, and every one of them will tell you — in the days leading up to the big event, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.

All the Prescriptions

The New York Times is out with its latest piece in an investigative series on American racetracks, and this time, it’s veterinarians under scrutiny:

… in the shed rows of America’s racetracks and at private training centers, racehorse veterinarians often live by a different code — unique in the veterinary community — one that emphasizes drugs to keep horses racing and winning rather than treating soreness or injury through rest or other less aggressive means, according to dozens of interviews and a review of medical and regulatory records.

“It’s a simple equation,” tweeted turf writer Nick Kling on the story. “Either you favor the drug culture which props up US racing, or you oppose it.”

This could be the bright side of industry contraction: With fewer racehorses and fewer racedays, the economic pressure to run horses year-round could be reduced, meaning more rest and less reliance on drugs.

Breeders’ Cup Scenes

Photos from the first half of Breeders’ Cup 2011 week at Churchill Downs …

Gio Ponti takes in the early morning track activity.

Midday (center) and company return from galloping.

Turallure pauses at the top of the chute.

Goldikova heads to the track.

Goldikova kicks up her feet a little. Harmonious is at right.

Trainer Freddy Heads talks to the press after Goldikova comes off the track. He confirmed that the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Mile would be her final race. Asked what he hoped for on Saturday, he replied, “I want her to get a good run.”

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, outside his barn with retired Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day, reminisces about Breeders’ Cup races past.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile contender Creative Cause plays around during his bath.

Flat Out in his stall. He looks sweet, doesn’t he? As though he’d like you to come over and give him a pat. I would have, but was warned off — apparently he’s a biter. Even trainer Scooter Dickey gets nipped by the big horse.

“Go Scooter! Go Scooter!” Well wishes for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Havre de Grace gets a mint from owner Rick Porter.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile favorite Union Rags, out to graze.

Game on Dude exits the track after galloping.

Outside Bob Baffert’s Churchill Downs barn.

And for a little fun! The Breeders’ Cup Classic contender cartoons.

Kentucky Derby Week

Kentucky Derby hats

Bob Baffert

The big training board

Sway-backed Sway Away

Nick Zito talks, Dialed In walks

Wagner’s Pharmacy

Racing’s Working Class

Unappreciated. Endangered.

PowerCap responding a New York Times piece on the Big A:

I contend that Aqueduct holds a different type of charm. Certainly in this world there are diverse experiences and tastes — especially in New York. Aqueduct is a remnant of old working class New York …

The New York Times on NYC OTB workers facing their future:

After that, she said, she would have to find another job soon because merely maintaining her health insurance would cost almost $500 a month. “I’m good at everything,” she said, rattling off her qualifications. “I can serve food. I can run a register. I can stack boxes. I can baby-sit kids.”

From John Scheinman’s report on uncertainty in Maryland:

“I think it’s kind of a shame what they’ve been doing so far,” said jockey Forest Boyce…. “The most amazing thing about this industry is they employ all levels of education, from people who just got out of jail to people that graduate from Yale.”

The Washington Post on the last day of racing at Laurel:

There are 85 trainers with 969 stalls at Bowie and 68 trainers with 1,059 stalls at Laurel Park. “There’s going to be a lot of unemployed, homeless, helpless people with nowhere to go,” says Pickett, 30, who was one semester shy of a law degree when she chose to work with horses full time.

If Churchill CEO Robert Evans’ 10-year business model for racing is right, we’ll be reading more of these stories in the near future as the industry contracts.

Cry of the Little Guy

From the Boston Herald: “What a difference a day makes, huh? … What a difference a day makes. All those million-dollar horses and fancy suits, and look what happens. I thank God he won. I thank God he won.”

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