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.