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Part 3: Backstretch workers are track's backbone

Part 3: Backstretch workers are track's backbone

From the Immigration series series
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Editor’s note: This is the third of a four-part series appearing Sundays on immigrants who are living in the Glens Falls region.

SARATOGA SPRINGS — The backstretch at Saratoga Race Course is a sprawl of green barns with lush summer flower planters hanging from eaves, stacked bales of soft, fresh hay, some horses peering from open stable doors and workers grooming, bathing, riding and walking others.

Early in the morning, there is a buzz of activity as the day begins long before spectators place wagers on their favorites or long shots to win, place or show.

And on Wednesday, the 6:30 a.m. air was jacket-cold as the Rev. Humberto Chavez, the track chaplain, delivered his morning devotional over loudspeakers for workers starting their day.

“We are readying for a good work day. They work really hard and this gets them moving, it’s an inspiration,” Chavez said.

About 1,100 workers, many in the U.S. on temporary work visas, live on the backstretch for the summer meet. And some stay a bit longer, working through fall at the Oklahoma Training Track, also at Saratoga.

While it is a transient population, many skilled backstretch workers have been coming to Saratoga for 15 to 20 years, often employed by the same owner or trainer.

Carl Domino, who owns C.J. Domino Horse Racing Stables, talked about Solomon, who has been with him for 17 years.

“He knows there will always be a job for him,” Domino said Wednesday morning.

“And there’s Gerry,” Domino said, waving to a man hot-walking Harry, one of Domino’s 12 horses at the track for this meet. “Gerry’s a hot walker and he’s been with me for 16 years. He got his papers and now he’s an American citizen.”

Nonetheless, if the proposed Republican immigration plan, endorsed by President Donald Trump, passes Congress, these specialized workers may no longer qualify for work visas. According to the legislation introduced by Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, potential immigrants would be judged by a system that ranks them on salary, advanced degrees, English speaking skills, ability to afford health care and U.S. market need, before being granted entrance into the country.

“The backstretch workers are important to us and they are highly skilled. You can’t just take them off the street,” said Saratoga Mayor Joanne Yepsen. “You can clearly see they have a relationship with the animals and they are critical to the horse industry here.”

Yepsen works with the Economic Opportunity Council.

“EOC works with the Latino community, aiding them in what they need,” she said. “We are working with them to help assimilate; we added a bus stop at the backstretch.”

Specialized work

The backstretch workers are the cogs who keep the meet going day after day. They assure that horses are safe, they feed and bathe them, they wrap their legs, they walk them to the paddock, they hose them off after a race, they hot-walk them until they cool, they pick their hooves, muck their stalls, lay fresh shavings and straw for them to rest, they blanket them, comfort them by whispering in their ears, they brush them and alert trainers and owners of budding problems.

And perhaps most of all, they’ve got racing in their blood and love for the horses in their hearts, and that’s what keeps them going on those long, hot Saratoga days.

“Many do it because they want to help their family back home,” Chavez said. “And they have a passion for the sport, a passion for the horses.”

Chavez said a large percentage of the backstretch workers are Latino and come into the country on either an H2B visa for non-agricultural temporary workers or a P1 visa for skilled workers.

Most of the grooms, hot walkers and some exercise riders have H2B visas, but because their work is so specialized, exercise riders also qualify for a P1 visa, he said.

“We partner with the Horsemen’s Association and New York lawyers to help the workers with their immigration needs,” Chavez said while riding through the backstretch in a golf cart. “We are making sure they get the right information from immigration and their lawyer.”

Chavez continued.

“We had five get their citizenship this year,” he said.

That’s not to say everyone who works at the track is here legally, and because the worker population changes all the time, Domino said, “there’s always a few bad apples that spoil it for all. I don’t know what the answer is.”

Domino said one of his guys got in trouble because of a lawyer. And Chavez added that some workers have paid for services they never got.

“Years ago, they used to get a visa so they could stay here for six or nine months,” Domino said. “Under this administration, that has changed ... I try to do the right things. I make sure they go home ... I tell them to go home to their family and come back next year.”

Since Trump took office, immigration rules have tightened and some things that were often overlooked by immigration officials are now tightly enforced, said immigration lawyer David Meyers.

“Some people are in the U.S. unlawfully but have taken steps to ask for political asylum,” Meyers said. “In prior administrations (presidents Obama and Bush), when they applied for asylum, the government left them alone. Now they are getting picked up.”

Chavez said he talks to workers and tells them that if they have stuff in their past, they should get it taken care of. And he said the chaplaincy program, along with the Horsemen’s Association, is there to help them wade through immigration issues.

Pay and getting help

While it varies by owners and trainers, generally workers are paid according to the number of horses they care for or ride.

One groom is responsible for about three horses and they are paid about $150 a week per horse, said Jim Hooper, who co-owns Haven Oaks Race Horse Farm in Fort Edward with his wife, Sue. At Haven Oaks, they raise and race thoroughbreds.

“Freelance exercise riders get about $20 for every ride,” he said. “Contract riders only ride for one trainer and get a flat rate of about $700 a week, but maybe about 50 rides.”

The backstretch is a village, a community of people living and working together. As in all villages, there is a mix of people and a mix of employers.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Labor investigated backstretch worker complaints about pay and hours at the Saratoga track. The Labor Department computed that hot walkers were underpaid by an average of $71.65 each week and grooms by $82.31. Since that time, the cited trainers have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution, according to a release from the Labor Department.

In 2014, panelists at the 14th annual Saratoga Institute on Racing & Gaming Law said wages and living conditions had been significantly improved, with major construction and renovations to employee living quarters.

Hooper said because the larger barns can offer contracts, they generally get the best help. “The legal workers migrate to the big barns and the undocumented try to hide, working with the little barns.”

This year, the Hoopers have 20 horses living at their Fort Edward farm, including retired graded stakes winner Inherit the Gold, who now runs to the fence for peppermint candy treats instead of the finish line.

But they have only one horse, a 3-year-old filly, Courageous Change, at the track.

Because they do not want to hire undocumented workers and can’t pay what the big barns pay, they do their own groom and stall work and hire a freelance exercise rider to get the filly ready to race.

Each day, after working the night shift at a job about 40 minutes away, Jim goes to the track to feed, bathe, walk and groom Courageous Change. Sue comes to help, although she has about 20 other horses to care for at their farm.

Jim said they have a tenant who lives at the farm who sometimes helps and another groom who has worked with them for many years.

As with the backstretch workers, it’s obvious how much they love their horses. They are patient and attentive, as if they had the whole day reserved for just one horse. Jim always has gentle words to offer and a few peppermints in his pocket, and the horses can count on Sue for ear rubs, leg wraps and patient walks.

“We always do what’s best for the horse,” Jim said.

A few years ago, the Hoopers’ dear friend and exercise rider was riding Inherit the Gold. But an immigration issue landed the rider in jail when he was picked up by ICE while taking a Greyhound bus to Ohio.

Sue went to Albany and posted a $5,000 immigration bond to free him. But to this day, Jim can’t tell the story without having to stop for a moment to fight back emotions. “He is such a good man,” he said.

“He was my right-hand man, he is like my brother,” Jim said. “We traveled together and I trusted him with my horses. When he called and said, ‘I’m in jail,’ I was shocked.”

Next Sunday, read about the immigration ordeal endured by the Hoopers’ exercise rider, threats of ICE raids at Saratoga Race Course and the legal side of immigration.

Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli is a features writer at The Post-Star. She can be reached at kphalen-tomaselli@poststar.com for comments or story ideas.

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