In addition to enhanced unemployment benefits, $600 stimulus checks, and renewing the eviction moratorium, Congress’ most recent $900 billion coronavirus stimulus bill included some unrelated surprises. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state hosts the Kentucky Derby, added a last-minute rider called the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act. The act would improve the welfare of thoroughbred horses by ending the practice of medication abuse, which often leads to horse injuries and deaths. Additionally, Congress extended tax breaks for the racehorse industry that would allow all racehorses to be claimed as depreciable property over three years, translating to tax write-offs of up to $500,000.
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Yet, despite Congress’ concern about the welfare of thoroughbred horses, they have all but ignored the plight of the frontline backstretch workers who are responsible for their training and care. They have spent months facing down coronavirus with little financial or public health support. Backstretch workers are predominantly immigrant workers from Latin America and the Caribbean. Many live on-site with other workers, often crammed two to a room with the kitchen and bathrooms shared communally. Yet, many of the workers who care for these prized animals subsist on low wages despite the fact that in New York State alone, where the famous Belmont Park is located, the thoroughbred industry generates more than $2 billion in annual revenue. And when COVID-19 arrived, they weren’t ready.
Since immigrating from Chile in 2002, Caroline Klicey has spent most of her time in America working at Belmont. As a hot-walker, every morning she would take thoroughbred racehorses out for morning walks to stretch out their tense muscles before a race. The work is challenging and the pay is low but, in addition to her husband’s income, the $450 she earns a week is sufficient enough to raise her four children comfortably.
The track is also more than just a place of work; it has become her community. Most of Klicey’s friends are also backstretch workers, she met her husband at the track, and her children frequently spend time at the track after school and on weekends. Prior to the pandemic, she found it hard to imagine a life away from the backstretch.
“Everyone who works here is like a family. We treat each other well. In the morning everyone greets you with a smile. It’s a beautiful thing to work there.”
Yet, when the pandemic forced New York to temporarily shut down live racing last March, many backstretch workers like Klicey, who took great comfort in their “recession-proof” jobs, suddenly found themselves out of work and on food pantry lines.
“Early on it was really difficult for us. My husband was laid off for a few months and I had to stay home with my kids. We lived off our savings but getting food was difficult, but thank god for the food pantry, we got through it.”
As the pandemic spread like wildfire throughout the New York City metro area, Belmont’s backstretch community proved to be a ticking time bomb. About 800 people are employed at Belmont’s backstretch, with nearly 600 workers living in dormitories on the property, where the cramped quarters created the perfect environment for the virus to propagate. At the peak of the virus, between March and April, 100 backstretch workers were infected.
In response, The New York Racing Association (NYRA) suspended all racing at all New York State tracks in March until it was able to contain the virus. Joe Appelbaum, President of The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen Association (NYTHA), an organization representing horse owners and trainers, found himself with the unprecedented challenge of mitigating a possible public health catastrophe as well as maintaining animal welfare.
“We were presented with a very difficult challenge because it’s not like college dorms where they just shut the doors and send everyone home,” he said. “These are these guys’ homes or their permanent residences might be in Mexico or Guatemala. Plus you had a horse that needed to be cared for.”
Although racing was temporarily suspended, some backstretch workers continued to be employed, as care for the animals was deemed an essential service. But with no races scheduled, workers like Klicey who prepared horses for races were left without work altogether. For those who were still employed, many had subsidized their wages with second jobs at the track, such as concessions. With live racing suspended, and many unable to collect economic recovery payments due to their immigration status, those workers were forced to find other means of supporting themselves.
Karen Chavez, the General Manager of NY Race Track Chaplaincy, which provides services for the backstretch community, saw a sharp spike in need of their services. Chavez saw the toll the pandemic was taking, firsthand.
“When racing was temporarily canceled, financially it was tough for many of the families,” she said. “We saw a lot of men and women with panic attacks and anxiety disorders. Our food pantry services grew from 60 families to 360 families in just a couple of weeks.”
Since last April, NYRA has been able to rein in the virus, with no new cases currently among backstretch workers. Still, they are not taking any chances.
“NYRA is following all New York State Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance regarding social distancing,” said Patrick McKenna, Director of Communications for NYRA. “Facial coverings are mandatory for anyone on the property.”
With the virus under control for the most part, in June, racing resumed throughout New York State, albeit without crowds in the grandstands. In turn, horseracing saw a minor resurgence in popularity. As the pandemic initially brought most professional sports to a halt, with many players such as in the NBA choosing to opt-out, horseracing was able to fill the void. On the first five days racing resumed, Belmont handled $76,264,891 in online wagers, an 84 percent increase from last year. On its opening day in June, Belmont’s handle of $10,972,254 set an opening day record, topping the previous record of $10.7 million from 2010.
Still, with the money rolling in, the army of immigrant, low wage backstretch workers continued to labor behind the scenes with little public recognition. As owners enjoyed federal tax breaks and the horses benefited from increased safety regulations, workers continued to endure low wages, occupational hazards, and wage theft, without the added benefit of hazard pay. However, many are reluctant to work anywhere else. Despite its flaws, the backstretch offers an opportunity for a close-knit immigrant workforce who have few other options; like five million other essential workers, many are undocumented.
Caroline Klicey proudly describes the intimate connections workers have formed with one another in the backstretch. When one worker falls sick, others will bring them soup. When one needs to borrow money, another will be quick to help. Marriages, christenings, and Quinceañeras are performed regularly amongst the stables full of horses. With workers hailing from Central and South America, on the backstretch they form a vibrant mosaic of cultures, creating its own unique cultural identity. Admittedly, Klicey acknowledges that the pandemic has brought with it challenges she had never foreseen, but she’s adamant that because of the culture of self-reliance fostered at the backstretch, they were able to get through it.
“At the backstretch, we always take care of our own.”