SARATOGA SPRINGS – It is sunrise at Saratoga Race Course. On either side of Union Avenue, the work of tending to the horses by members of the backstretch community is already underway.
Here at the barns, many will work through the morning. For some, there is a mid-day break before returning for a few more hours of work in the late afternoon and early evening. Others have second jobs at the main track across the street. They work in food service, as parking attendants, or among the cleaning crews.
It is a routine much like any other year, but in the summer of 2019 the normal rhythm of the week is different. For racing fans, racehorse owners, trainers, managers, and the community of backstretch workers who live temporarily on-site, an adjustment is underway.
Saratoga as a thoroughbred racing mecca was inaugurated in August 1863 on the north side of Union Avenue as a four-day meet. By the early 1900’s the length of the meet was extended to five weeks, the dates mostly congregated during the month of August. Overall, there were 24 such days in the 1960s as the Northway extended through the Spa City. Three decades later the number of race days incrementally increased: first to 30, then 34, and eventually 36. For the 2010 season, the New York Racing Association expanded racing days in Saratoga from 36 to 40 racing days – which is where it remains to this day. The racing goes on six days a week. Tuesday had been designated as the “dark” day off.
In February, NYRA announced it was adjusting the racing dates for both the 2019 Belmont Park spring/summer and the Saratoga summer meet. The adjustment was made to accommodate the construction of an arena for the National Hockey League's New York Islanders at Belmont Park. This week, Michael Anderson of the website Fansided, reported that groundbreaking for the arena will get underway after Labor Day, with a completion and opening for the start of the October 2021 hockey season.
The opening of the Saratoga meet, which typically has started July 20 or later, this year began July 11. The number of racing days – 40 – remain the same. To compensate for the extended time in the Spa City a second “dark” day was added, extending Tuesday’s typical off-day to Monday and Tuesday each week. The changes, at least at this point, appear to be temporary.
“It’s been a learning experience for us and for the people and for the agencies to learn what are people going to do and where are they going to be,” says Nick Caras. Caras helps coordinate events and activities, among other things, for the backstretch community as programs director of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America’s New York Division. “But, so far, I haven’t seen one person who doesn’t like the two days off. Not one,” he says.
Mother Nature has also provided her own kinks. Two weeks into the meet, live racing was shortened to four races due to heavy rain on July 25, and the entire racing card was cancelled July 20 due to excessive heat.
The NY Racetrack Chaplaincy assists with the challenges facing the community of backstretch workers and their families, and helps provide resources to address those challenges at all three N.Y. racetracks, providing extensive programs and daily one-on-one meetings and counseling. The backstretch community numbers more than 800 people.
“Right now people are just getting accustomed to the two days off, there’s no norm yet,” Caras says. This is only week two, so people are still testing the waters: what do I do with these extra days? I definitely see a lot of that.”
Eduardo Roa works in the jockey silks room. He has used the extra day off to take a ride to Cooperstown with three of his friend, as well as make it back home downstate and see his family. “I’ve been coming to Saratoga a long time, maybe 20 years or more,” Roa says. “It’s a very big difference between last year and now. The six days of races (in the past) was a lot. To have two days off, now I can go back home to the Bronx and see the family.”
“We feel more comfortable now with two days off,” says worker Fausto Morrocho, who spent some down time in the backstretch Recreation Hall, flanked by a quartet of pool tables, a foosball game and ping-pong table. Twenty chairs sit in a semi-circle aimed at a pair of wall-mounted TVs, framed by a two vending machines: one dispenses candy snacks, the other, sodas. A posted sheaf of paper tacked to the wall announces the Monday night soccer tournaments in red hand-written marker.
“I’ve been coming up here 16 years now,” Morrocho says. ”The two days off are nice because we can go back and see our families. My family - my wife and my step-daughter – are back in New York. So, it’s much better. And it helps the riding work with the horses.”
“This week, with the extra day off from the horses, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association paid for a bus for 55 people to go to New York. In the past, with one day off out of those 55, that may have been one person who was able to go back,” Caras says. “They’re able to schedule their day off and go home. So right there that’s a big difference.”
About 70 percent of the Saratoga backstretch population come up to work from the Belmont and Aqueduct areas, says Caras, who has been involved with the Race Track Chaplaincy for several years and previously worked for NYRA for more than a quarter-century. “They’re loving the extra day off. Whether they get to go home, just sleep an additional 10 hours or go shopping. Eight people I know of went over to Brown’s Beachand another group of people went up to Lake George. The biggest difference this year with years past is they’re doing things more – even recreation – with a relaxed frame of mind.”
Backstretch activities include soccer games on Mondays and learning English as a Second Language on Tuesdays and Thursdays – the latter run by Saratoga EOC. John Hendrickson and the late Marylou Whitney helped create backstretch programs that this year run through August. The backstretch calendar depicts trips to the bowling alley and the rodeo, bingo games, a cruise on Lake George and a series of Sunday dinners that range from Italian to Mexican and a night of hot BBQ.
Downstate racing with days off is a different scenario because the majority of the backstretch community people are home, Caras explains. “When you’re at Belmont or Aqueduct you’re home. You have familiar surroundings. You know where you’re going to go to shop, where you do your laundry, you know where the eateries are and when things are open, so the lifestyle and our role in activities is much different at Belmont and Aqueduct than it is here, because that’s home base for 70 percent of the people. And when you’re home base, you’re a lot more self-sufficient. While we still pitch in and create activities, it’s not as necessary,” he says.
“Our Chaplaincy in New York is located in all three racetracks. As a matter of fact, right now I’m fine- tuning a trip today that’s going to leave Belmont and Aqueduct and go to South Street seaport and they’re going to ride that speedboat called The Beast,” Caras says. “Last week, 55 people from both those racetracks, families and those who work there, went to Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night. We received some free tickets for that, and the Horsemen paid for the bus. On Thursday, 55 people went to Coney Island and used the beach. Friday night the families gathered, and there were 25 kids at a soccer clinic at Belmont. So, there’s still stuff going on down there, because while Daddy may be up here working, the majority of the families and kids by far are still there.”