Patricia Leigh Brown/California WatchA mural created by backstretch workers hangs in the recreation hall at Golden Gate Fields.
Like many other grooms at the Golden Gate Fields racetrack in the east Bay Area, Miguel Rodriguez lives in the shadows of the stables. Along with his wife, Olivia, he sleeps in a bunk bed in a drafty tack room redolent of straw and manure, just around the corner from the horses he skillfully and devotedly tends.
The lives of workers on “the backside” of the track – Latinos from Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru – are anonymous and grueling. Theirs is a seven-day-a-week job that can begin at 3:30 or 4 in the morning and end with the last race at 6 p.m. The grooms, foremen and “hot walkers” – known as backstretch workers – collectively feed, bathe and exercise 1,100 or so thoroughbreds. They saddle them, bandage their legs, apply liniment to sore muscles, walk them to cool them down after a race, shovel their manure and lay their straw beds.
It is a low-paying occupation largely without vacations, holidays and sick days, though those who live at the track, with its communal bathroom and shower facilities, do not pay rent. Backstretch work carries considerable physical risk, from kicks or bites from the horses to broken ribs and torn rotator cuffs.
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In a health study published last year, anthropologist Heide Castaneda of the University of South Florida noted high rates of alcohol and drug use and significant barriers to treatment, among them low wages and poor housing and work conditions. Backstretch workers are paid by individual trainers to tend to their horses, meaning they could lose income if a horse gets injured or moves elsewhere.
For some of the 400 or so backstretch workers, especially those far away from their families, the mood can be “muy baja,” or very low, observes Julio Duenas, an assistant chaplain at the track. “They’re tired, and when there is nothing to do, they go and drink,” he said. “They put it in that empty space,” he said, tapping his heart.
To address those empty spaces, the track is engaged in a new culturally based pilot project to help ease depression, social isolation and substance abuse. The approach has been spearheaded by Belinda Hernandez Arriaga, a social worker who specializes in Latino mental health issues.
“It’s a seven-day-a-week job, so they can’t go out into the community,” Arriaga said. “So we’ve brought Mexico and Latin America to them.”
Drawing on the rich Mexican tradition of muralism that inspired Diego Rivera and so many others, Arriaga proposed an autobiographical mural be designed and painted by the workers. Some supervisors at the track were dubious at first.
“Because of the machismo, we thought there would be little interest,” said Charles Dougherty, a deputy director of California Thoroughbred Trainers, the association that represents licensed trainers. “I was surprised it caught on as quick as it did.”
Arriaga was brought in as part of a $50,000 preventative health grant for underserved communities awarded to the city of Albany; Golden Gate Fields is now funding the program through the end of the year. Forty-one backstretch workers, mostly men, worked communally on a 4-by-15-foot mural that now hangs in their rec hall above the pool and foosball tables.
Each image tells a story: Ismael Fernandez, a 36-year-old groom, painted a rendering of Lake Chapala, on the border of Jalisco and Michoacan, and the villages surrounding it.
“My hometown is on the other side of the mountain, near the lake,” he explained.
Irineo Serrano imagined faith in symbolic form: a man walking alone down a long road that leads to a wooden cross, a dark sky in the background. Jose Salazar, from Guatemala, illustrated the Guatemalan flag and a resplendent Virgin of Guadalupe.
“Each country has its own traditions, beauties and strengths,” he said. “So we learned about each other.”
The program has been expanded to include traditional folkloric music and dance classes taught by Cibrino Galindo, a master artist.
Robert Hartman, vice president and general manager of Golden Gate Fields, said previous mental health outreach efforts at the track, including 12-step programs, did not spark the kind of participation the cultural arts program has, which he said could be replicated at other tracks.
“Culture is an entry point into mental health,” explained Arriaga, who works for UC Berkeley’s health services and also treats migrant farm worker families in Half Moon Bay. She notes that for these adult workers, “emotional development can be compromised due to trauma, including crossing the border.”
“They miss home, or the lake they can’t see,” she said. “The traditional model of counseling or therapy is not going to work with them. So this opens the door. It gives them a voice that many of them have lost or don’t know they have.”
Living conditions scrutinized
Nationally, the housing and living conditions of backstretch workers have been the focus of repeated legal and civil rights cases. In 2008, a New York state labor investigation of the famed Saratoga Race Course found that more than 1,275 workers had been underpaid by trainers. The Labor Department wound up collecting approximately $600,000 in wage underpayments from 110 trainers, as well as $60,000 in penalties.
In 2004, the HOPE Fair Housing Center in Wheaton, Ill., filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development about overcrowded barracks-like conditions for backstretch workers with families at Arlington Park, in suburban Chicago. The end result was $6 million worth of new housing at the park.
California has nearly 4,800 backstretch workers, said Kevin Bolling, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation, a nonprofit that runs on-site medical and dental clinics for stable workers.
“It can be lonely and isolating, even with the community,” he said.
Beyond those pressures, the future of Golden Gate Fields itself – the last major racetrack in Northern California after Bay Meadows closed in 2008 – has been uncertain. The site is owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., a Canadian-based company founded by auto parts billionaire Frank Stronach. The company also owns Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles.
The prime location along the San Francisco Bay shoreline, straddling the cities of Albany and Berkeley, is one of six being considered for a second campus of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Earlier proposals to develop the site for retail, entertainment and lodging met with strong community opposition.
Horse racing itself has been waning: A survey [PDF] released last month, commissioned by The Jockey Club, found that only 22 percent of the general public has a positive image of the sport and that the number of race days has declined 14 percent since 2000.
“Twenty years ago, every single stable was filled with horses,” said Rodriguez, who has been a groom for 35 years. “You care about the horse because the horse gives you an opportunity to support your family. To me, it’s a beautiful job.”
Joanne Wile, an Albany City Council member and retired psychiatric social worker who applied for the grant and found Arriaga, said backstretch workers are largely hidden from public view.
“People think of the city as middle class,” she said. “But these are stories that need to be told and a group we need to pay attention to as a community.”
California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.