Backstretch beauty: Track life minus glitz, glamour

Fifteen worker in the Saratoga Race Course backstretch have taken photographs of the early-morning a
Bright colors and wild styles are part of Saratoga’s afternoon scene in this photo by Carole Williams.
Bright colors and wild styles are part of Saratoga’s afternoon scene in this photo by Carole Williams.

A navy blue suitcase hangs on a laundry line near a backstretch apartment at Saratoga Race Course.

Sneakers, work shoes, an umbrella and a bottle of blue mouthwash are on the sidewalk. So is a handful of rust-colored leaves.

Sigrid Wallace knows the story behind the photograph. Autumn is coming; someone has washed and aired out the suitcase, and is preparing to leave Saratoga for another season.

Wallace knows the story because she knows the life. As a backstretch worker — one of the people who walks, rides, bathes and grooms thoroughbred race horses — she is an expert on sights few people see.

‘A View from the Backstretch’

WHERE: National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 191 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs

WHEN: Through Dec. 31

HOW MUCH: $7; $5 for students and senior. Children 5 and under are free.


Fifteen of these experts have taken photographs of the early-morning and late-afternoon routines. Their candid camera work is on display in “A View from the Backstretch,” a new exhibition at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. Sixty color photographs are on the walls of the von Stade gallery. Among the images:

— The rising sun is a bright yellow dot in the lightening sky. Morning has come to the Oklahoma training track, and a giant tree on one side of the photograph and a lone rider on the other side are still covered by the dawn darkness. A narrow sliver of red light is reflected in the metal rail that runs the length of the track.

— Horse and rider are on the track — but only their shadows. The images are captured in the brown surface of the training track.

— An exercise rider’s tools — protective helmet, horse blinders and a bridle — hang on nails on an office wall.

— A section of green hose lies on the pavement and looks more like a roller coaster track, looping here and there on its way to a wash pail or horse.

— Doors on a multistall horse barn are all open. Occupants have gone to work on the grounds or have traveled to other tracks.

The project began when Dona Ann McAdams, a longtime photographer who lives in Arlington, Vt., teamed up with Karen Wheaton, the education curator at the museum, for a class teaching photo skills to Girl Scouts. They thought another plan — utilizing eyes from the backstretch — would be another worthy endeavor.

“I’m a teacher; I’ve been teaching for a long time,” McAdams said. “Whenever I work in a community and start a documentary project, it’s always my goal to not try and take the pictures for the people, but actually get the people to do their own photography. I’ve done this before in other communities.”

She secured funding from the Workforce Development Institute and the Charles Lawrence Keith and Clara Miller Foundation and permission from the New York Racing Association. Soon, 15 backstretch workers interested in photography were issued small cameras and taking closer looks at the horses, people and equipment they saw every day. They took hundreds of rolls of film, beginning last May and shooting through November.

“I wanted film because I wanted them to be able to take the pictures out and lay them on a table and look at them,” McAdams said. “Looking at a digital photograph on a computer screen was just impossible for the kind of teaching we were doing. First of all, not everybody has a laptop, not everybody has access to one. So the film made a lot more sense to me because we could just have it processed, get back pictures and lay them out on a picnic table or the hood of a car, wherever we were meeting.”

Wallace is married to Dave Wallace, a trainer and assistant trainer who works with trainer Tom Albertrani. She walks horses, and runs a blanket repair service for the horse crowd. “There’s not that many in the summertime,” said Wallace, who splits her time between Saratoga Springs and Hobe Sound, Fla. “In the winter, probably hundreds of blankets.”

Labor of love

She was glad to start taking pictures.

“This is a way of life; there’s a labor of love involved,” she said. “You’re there seven days a week, so if you always have a camera, you’re going to capture some good lighting in the mornings and evenings.”

Wallace knows why people like photographing horses — the animals are both powerful and beautiful. She preferred inanimate objects for subjects, like her husband’s riding gear. “There’s a beauty in them, as well,” she said.

Heather Coots, 38, of Saratoga Springs, has been an exercise rider for trainer John Parisella for the past four summers. She had an artistic eye before the McAdams project, as she studied fine art in college and worked briefly for Fisher-Price and Walt Disney as a sculptor.

She liked working with shadows. In one of her photographs, the back of a horse’s head is in the foreground, ears pricked up. He’s heading down a horse path near the Oklahoma, and shadows from a row of spruce trees have fallen across the path in a diagonal pattern. “That’s what I see every day, I’m just able to capture it,” Coots said, adding she also had to think creatively when carrying her camera on horseback. “I kept it in my cleavage,” she said. “That was the only way I could hold onto it without it falling out. When you’re galloping, you don’t have a pocket to put it into.”

When she saw something she liked, she held the camera with her right hand and held the reins with her left. Since beginning photography, Coots said she’s noticed more about the backstretch. “I definitely see a lot more when I look now,” she said.

McAdams knew her students would come up with winners.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” she said. “I knew they would be good, I knew that once they were empowered to be able to just photograph whatever they found interesting . . . it’s what I always say, you can photograph anything, anything that’s interesting to you.”

The photographers, who also included Louie Garcia, Alvin Davis, Frank Fodera, Shannon Geiser, Salvador Hernandez, Veronika Laciokova, Steve Lockett, Maximino and Esperanza Nolazco, Paul Perry, Chris Stephens, Kenny Streicher and Carole Williams, came up with unique perspectives. Fodera, who has worked on the race course grounds for 25 years, shot most of his pictures through the windshield or through windows of his truck.

“That’s what his view is,” McAdams said. “His view from the backstretch was through his truck. He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Genius, good idea.’ I really encouraged him to do that.”

The 42-year-old Garcia, who lives in Gansevoort, has been walking and grooming horses since he was 11. He thinks people who see the exhibit will see another side of the Saratoga racing experience.

Beyond the glitz

“There’s more than just the glitz and glamour,” he said. “There’s the people, the horses, the riders, the jockeys going out. But there’s a scene behind the game that’s a lot better, I think.”

People who know the backstretch, he believes, know where the best pictures can be taken. “I know where the sun comes up and where the sun goes down,” he said. “I know what time it comes up at this side of the track, what time it comes over at the other side of the track.”

One Garcia photo shows the quiet shed row. Another shows a paper cup full of coffee sitting on the hood of an expensive, sporty car. One of Garcia’s favorites wasn’t even taken at the race track. It’s in a local supermarket, and shows a rack full of doughnuts.

“Doughnuts are what you get after you win a race,” he said. “Jockeys, when they win a race, they’ll bring doughnuts. It’s a tradition, long tradition. Some jockeys do it, some don’t, it all depends on who they are.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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