Two projects took on extra meaning this spring for Saratoga Race Course Facilities Manager Peter Goulet.
On Friday afternoon, he led members of the media through one of two dormitories for backstretch workers that are being renovated in advance of this summer’s meet. The project is a $500,000 investment by New York Racing Association to improve conditions for backstretch workers, who otherwise would spend the summer in hot, outdated dormitories that are adjacent to the horse barns.
“I’m very excited for the grooms,” said Goulet, as he stood over an expanded bathroom that resembled one at a freshman dormitory. “This is a better quality of life.”
Both dormitories will be completed by July 1 and will house 48 people. The upgrades include locker room-style bathrooms attached to the one-story dormitories, which have new siding, doors, lighting, windows, electric basedboard heating and air conditioning.
NYRA board special adviser John Hendrickson was particularly proud of the air-conditioning units in each bedroom. He noted that previously it wasn’t safe to install air conditioners because of outdated wiring in the old dormitories, which would regularly reach 100 degrees.
The conditions in the dormitories have resulted in criticism of NYRA and trainers. Recent efforts by NYRA and trainers to improve the lives of backstretch workers have been recognized throughout the industry.
Hendrickson said an additional goal was to create a home away from home for workers, who in many cases are spending their summers at Saratoga away from friends and families.
The renovations were driven in large part by the efforts of Hendrickson and
his wife, Marylou Whitney, who actively lobby on behalf of the backstretch workers and spend time organizing functions for them in the summer. Once NYRA began receiving gaming revenue from Resorts World Casino, Hendrickson was vocal about directing some of that money toward backstretch improvement, which is the case with the renovated dormitories.
“They deserve better,” Hendrickson said.
He also credited NYRA board member Michael Dubb with making this possible.
There is still a lot of work to do to improve the housing at the course, which is home to about 1,000 people during the peak of the meet. Hendrickson said they would like to renovate 10 more dormitories for next summer.
Goulet wouldn’t speculate on the likelihood of completing the ambitious plan, but said that some aspects of the project would take less time than it took with the first two. “We’ll have the fall of 2013 and the spring of 2014 to get more done,” he added.
Hendrickson also has his eyes set on creating a small kitchen area for the workers, who now cook outside and wash dishes in their bathroom.
This summer will also see a continuation of the events sponsored by Whitney and Hendrickson for the backstretch workers. The multi-millionaire couple can regularly be found hobnobbing with workers after the day’s racing is over. In 2010, Whitney announced the end to her summer gala so she could focus on these efforts, which will be in their sixth year this summer.
Hendrickson said this summer’s activities for the backstretch workers will include more ice cream socials, thanks to donations from Stewart’s Shops. New to this year’s calendar will be wrestling demonstrations and they’re expanding their English classes because they’ve been so popular.