Most people in Saratoga Springs know that racing begins at 1 p.m. at Saratoga Race Course, but for the hot walkers, grooms and exercise riders, their day begins as early as 3 a.m., before the sun has even risen and almost 10 hours before the first race goes off across the street.
These are the backstretch workers.
The first backstretch workers arrive at Saratoga in April as the snow begins to melt. They leave in November. At the peak of the racing season, nearly 2,000 workers are employed in the backstretch, with about half of those living in on-site dormitories.
The work that these employees do is hard. It is highly physical and can be dangerous. In addition, many also lack access to health care, counseling and other basic necessities, said Backstretch Employees Services Team Executive Director Paul Ruchames. He said that this is where B.E.S.T. comes in.
“B.E.S.T.'s mission is to help with the social and physical welfare of the backstretch workers,” he said.
As part of their efforts, Ruchames said, B.E.S.T. works to ensure that the medical needs of the employees are met. The organization even runs a small clinic on the grounds of the track so that workers have easy access to basic medical care.
“We help with medication and we also provide help in getting health insurance,” he said.
If an employee needs care that cannot be provided at the clinic, B.E.S.T. will arrange transportation so that they can receive the care they need.
B.E.S.T. also seeks to ensure that the employees of the backstretch have other basic necessities, such as proper clothing. The organization operates a free store where workers can pick up items they need, like twin bedding, blankets and clothes like jeans, boots and sneakers.
Linda Pommerer has been a volunteer with B.E.S.T. working in the free store for three years. She said that she volunteers because she feels that there would be no racing at Saratoga without the backstretch workers.
“We do this just because we want to give back to those who keep Saratoga busy,” Pommerer said.
In addition to providing the men and women of the backstretch with basic necessities, the organization also seeks to provide them with recreation. This is something that the community of Saratoga has stepped up to help with.
Ruchames said that once a week, the workers are provided with a meal from Panza's restaurant at the southern end of Saratoga Lake. He said that with the help of volunteers, they serve the meal like they might in a restaurant.
“The idea is to give the workers recreation and make them feel welcome,” Ruchames said.
Most of the backstretch workers come from other countries, such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, to name just a few.
Most have left their families in order to earn money to support them. Ruchames said that most of what the workers make they send home every week.
“Most of them do this to help their families back home; it’s noble in a way," Ruchames said.
A former backstretch worker who wished to be identified only as Bracero said that being away from his family was the hardest part.
“It was hard to be separated from them for six weeks, but the racing industry is like that,” he said.
Bracero no longer works in the backstretch and he, his wife and family now live in Saratoga Springs. Five of his children now work in the backstretch. He said he volunteers his time to help current backstretch workers in order to give back.
According to Ruchames, B.E.S.T. is funded in large part by the New York Racing Association and the New York Thoroughbred Horseman Association. He said that donations and the work of volunteers are key in making what they do possible.
Among their supporters is track announcer Larry Collmus. Every day during the third race, for a $100 donation to the organization, fans can watch the race with Collmus.
Anyone interested in the above opportunity or in donating gently used clothes to B.E.S.T., especially blankets, twin bedding, jeans and shoes, can call their offices at 516-587-3720.