A Dark Day For Racing
The Needle & the Damage Done
Definition of a Handy Workout
Definition of a Breezing Workout
Rolling with the Wiseguys
Mucho Trabajo, Poco Dinero
The Day the Music Died Biography
In the late sixties, you could scramble search the cold, dusty cement floor under your tack room cot for your payday bottle of whiskey, then freely pour the remaining taste into your first large styrofoam cup of steaming black track kitchen coffee. This coffee balm would enable you to be seen hotwalking your barnís first set at 5:30 A.M., sipping from the cup cradled in your left palm while your right hand held a leather shank connected to a halter around the head of the thoroughbred you walked.
The first set (5:00 A.M. to 5:30 A.M.) of blanketed horses on the walking ring consisted of warriors from your stable who had had either a recent workout or race, or who had sustained minor ailments. Thus, they were not scheduled to return to the track for either light training (backtracking or galloping) or hard training (workout) but rather were brushed off by their grooms, recovered with their horse blankets, had the poultice hosed off their front legs, and sent to the walking ring first thing in the chilly morning. If it was 1970 at Hialeah, and if you were a green hotwalker but had gotten your first backside job because your trainer paid only $68.00 a week for walking seven horses a day, then raking the shedrow and walking ring after training chores were completed (11:00 A.M. to 11:30 A.M.), then dividing the afternoon load of walking the racers from your stable, holding for the vet and blacksmith among the seven hotwalkers in a 42 horse barn, seven days a week. . . you saw many a mumbling cranky morning drunk walking around at 5:30 A.M.
By ďgreenĒ hotwalker, I mean that when I went to look for my first job backside I walked up to the security booth and told the guard that I was looking for work as a hotwalker. He realized that I was green because I didnít have a license or the racetrack ďsuaveĒ to take the normal route to employment for someone unlicensed at that meeting: jump the fence that surrounds Hialeahís stable area and then go barn to barn among the 60+ trainers sharing forty barns asking for work. So, the security guard said just stand here near his booth. Everyone must pass his guard shed and flash a valid horseracing license to enter the backside barn area. If any stable needed help, they would come to the guard shack to see if anyone was lounging there looking for work. The guard figured Iíd scram after waiting an hour or two.
It so happened that the first trainer for whom I was to hotwalk had just informed his angry crew that if they could find a hotwalker for $68 a week (which was the lowest pay for the highest number of horses hotwalked among the 60+ trainers), he would hire that hotwalker to relieve the crew of the tremendous workload of six hotwalkers taking care of 40 some horses. So what occurred next was directly attributable to the ethnicity of the workforce which at that period in horse racing on the east coast was roughly 60% African-American and 40% Caucasian, a grouping not attracted by the meager salary. And so, a member of the Dimauro barn came to the guard shack looking for a body with working legs no matter how green. That's how I got my first job.
I was hanging with a professional gambler named Grandstand Jack, at the start of the 1977 winter horse racing season in Florida, when he declared we were packing up and going to California for the winter, since a big gambler couldnít operate in the dwindling mutuel pools in the sunshine state anymore. Once I arrived in California, I caught on with a visiting eastern trainer, named Sonny Hine. We won the Malibu Stakes with a horse named Cojak. We shared a barn at Santa Anita with a California trainer. I kept seeing black-haired figures, sliding low with their brush box from one stall to another without standing, and closing or opening the webbing that fronts a horseís stall but crawling under the webbing from one stall to another, dragging their brush box, then disappearing. They wouldnít low ride under the webbing from stall to stall when you were hotwalking a horse under the barnís shedrow in front of the stalls they were about to exit or enter, since this would startle the horse, but would wait until you were by and the row was calm to low ride under the stall webbing. So, I was always just getting a backward glimpse.
Working as a stranger for a new outfit in town (as a new hotwalker is likely to be), then developing a question about a local outfit that wasnít even mine (but with which we were just sharing the same shedrow and barn), I felt leery of asking questions about the low riding tactics of the California trainerís Mexican grooms. I remembered that when I was green in Florida, Iíd kept seeing a female hotwalker go in and out of an empty stall. Iíd thought she was going to the bathroom there to save time, since the restrooms were a hundred yards from the barn, and your tack room, and at night sometimes a female would use an empty stall rather than take a 100-yard walk to the restroom. I was so green! It turned out she had a fifth of liquor hidden in a corner of the golden bedding of straw in the vacant stall. I kept hearing the word "wetback"* from Sonnyís groom, and would overhear them saying the "wetbacks" rubbed five horses a day, thus they didnít even have time to stand and open and shut the webbing that fronts a horseís stall when moving from stall to stall. Sonnyís grooms were only rubbing three horses a day but making more money, too! Sonnyís grooms would only sleep two to a tack room; the "wetbacks" would sleep at least four to the same tack room.
A year later, I went back to visit Keith Stucki in that same barn at Santa Anita to see Ancient Title eating donuts and drinking coffee. All the grooms and hotwalkers were Mexicans. In the 1980ís in California, the workforce living on-track was 80% fresh-Mex.
All that hotwalking develops big hunger, but with those wages you canít afford frontside concession food, and spend most days (except non-racing ones) either frontside (gambling or using the clean restrooms) or backside (working and sleeping). And Hollywood Park has a balmy summer climate, whipped by the cool ocean air, that heightens that hunger. There was a Mexican lady who, after the races, was always chopping tomatoes, cheese, cilantro and meat and cooking from a pan on a hot plate in a tack room where her family lived, and tossing the ingredients into a corn tortilla warmed on another hot plate. So, I was enjoying this immensely until trainer Jones ran a horse that was rapidly hammered down several levels in odds as the gate sprung which required thousands of on-track dollars being bet. The horse won and tested positive for drugs.
So the ruling came down that the lady who had run the taco stand out of her tack roomís husband had groomed that particular horse of Jonesís that tested positive for drugs, won, and was hit at the windows. Subsequently, he, his wife, and those hot plates were sent back to Mexico.
Trainer Charles Whittingham, who throughout his bicoastal career never varied his crewís churn of African American and Caucasian grooms and female exercise riders, explained to me once that the shifting ethnicity over the years of the work forceís living backside was due to one group no longer wanting to do all that work with pride. That would be when another was brought in.
Finally, there was the experienced Mexican groom, who in the late 1990s was only rubbing three, lived in a tack room backside, yes, but purchased a home in Mexico from his grooming wages and stakes, and only bet when it was his barnís turn. He had no bank account in the U.S.A. All his money was sent home. He was treated to a day off and only bowed when he was forced (before he would be handed his paycheck) to sign a weekly statement saying that he NEVER worked over forty hours a week, when in truth he put in sixty. Then came the day when his barn shipped four horses to Northern California for several weekend races and sent several members of the barnís crew with them. So the barn was short a few people for a few days, and the Mexican foreman asked the grooms to hotwalk their horses if things backed-up, with too many horses returning from morning training needing to be hotwalked. The Mexican groom refused. So, the foreman (who had been approached almost daily by Central Americans in need of work visas and places to live and work where English wasnít spoken and willing to juice the foreman for those privileges) summoned two Guatemalans to stand outside the stall doors of the proud Mexican groom, who thought he had benefited from his and his peoplesí years of toiling backside. The foreman threw two shanks onto the shedrow in front of the stalls of the two stake horses that the uppity Mexican was rubbing and loudly proclaimed so all with the pride willing to do the extra work could hear, ďEither you walk those horses when told or either of these two gladly will and rub your three.Ē
In the year 2000, on the west coast, nobody is hired from the guard shed, or even by hopping the fence and walking barn to barn. But relatives who speak fragmented English hide in tack rooms, hungry for job openings. The foremen are getting fat with kickbacks; far fewer workers are drinking or gambling, but instead sending money home. The ethnicity of the backstretch has changed to 60% Central American, 5% African American and Caucasian, and 35% Mexican living backside of a racetrack.
My career as a hotwalker ended in the summer of 1999 at the Del Mar racetrack. I wasnít denied access to the dusty backside, since I knew Fish, who manned the guard shed on Durante Blvd. and gave me a visitorís day pass. The trainer, whose office desk I was sitting in front of, showed me love by sliding an unopened pink donut box toward me. These donuts were a treat provided by a jockey agent whose jockey was aboard a winner for that barn the previous afternoon. The trainer then told me he could no longer hire my "breed" (Caucasian). In fact, he didnít even handle the hiring and firing in his own barn anymore, but let his Mexican foreman do all the hiring and firing. The foreman, he said, favored Hispanics. The trainer spoke little Spanish, though, so a new hire could go a year without communicating with the trainer, even living twenty feet from the trainerís barn office. The chain of command in spoken English would go from the trainer to the foreman (usually a Mexican with twenty years backside) who would translate it into Spanish for the barn crew on the ground. The only English was between the trainer and the foreman.
That is why the jobs are so dear to people from Hispanic countries. You didnít need to speak English. That an American who spoke English should work outside this non-English work zone was one of the first Hispanic rulings that came down. The amount of work a recent immigrant will provide, in the comfort of this non-English zone, if given free housing and a work visa, is such that one trainer flew several members of his barnís crew in a private plane from Del Mar to L.A. at the end of one summer of racing at Del Mar to avoid the I.N.S. checkpoint at San Clemente.
Iíll miss a morning of walking horses then strolling to dog beach at Del Mar to body surf. Then, while still drying-wet, walk back to the Del Mar grandstand combing my hair and knocking the sand off my shorts. By the time you arrive at the paddock for the first race, youíre a cool, damp-dried for a day at the races where the "Surf Meets the Turf." However, I will not miss that danger of working around a high-strung thoroughbred whose kick carries such a force that it could turn any part of your body with one blow from a potato into mashed potatoes; especially in a hostile ethnic environment. That had been on the trainerís mind when we talked.
A tack room has a cement floor, one bulb in the center of the ceiling for lighting, wooden pegs on the wall to hold the halters and bridles and saddles and webbing and blankets and feed tubs and rakes. Throw in a few twenty-five pound bags of carrots, oats and a coffee machine. It was designed as a room to store your barnís tack and equipment under lock overnight. Now, it is being used as housing and a form of housing that is increasing in demand as the ethnicity of the workforce shifts. And the restrooms, now asked to handle a larger load. I couldnít locate a picture of a tack room. Maybe Martha Stewart will do a show on cooking from a hot plate in a tack room. Otherwise, I donít think youíll ever see a picture of a tack room.
"The conditions were unreal," said San Mateo City Councilwoman Sue Lempert. "There were rats and vermin. It was not American housing. It was Third World housing.... They had a roof, but little more than that." "*this term was used by a person in the story and its use is in no way condoned by the author, web designer, or host of this site."