By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
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Others spend their winters in Florida, at tracks like Gulfstream Park, Palm Beach Downs, and Payson Park, as well as at horse farms in South Carolina. Because track attendance has declined in this age of Internet gambling, Indian casinos, and questionable marketing tactics by the horse-racing industry, a few have had to pick up work, parking cars and working elevators at Aqueduct during the winter. Still others just wander the Belmont backstretch while they wait for the next job.
Their children may have a different future. The center—catering to 50 preschoolers ranging in age from six weeks to five years—runs on a $960,000 annual budget, largely subsidized by owners and prominent trainers. This is apparent as soon as one enters the building and confronts a large mural paying homage to trainer Woody Stephens's Belmont winners—Conquistador Cielo, Caveat, Swale, Crème Fraiche, and Danzig Connection—and an atrium donated by owner Betty Moran. On a Monday morning, teacher Jasmine Torres—the daughter of an assistant trainer and hot walker—blows bubbles below a painting of Barbaro, the late Kentucky Derby winner whose owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, contributed $250,000 last year.
A set of twins sleep deeply on matching beds, an understandable circumstance given the fact that the toddlers were roused from their home in the middle of the night. In another room, Chilean-born Solange Olivares, the wife of an exercise rider, swabs down a changing table with a box of wipes.
Although the majority of the staff is bilingual, the kids are encouraged to communicate in English. It's only a matter of time, the reasoning goes, before they'll also speak the esoteric lingo of the racetrack. On a brisk Saturday at Aqueduct, for instance, a visitor hears about the "chalk," or favorite; "holy ghost," a horse that manages to win three times; and a "Woolworth," the rare occasion when the No. 5 horse comes in first, followed by the No. 10—as in "five and dime."
Despite the sparse turnouts at the track, the first-floor clubhouse offers a multi-sensory blend of foreign accents, cigarette smoke, and pointing fingers, as gamblers leap and shout at the races broadcast on large, indoor screens. Upstairs, handicappers seat themselves at "mini-theaters," small tables where they can spread out their paperwork, formulate statistics, and dissect the conundrums of the turf.
Other protocols dominate downstairs in the jockeys' room, where the silks man—named for the equestrians' getups—washes and dries the muddy garments and hands them off to a valet, who hangs the items beside each rider's whip, boots, and saddle.
As for the tradition of working in this closed world, Marta Hernandez, a 42-year-old hot walker—she walks horses to cool them down after workouts—hopes that the track may not be her children's destiny. She has two kids, one 15, the other four and a pupil at the day-care center. "My little one knows a lot of things my older one didn't," she says in Spanish, running a rake through the dirt, amid the dogs, cats, and roosters, near one of the backstretch's 63 barns. "He'll go into school speaking English."