Belmont Park's Backstretch Plays Home To a Most Unusual Day-Care Center

Is there a stranger location for a day-care in New York? Don't bet on it

Just beyond the stable gate at Belmont Park, within earshot of the galloping fillies and disgruntled gamblers, 2,000 employees labor on the racetrack's backstretch. Secluded on 400 acres by language and the peculiar codes of the track, they muck out the stalls, shove the horses into the starting gate, and hold the animals' legs as fresh shoes are nailed into their hooves.

As a rule, they speak Spanish and begin the day at about 5 a.m. Because so many have children, this presents a monumental problem. After all, there aren't many day-care centers on the border of Queens and Long Island that accommodate workers adhering to farmers' hours.

Until recently, the children were left to fend for themselves, hanging out in cars or trainers' offices, or sitting home and watching novelas with older siblings, who'd miss school themselves. Another option—according to Donna Chenkin, director of the Belmont Child Care Association—was being wedged into "illegal babysitting" arrangements, accompanied by a dozen or so other kids and one weary overseer with little incentive to teach.

A little horseplay from Angel, son of hot walker Marta Hernandez. More photos from the day-care here.
Staci Schwartz
A little horseplay from Angel, son of hot walker Marta Hernandez. More photos from the day-care here.

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Then, in 2003, Chenkin's organization started the first day-care center on the grounds of an American racetrack, opening the doors at about 4:45 a.m., seven days a week, 365 days a year. "These are million-dollar horses," Chenkin explains, "and you can't just let them out. Their owners need them exercised and fed every single day."

The workers get more than exercise. When they arrive at the day-care center, their kids are fine, but the workers have gnawed shoulders, chest bruises, black eyes, and broken feet—victims of the beasts they groom, train, ride, and occasionally bet on.

"Horses bite," notes 49-year-old Robert Parilla, an exercise rider at Belmont Park, holding hands with his four-year-old daughter, Amy. "They kick." He met his wife at the track in 1980, but he hopes that his daughter ponders the possibility of doing something else.

"It's really an isolated community," says Chenkin, a do-gooder from Roosevelt Island who spent six years with the U.N. setting up child-care facilities, primarily in Malaysia. "These kids know nothing but horses. They go into public schools without basic literacy or language skills, get dropped in some ESL program, and stay there until age 16 or so, when they start working at the racetrack themselves."

Language differences aside, this practically forgotten community is not fodder for people upset by illegal immigration.

"You see the way some of these backstretch workers are treated, and it really upsets you," says trainer David Donk. "You hear all this talk about illegal aliens. Well, these people are legal. But last summer, all the fees for the seasonal-work visas and the green-card processing went up. We had some guys held up in Mexico for three and four months after visiting their families—just because the whole system is disorganized. That means they couldn't come here and make a living. And that's all they're trying to do: make an honest living."

Frank Amonte Jr., a 49-year-old former trainer and son of the oldest jockey to ever win a race—at age 69 and 364 days—has little sympathy. "I don't like the idea of the day-care center," he complains while consorting with some buddies at the Aqueduct rail between races. "I've been on this track all my life, and they do everything for the Mexicans and nothing for the whites. Everything for them, and nothing for us. I don't mind people working. And they work cheap. But get a babysitter, like we did."

He pauses to reach into his pocket, remove an assortment of bills, and hand one to a friend. "Bet five to win on the five," he quickly mumbles, before resuming the conversation.

Back at Anna's House, Chenkin prepares for her next fundraiser. "We're a charity, but we're unknown outside the horse community," she says. "We're not in Manhattan. And even though we're literally five feet from Queens, we're not in New York City. So it's like we're invisible."

It was about 10 years ago that some people at the tracks started seeing the light and began setting up the day-care center. Eugene Melnyk, a horse owner and founder of the drug developer Biovail, and his wife, Laura, all but earned naming rights when they pledged $1 million to the effort. As a result, when the center opened five years ago—on 7,500 square feet leased from the New York Racing Association (NYRA) for $1 a year—it was christened Anna's House, after the couple's young daughter.

Immigrants have always done the dirty work at Belmont. Once, the backstretch was dominated by Irish, then Haitians, and—since the 1980s—immigrants from Mexico, Chile, Peru, and other Latin-American countries. The single workers stay in dorms, modest brick buildings segregated by sex, with bicycles propped against the outside walls and three to four cots in each room. Most of the families live just off the grounds in Elmont, the bleak Long Island town adjoining the track, sharing apartments with other couples, and cutting across the parking lots of small businesses like Tobacco Junction and the Triple Crown Bar while walking to work. Some clans—the Sierras and Fragosos, among them—have been at Belmont for a generation or so, working at Aqueduct—nine miles away in South Ozone Park, Queens—from late October to early May, and Saratoga in upstate New York for six weeks every summer.

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."

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