The fun and excitement of race day is just a small part of the horse racing world’s big picture. If you look beyond the main event, you’ll find thoroughbred horses are a lot of work, requiring 24/7 care, and the vast majority of caretakers of these valuable animals are Latino.
Ranging from the hot walkers (people who walk the horses after a race or workout) all the way up to backstretch foremen and jockeys – there is a Latino microcosm hard at work in the horse racing world.
Alejandro Flores Maseas, 41, came from Mexico City 16 years ago to work with horses and, while it was difficult at first, he adjusted to his new surroundings. Originally he worked at the airport in Mexico City, but wanted to pursue a more lucrative life and followed a friend to the U.S. to start at the bottom rungs of the horse racing world.
It’s true the horses are expensive and bigger and stronger than us, but they are animals and need to be taken care of.
- Alejandro Flores Maseas, who works as a groom
After long hours and endless work, Flores Maseas fell in love with the horses and has become a key figure at Three Chimneys Farm in Versailles, KY, located just outside of Lexington. He now works in the Stud Division of the farm as a groom for Flower Alley, the sire to recent Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, I’ll Have Another, who was a Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown hopeful until he came down with a bout of tendinitis.
When asked if it makes him nervous to work with such valuable horses, Alejandro responds, “It’s true the horses are expensive and bigger and stronger than us, but they are animals and need to be taken care of.”
As important as Flores Maseas’s job is, the pay is very low. Most of those starting off in the business make around $7.50 an hour, with minimal increase every few years. Many of the Latino workers at Three Chimneys are on a work visa and are required to return home every 10 months, but they do have medical coverage and workers compensation – benefits that many others in this line of work do not receive.
Twenty-two year old Edgar Meza Cortez has only been working with horses at Three Chimneys for four years, but he grew up in the countryside of Jalisco, Mexico and has always had a love for them. He too is on a work visa program and goes back to Mexico to visit his wife every 10 months.
Meza Cortez’s responsibility is working with the mares. He said he finds the birthing process stressful.
“Things can go wrong because of complications and you have to be on your toes.”
Both Flores Maseas and Meza Cortez don’t balk at the pay. They feel their jobs are typical of low-paying agricultural employment, and if they were working in Mexico they would be making a lot less.
On the other side of the country, in Arcadia, Calif., the sentiment of caring for the horses is the same among the back stretch workers at Santa Anita Racetrack. Gregorio Ochoa has been working at the track for 32 years. She started as a hot walker and worked her way up to foreman of the backstretch.
The 52-year-old Ochoa was born and raised in Jalisco, Mexico, and, in search of a higher pay, came to the U.S. to work in the farm fields. When a friend in the racing industry offered to show her the ropes, she jumped at the chance and hasn’t looked back since –even though she’d had a lifelong fear of horses.
Ochoa’s day starts at 4 a.m. when she first takes care of her family and then heads to the track. There is dorm living for the backstretch workers at Santa Anita and, for 10 years, it provided her free rent and utilities, allowing her to save enough to move off-site into her own home. As with Flores Maseas and Meza Cortez, the job is a seven days a week commitment and the days off are rare.
Ochoa doesn’t feel being a woman ever stood in the way of her success.
“The trainers know I do things myself to make sure the job gets done correctly – so they trust me,” she said. “The horses are like my babies.”
Even up to the eighth month of each of her three pregnancies, she was working with the horses. To make ends meet, she would clean houses.
Ochoa raised three boys who started coming to work with their mother as young as 3, and they are all now in the racing industry. The youngest, Jess, is a hot walker, Bobby is an exercise rider and Juan, the eldest, is a horse jockey in New Mexico.
Despite being severely bitten, having toes broken and going through a back surgery due to years of throwing bales of hay and alfalfa, her resolve and love for her job is evident, “Being around the horses – every one of them is my favorite”.
The laws in regard to backstretch and stable workers differ from state to state and in California it isn’t a requirement to provide healthcare. When Ochoa needed the back surgery, she turned to The California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation (CTHF) for help. The foundation was started in 1983 in a trailer outside of Santa Anita Racetrack’s Gate 7 as a dental clinic for stable workers and grew to provide general health and vision care. It is funded by unclaimed winning pari-mutuel ticket revenues from the tracks, of which they receive approximately 60 percent.
There has been a lot of debate and litigation over the rights of the stable and backstretch workers, but a commonality among the group itself is the love for the horses and the job of taking care of these animals that provide a better life for the workers and their families.
Cynthia Cunniff is a freelance writer.