By DANIELLE GORDON
Horse racing's ghetto
Workers who care for million-dollar thoroughbreds at fancy race
tracks find life in the backstretch anything but horseplay.
Some in state government want conditions to get better
Brightly clad jockeys astride million-dollar horses give the appearance of glamour and riches to thoroughbred racing in Illinois. But beyond the glitter of the track there is another side to racing — where hundreds of low-paid workers and children live in small, bleak rooms.
These approximately 1,600 workers exercise and groom the horses and clean their stalls. They are housed in dormitories that sit between or on top of the horses' stables in an area called the "backstretch." Most have no bathrooms or kitchens. Their living conditions are particularly tough on the 100 to 200 children who move from track to track with their parents."It was either having them with me at the track or not seeing them for months," a 32-year-old track worker named Jan explains about her six years of living at Illinois tracks with two young children. "I am single so where would I send them?" She adds that "you must just keep trying to find a way to organize the beds for everyone."
The living conditions are so deplorable and the consequences for children so potentially harmful that the backstretch has even caught the attention of some politicians. "It is a disgrace," says state Rep. Mary E. Flowers, a Chicago Democrat who has been trying for three years to reform education for backstretch families. "No one cares about what these kids need."
But the situation may change. State Sen. John Cullerton, also a Chicago Democrat, recently proposed that the state require tracks to spend more on backstretch improvements. His proposal was incorporated into a set of recommendations for reforming horse racing sent to Gov. Jim Edgar in April.
Whether these recommendations will make it into law depends on what kind of wider deal is worked out on changes in racing industry regulations. In the meantime the grooms, hotwalkers and other workers toil on the backstretch, far from the luster of the starting gate.
A house is not a home
Workers spend the fall and winter at Hawthorne Race Course in Stickney, the spring at Sportsman's Park in Cicero, and the summer at Arlington International Racecourse in Arlington Heights. Workers rarely venture from these tracks and security guards and fences keep visitors out.
Before the 1960s, the backstretch was the exclusive domain of migrant working men. Since then, the jobs of grooms, hot-walkers and exercise people also have been taken by women. And about 20 years ago, children began to join their parents at the track.
But the job responsibilities have not evolved with these social changes. Backstretch workers can never be far from the track. "Horses are like 2-year-old children. You must be available for them all the time, day and night," according to the Rev. David Krueckeberg, a Lutheran clergyman who has visited the racetracks around Chicago almost daily for the past 25 years.
Because of the long hours and the need to live near the horses, workers and families are isolated. "They can go from the beginning to the end of the season without leaving — they eat here, they work here, they sleep here," a 43-year-old groom said.
Their salaries are low. "The workers' migrant lifestyle does not lend itself to collective bargaining," social worker Joan Rappaport said. Trainer Jerry McGrath says that workers make between $175 and $300 per week and work 40 to 50 weeks a year. Some trainers also give their workers stakes on the horses, said trainer Stacy Hodgson.
Instead of higher wages, trainers provide rooms for their workers. The rooms are given to the trainers by the track based on the number of horses they keep at the track. The rooms generally have concrete floors, and no phone jacks or kitchen facilities. Workers must bring their own furniture.
Some of the rooms, including those in the family dorm at Arlington, have communal bathrooms located in the center of the buildings, two on each floor. "Bottles, buckets and pails are
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used increasingly as you move further and further away from the bathroom. Even prison cells have running water and toilet facilities," Krueckeberg said.
The 12-by- 12-foot rooms at Arlington "are made for one to two people, and many of them house whole families," said Tom Oas, director of health services for Arlington Heights. In addition to the 445 older rooms without bathrooms, Arlington has five newer dorms with about 160 rooms, complete with cross ventilation and bathrooms. These newer rooms are not assigned to workers with children.
In contrast to Arlington, Sportsman's is considered by workers to have better living conditions. In 1993, the Illinois Racing Board said, "Sportsman's accommodations for backside residents are the best in Illinois." Their rooms have two windows for cross-ventilation and each has its own bathroom.
Workers rate Hawthorne somewhere between the other tracks. Half of Hawthorne's 315 double-occupancy rooms have their own bathrooms, said Hawthorne President Thomas Carey. All of that track's housing was built between five and 15 years ago. And workers have more opportunities to find off-track housing when working at Hawthorne and Sportsman's. Arlington Heights had a median monthly rent of $655, according to the 1990 census, while rents near Sportsman's and Hawthorne were $349 and $466, respectively.
Those who are forced to live at the various tracks also must deal with a lack of privacy, an issue that has caused tension on the backstretch for years. In 1981, state officials searched 430 rooms at Illinois tracks for drugs and mechanical devices that
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could affect the horses.
In response to these searches, a group of workers sued the Illinois Racing Board, the state agency that regulates racing, and the Illinois Department of Law Enforcement for entering their rooms without warrants. Under Racing Board regulations at the time, "any person who refuses to be searched pursuant to this rule may have his license suspended or revoked."
The court ruled that these searches were unconstitutional. According to court documents, the workers' "living cubicles" are residences and the workers' privacy interests are more important than government interests in protecting horses from tampering. The court also recognized that workers live at the tracks as a matter of economic necessity.
But some track security guards still enter workers' rooms, according to Miguel, a 36-year-old groom. "They patrol and knock, and if you don't open the door, they open it and that's not good. ... As long as I'm living in the room, I should command there," he said.
Fighting over kids
Parents feel they have little choice but to keep their children at the track. Miguel shares a single room — sometimes as small as 12-by-12 feet — with his wife and three of his children. Many track officials argue that the children are not their responsibility. Some add that the trainers who employ these workers should help fix the housing owned by the tracks. Arlington's chief operating officer, Robert L. Bork, said that "it is way beyond our means to provide any additional housing." But Sportsman's has made some efforts to provide family housing.
Parents also have received little support from the Illinois Racing Board. "Our principal objective is ensuring racing honesty and maximizing revenue for the state. We regulate the racing of the horses," said Executive Director Joseph Sinopoli. Board Commissioner Lorna E. Propes said the board faces a dilemma: "It is difficult for us to come and say to these people, 'This is not good enough for you so you can't live here' when they have nowhere else to go."
Although they complain about conditions, Miguel and other parents still keep their children at the tracks. And they have been to court many times to defend this right.
The fight over children living on the backstretch goes back to the early 1980s, and Arlington has led the charge against them. In 1982, Arlington barred children under age 14 from living on the backstretch. In response, the Illinois Department of Human Rights charged the track and the Village of Arlington Heights with civil rights violations. At the time, about 30 to 40 children lived at the track. A court ruling allowed them to return in 1983.
But in 1989, in a letter sent to trainers, track officials said, "We would appreciate it very much if you would advise your help that living facilities for families will not be available on the premises." In 1990, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld a ruling by the Illinois Human Rights Commission that found that the track had discriminated against the families of workers by barring them from the backstretch. In this decision, Justice Michael Bilandic wrote that Arlington failed to provide a nondiscriminatory reason for not allowing children. "The backstretch compares favorably to urban low income areas, which obviously do not exclude children," he said.
An agreement was reached for children of workers at Hawthorne in 1992, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Yet Arlington officials did not give up. Again in 1992, they tried to kick the children out by prohibiting all people without Racing Board licenses from living at the track. These licenses are not given to anyone under the age of 16.
Racetrack worker Blanca Rubio and her husband, Humberto, explained in a court statement that their combined income of $359 per week was not enough to rent housing off-track for their two children, Humberto, age 4, and Rudy, age 18 months. "I will have to leave Illinois with our children and move back to Mexico to live with my mother-in-law. Humberto and I have never been separated from each other, or from our children, throughout our marriage," Blanca Rubio said.
The Rubios and other track workers responded to the ban on children by filing a civil rights class action lawsuit under the federal Fair Housing Act. Eventually, in a consent decree resulting from the lawsuit, Arlington agreed not to enforce its policy against children. But Arlington officials still do not believe children should be allowed. "Thoroughbred horses are not pet dogs; they can be dangerous. There are also large hay trucks back there. Itis a dangerous commercial operation," said Arlington spokesman Paul O'Connor.
Officials at Hawthorne and Sportsman's said they also will abide by the court decision. Sportsman's Vice President Charles Bidwill III said that while his track has no policy concerning children, it does its best to accommodate them.
Yet permission to live at Illinois' tracks is not enough to
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guarantee these children access to education and other state benefits, often because of their parents' transient positions. Track children have access to medical and dental care funded by a percentage of track wagering determined by state law. The Racing Board disseminates these funds to charitable organizations providing services. Last year, the Racing Industry Charitable Foundation was given $750,000 from the state to service all tracks in Illinois, according to Executive Director Peggy Goetsch.
This organization, which was originally founded by racing executives in 1979 to do fund-raising, took over providing medical services in 1982 from Travelers Aid Backstretch Services, or TABS. Its takeover of these services was controversial. While the charitable foundation provides basic services, it does little to advocate for better housing, according to Joan Rappaport, who ran TABS between 1977 and 1982. "It is not independent. It was set up and then run by the [racing] industry," she said.
TABS lost its funding because of its activism on the part of an African-American groom, Charles Wade, who was prevented from enrolling three of his children at the Drexel Elementary School in Cicero, according to Rappaport. Cicero school officials eventually agreed to admit black students from the track. But after receiving threats, Wade's family left the state out of fear for its safety. And TABS was dismantled.
Even with the medical care available through the industry foundation, some track children have suffered medical problems particular to their living conditions. During Arlington's 1994 racing season, a form of bacterial dysentery broke out among some residents of the old dorms. "Outbreaks are common where personal hygiene is poor and where there is overcrowding such as at the backstretch," according to Tom Oas, health services director for Arlington Heights. First discovered in August, the shigellosis outbreak eventually infected 17, including 15 children under the age of 6, causing fevers, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Shigellosis thrives in unsanitary living conditions and can be spread through poor hygiene or contaminated food.
Kids also face the dangers of time on the backstretch with no formal day care. Harvey Grossman of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said the issue of day care was raised as part of discussions last year with Arlington. "Arlington was not interested in providing resources or even a facility on the track," he said.
"It is our understanding that under current Illinois law, child care can only be provided by an entity licensed by the state for that purpose," Robert L. Bork, the track's chief operating officer, explains. But Hawthorne's Carey said that his track would provide a facility for parents to use. The Racing Board also has given up on providing state-sponsored day care at the tracks. Providing such a program presents "insurmountable insurance problems," Propes said.
In addition to a lack of formal day care, children are faced with changing schools up to three times a year as they move from track to track. To make the educational transitions less disruptive, state Rep. Flowers has been trying for the past three years to provide classes for workers and their children on track grounds, at a cost of $210,000 a year for the entire state.
But her legislative proposal has never been approved by the House Education Committee. "The committee tells me that these kids can go to any public school because they can be classified as homeless. But why should their educations suffer because their parents must move a lot?" she said. Flowers will continue to push for this bill. In the meantime, local school districts and volunteers provide some courses at the tracks.
The Arlington $16,000
A less piecemeal approach to providing services for backstretch families would require more pressure from industry representatives. But it is unlikely this leadership will come from the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, an organization that represents all horsemen: owners, trainers and backstretch workers.
According to association administrator Larry Frye, backstretch housing is "not something you or I would look forward to having, but the workers come from situations where they had nothing. They are adequate and what the people are used to." He adds that "all tracks around the country are this way. Also, there are strong family bonds among the people and it is not rowdy."
The Racing Board also has done little to regulate backstretch conditions. While it inspects track barns monthly, housing on the backstretch is inspected only twice a year, according to Dan Martinez, the board's director of security. But state Sen. John Cullerton wants to increase the board's authority. His proposal focuses on spending money from a state program called the Race Track Improvement Fund. The fund, which was created to help defray the cost of "erection, improving or acquisition of seating stands, buildings or other structures, ground or track," is collected from a percentage of bets wagered at each track. Under Cullerton's proposal, "such funds [will] be expended on an equitable basis between frontside and backside improvements."
Regardless of what happens in Springfield, parents say they have little choice but to live on the backstretch with their children. And some remain hopeful. "I'm going to continue working here so that my children can learn English and stand up for themselves," Miguel said. "I want them to have a better job so they're not working in this job." *
Danielle Gordon is associate editor at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and a free-lance writer whose work has appeared in The Chicago Reporter.
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