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The industry’s backbone: Backstretch workers at Pimlico in Baltimore kept things running during racing shutdowns, pandemic

At Barn 6 behind the Pimlico Race Course, Edgar Gallegos trudged through straw and mud. In his jeans and bright blue windbreaker, he stroked one of the seven horses he looks after, a bay thoroughbred named King Bubble.

Every animal has its temperament, Gallegos said, and, Monday, he needed to calm his own nerves ahead of the COVID-19 vaccine.

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“Hopefully if everyone gets the vaccine, we can get life back to normal as before,” said Gallegos, 27.

As one of 100 workers living at Pimlico, Gallegos grooms the horses, feeds them and cleans the stalls. He and others are readying for the showcase event Saturday, the 146th running of the Preakness Stakes. They feel more ready now that the Maryland Vaccine Equity Task Force and MedStar Health came out and vaccinated many of them.

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Backstretch workers are often thought of as Pimlico’s unsung heroes, the ones who get the job done, with little fanfare, attention or pay. The term “backstretch” refers to trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, grooms, farriers, muckers, jockey agents and other positions in the horse racing industry. Many backstretch workers live and work at the northwest Baltimore horsetrack, 365 days a year, regardless of weather, making sure the horses are taken care of.

But this last year was like no other. In February 2020, Gallegos came back from vacation in Mexico and was working at Belmont Park when New York became the epicenter for COVID-19. Gallegos and his co-workers returned to Maryland.

“Within the week, they closed the borders for travel because of the pandemic,” Gallegos said. “We were very lucky to get back in.”

Edgar Gallegos was named the Pimlico Backstretch Worker of the Year for 2020. Gallegos, 27, is a native of Mexico who has worked in the racing industry for about eight years at Maryland tracks.
Edgar Gallegos was named the Pimlico Backstretch Worker of the Year for 2020. Gallegos, 27, is a native of Mexico who has worked in the racing industry for about eight years at Maryland tracks. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Racing in Maryland shut down for three months. The loss of income led owners to send their horses home, and backstretch workers — mainly grooms, exercise riders and hot walkers — were laid off.

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Common areas were closed. Social distancing was enforced. For anyone who was sick, meals were delivered to their rooms. People returning from other countries were required to provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Those entering the grounds had to fill out questionnaires and get their temperatures taken.

For Gallegos, those days were hard to endure. Anyone who worked without a mask could be fined. He got scared in March when he came down with a fever and cold-like symptoms for two days. He remembers the isolation and uncertainty affecting everyone at Pimlico.

“It was very restricted everywhere,” Gallegos said. “The pantry was short. There wasn’t much water. We couldn’t go out here much at the racetrack either.”

He works for trainer Brittany Russell, his days stretching from 3:30 a.m. to sometimes as late as 4 p.m. His dedication was recognized when he was named Backstretch Worker of the Year for 2020 by the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

“The backstretch workers are the backbone of this industry,” said Jessica Hammond, the association’s benevolence and counseling director, who provides social and mental health services to the workers. “They give it life. Backstretch workers kept things moving during the racing shutdown caused by the pandemic. They came to work as usual. The only difference was they were wearing masks.”

Without advocates, this small population of essential agriculture workers would go unnoticed. Many have underlying health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure; some are more than 70 years old and still caring for horses. Hammond said EMTs were on the track premises every day assessing people who were quarantined in their rooms.

“We did have a few [COVID-19] cases which were appropriately managed,” said Dr. Kelly Ryan, an osteopath and physician leader on the MedStar’s Horsemen’s Health team.

While this group of workers qualified for the vaccine months ago under Phase 1C, Ryan noted that some clinics wouldn’t give it to them. Ryan helped educate the workers, schedule appointments, and get some workers transportation to vaccination sites. She said Monday was the first time they were able to obtain vaccines to offer on-site at Pimlico.

During the pandemic, the association also held food pantries on the backstretch and provided free meals to laid-off backstretch workers.

While Gallegos got a pay cut, other Pimlico backstretch workers like Lorna Brown went almost a month without work, until late March 2020.

“We had to work here, work there, on the grounds, whoever needed help instead of having a steady paycheck,” said Brown, who is Puerto Rican and grew up on the Eastern Shore. “We hustled with whoever needed work and they [paid] us cash.”

When Brown snagged a freelance job with a trainer still on Pimlico grounds, she earned between $40 to $50 a day.

For 20 years, Brown has worked as a groom and hot walker, hand-walking sweaty horses after workouts. She wanted the vaccine since it was first offered but faced barriers. Brown struggles standing for long periods of time and didn’t have transportation to reach vaccination sites that were too far away from the racetrack, where she lives. The grandmother, affectionately known around Pimlico as Momma Lorna because she watches over younger workers, teared up after receiving her shot Monday.

“I feel such a sense of relief,” said Brown, who turned 57 that day. “I can go around my family. I’m really glad to see them instead of communicating from distances.”

Gallegos works at Pimlico with his brother and cousin; he has more relatives working at Laurel Park. Each week, he sends remittances back home to Michoacán in Mexico.

Gallegos estimates more than 30 Latino staff work the backstretch at Pimlico, hailing from Puerto Rico, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay. Some are from his home state, like Julio García, 30, who works as a groom and has lived at Pimlico for a year and a half. He sends money back to his wife and two children in Michoacán. It is their lifeline.

“The purpose of building something was a goal I brought with me when leaving my family alone and coming here,” García said.

Julio García is a groom at Pimlico Race Course. He is one of many backstretch workers who took care of horses even during the tough days of the pandemic.
Julio García is a groom at Pimlico Race Course. He is one of many backstretch workers who took care of horses even during the tough days of the pandemic. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The workers have missed the community time they used to have at Pimlico.

Before the pandemic, Gallegos remembers bonding with co-workers in a break room, where they would host meals or a pastor would visit and do readings. Hammond said the annual Backstretch Appreciation Day in September would bring music, raffles, outdoor games and catered food to the racetrack. Celebrations like this and a Christmas party that normally would have 400 attendees had to be canceled.

“We were all quarantined,” Gallegos said. “No one could be reunited with anyone.”

Race days like Preakness were especially fun, but last year’s extreme measures were a shock when only horse owners and limited guests were allowed to view the race.

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“We could go to the Grandstand and watch the races, bet a little,” Gallegos said. “But we stopped doing that, and we have to stay isolated.”

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He’s hoping the vaccine will bring that energy, and thousands of spectators, back to Pimlico this Saturday.

Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her @HagiaStephia

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