Beyond the Backstretch

I wrote recently in the Saratogian about the multitude of charitable opportunities that the racing season in Saratoga offers; nearly every night, we can choose an event to attend, a way to contribute, a charity to support.

Among those charities are those that support New York racing all year round, some of which pack up and move, just like the horsemen, when Belmont closes and Saratoga opens.

Thousands of backstretch workers make a temporary home in Saratoga, in backstretch housing or in rented quarters; with them often come families. The summer move upstate can present a number of difficulties for those who work on the backstretch, and that’s why, when racing comes to Saratoga, so does the Racetrack Chaplaincy.

Much of the Chaplaincy’s summer work focuses on the children: families are not permitted to live on the backstretch, and frequently, both parents work at the track. Without available and affordable day care, parents scramble to make sure that their children are taken care of while they’re at work.

As Nick Caras, activities coordinator for the Chaplaincy, puts it:  “We have a camp program, and we have an actual camp.”  For the third year, the Chaplaincy is working with a camp three miles outside of town, housing about fifteen backstretch families in cabins. Many of the cottages don’t have running water and the families use a community bathroom, but the arrangement allows families to stay together, and it means that both parents can come north to work for the summer.

The Chaplaincy has worked with a number of individuals and organizations to make the place homey:  according to Caras, the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association donated a barbecue pavilion, and a local carpenters’ union donated its labor to assemble it. Michael Dubb, who owns a number of horses that race in New York and who serves as chairman of the board of the Belmont Child Care Association, donated a playground.

While the camp offers comfortable and affordable housing, it doesn’t help take care of the children during the day, and this is where the camp program comes in. Caras and the Chaplaincy coordinate with several area day camps to provide opportunities for approximately two dozen children each day.  The kids have attended camps in Washington County and in Saratoga Springs; a Malta camp has also offered space.

The children’s participation is funded by donations and by the Chaplaincy; where possible, parents are expected to contribute as well, and to provide lunch for their children during the day.  “It’s important,” Caras said, “for a family to be invested through their own contributions. A hand up is better than a handout.”

The main objective of the camps, says Caras, is for the kids to have a safe place to be while their parents are working.  Because of track workers’ long hours—and many backstretch workers have jobs at the track in the afternoon—families rely on the Chaplaincy to transport their students to and from the day camps.

For the last two weeks of the meet, the Chaplaincy will organize activities on its own, taking students to the pool in the Saratoga state park, to the lake in Moreau state park, and to watch a movie.

The Chaplaincy has held several fundraisers this summer, including the basketball game in which the jockeys played the horsemen, and a luncheon earlier this week with a silent auction; the group was one of the recipients of the proceeds from last weekend’s Fasig-Tipton 5K.  According to Caras, one of the organization’s biggest expenses is transportation: moving the children around in the summer; taking backstretch workers to and from appointments year-round; picking up food donations.

The Chaplaincy is just one of the organizations that work year-round to support the backstretch workers at New York tracks.  When the Saratoga meeting ends, two part-time workers will remain here to support those who will work at the Oklahoma training track until it closes in November; the rest of the crew will head back south, to continue their year-round work at Belmont and Aqueduct.

The Chaplaincy accepts donations of various kinds: money, clothing, furniture, food.  For more information, you can visit the organization’s website.

In the shameless self-promotion department:

I’m linking here to some recent articles published elsewhere this summer. I daily post links on the Brooklyn Backstretch Twitter feed (come follow!) and the Brooklyn Backstretch Facebook page (come like!).  Thanks, everyone, for reading and commenting—your support is very much appreciated!

Thoroughbred Times

“[Bo] Derek Uses Award to Recognize Migliore


This link will take you a list of all my articles for the paper, including race recaps (the Honorable Miss and the Fourstardave); columns (on the Safety & Welfare Summit, the Daily Racing Form preservation project at the Keeneland Library, and charitable opportunities at Saratoga); features (profiles of horses and humans, history pieces); and Sunday notebooks.

Thanks for reading!

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