Backstretch Artists: The Stars of the Show

Like many immigrants to this country, the men and women who work on the backstretch at our racetracks are often invisible. We see them walking horses to and from races, and we see them in winner’s circle photographs; we almost never learn their names or hear their voices.

They are seldom profiled in turf publications. We don’t learn who they are or what they’re like or how they spend their free time.

But thanks to a joint venture between Backstretch Employees Service Team (B.E.S.T.) and Hofstra University, that may change at least a little.

Next Wednesday night, June 6, in Hofstra’s Axxin Library in Hempstead, New York, not far from Belmont Park, the art of 20 Belmont and Aqueduct backstretch workers will be exhibited in a show called “Pride: Celebrating the Art of the Backstretch Workers of Belmont Park and Aqueduct Racetrack.”

About a year ago, B.E.S.T. executive director Paul Ruchames was seated next to Hofstra’s curator of acquisitions and special collections, Bronwyn Hannon, at a luncheon hosted by NYRA’s director of community relations, Joanne Adams.

“That’s where it all started,” said Hannon. “We got talking about B.E.S.T. and what the organization does for the workers. B.E.S.T. really fills a much-needed role for the backstretch workers.”

She learned that B.E.S.T. encourages art as a kind of therapy that emphasizes the workers’ creative side, a respite from the rigors of life on the backstretch.

“I thought that was wonderful,” she said, “and as a curator of acquisitions and special collections, I’m very interested in artists from Long Island, and I thought that this was a very interesting twist on Long Island artists.”

She began to conceive of a show that would recognize the workers’ artistic expressions; both she and Ruchames see the show not as the ultimate goal, but as one opportunity to develop an ongoing partnership between B.E.S.T. and Hofstra.

According to Hannon, art historians would refer to the art of the backstretch workers as “outsider art,” and it’s that outsider status that Ruchames hopes to challenge.

“On Long Island, Latino immigrants are invisible,” he said. “They work for people, but they tend to be humble and they don’t want to be noticed. There’s a tremendous culture that they all come from that doesn’t get a chance to get expressed.

“Hofstra’s nickname is the Pride, as in lions, and we used that for the theme of the exhibition, so that the artists can show pride in who they are individually and culturally.

“We want them not to feel like strangers in a strange land, and to show the public that they have depth and that we can learn from them.”

Grammy-nominated flute player Jay Rodriguez will provide entertainment; a buffet will be provided and Ruchames expects some members of New York’s jockey colony to attend.

The show will be held in the Lowenfeld Exhibition Hall on the library’s 10th floor.  For more information, contact Stella Cardenas at 516 488 3434 ext. 101 or 516 315 2821; to RSVP, contact Nuevia Greene at 516 463 6158.

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