A Horse-Drawn Life at Pimlico

A look inside the community of 120 grooms, hot walkers and stable workers who live full-time at the Pimlico racetrack, tending to the horses -- and each other -- all year long.
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

Darryl Scott is every inch a city guy, born and raised in the neighborhoods around Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course. But there is a difference between Scott and the fellows he hangs out with at the takeout joints and liquor stores along Park Heights Avenue, just outside the track's main gate: They love the races; he lives for the horses.

In fact, he lives with them, in a tiny room in one of the training stables that line the backstretch of the track. The 44-year-old is one of 120 grooms, hot walkers and other stable hands who live in the Pimlico barns, sleeping above the costly animals they care for seven days a week, four seasons a year.

At most race tracks, tending the ponies has become a profession made up almost entirely of Latino immigrants. But Pimlico, an unlikely patch of inner-city horse country, still draws heavily on surrounding Baltimore for its barn workers. And Scott, for one, is equally at home on both sides of the high chain-link fence that separates the stables from the streets.

"Look at this, a loose horse," Scott said blithely one morning last week when a panicky, untethered thoroughbred came running out from between the barns. Instead of backing away, Scott walked directly toward the skittish animal, arms outstretched, an urban horse whisperer.

"Shhh, shhh, shhh -- want a peppermint?" he cooed, crinkling his cigarette pack to make the animal think a treat was being unwrapped.

Instantly the horse settled, slowed and let Scott get a hand under its harness. "Whose horse is this?" Scott called as heads poked from surrounding barn doors to see the action.

This track-side community, known as the backstretch, will be largely invisible to today's crowded grandstand, a distant glimpse of barn roofs above the thundering blur of jockey colors as the Preakness runners come out of the first turn. But the backstretch is an essential and fabled corner of the racing world, home to the resident army of low-paid workers that keep high-end horses ready to run.

"Horses have to be fed and walked every single day of the year," said Donna Chenkin, the head of Anna House, a family support program for stable workers at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. The child-care center she runs opens each day at 5 a.m., when the horses are ready for a morning gallop and their stalls are ready for a good mucking out. "If these people weren't living in the backstretch, there would be no racing."

Most major tracks provide trainers with free barns for their horses and free rooms for their stable hands as a way of ensuring a stock of thoroughbreds available to race. For many of the workers, it's a lifelong career.

"I've been here 28 years," said Scott, squatting under the massive belly of a chestnut horse, gently wrapping a spindly shin. He was introduced to the backstretch by his father, who worked here. He was taught the trade by an uncle and pitches hay side-by-side with his brother Harvey, also a groom. He has worked occasionally as an electrician and carpenter, but has always returned to the barns. "I could make more money doing something else, but if you love horses the way I do, you're going to stay."

If backstretch life is a labor of love, it isn't one of comfort. The chores begin in the dark and go on in all weathers: shoveling endless loads of straw and manure, leading just-galloped horses on cool-down walks, hosing them down, feeding, watering, brushing them.

In exchange, grooms usually earn about $100 a week per horse they take care of, and they live in housing that is free but nearly monk-like in its austerity. Scott makes about $500 a week and sleeps in a second-floor cinder block room with little standing room left among the bed, couch, TV and two cats. The communal bathroom is several doors down the open-air balcony.

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