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Tell me about the life of the backstretch workers

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  • Tell me about the life of the backstretch workers

    such as wages, health and dental insurance, hours they work, do they get paid OT for time over 40 hours etc.

    I know how hard they work and I'd like to better explain their life to my 10 and 13 yo. We volunteer for backstretch appreciation at Saratoga. It's been a great experience and I'm hoping that they'll come away from this with a better appreciation of the things we take for granted and perhaps gain more empathy for others.

  • #2
    Pay varies dramatically. Each track has different health programs. No overtime pay. It's a tough life, but a good alternative for someone who is not cut out to work on Wall Street. Most grooms only get one day off every other Sunday.

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    • #3
      A recent book on Secretariat called "The Horse God Built" by Lawrence Scanlon might be a good read on the topic. It's about Secretariat, but really focuses as much on his groom, his relationship with his groom, and how other backstretch workers live (and how the money associated with a champion like Secretariat doesn't usually trickle down to the back stretch workers in any meaningful way).
      Hidden Echo Farm, Carlisle, PA -- home of JC palomino sire Canadian Kid (1990 - 2013) & AQHA sire Lark's Favorite, son of Rugged Lark.

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      • #4
        Originally posted by KBEquine View Post
        A recent book on Secretariat called "The Horse God Built" by Lawrence Scanlon might be a good read on the topic. It's about Secretariat, but really focuses as much on his groom, his relationship with his groom, and how other backstretch workers live (and how the money associated with a champion like Secretariat doesn't usually trickle down to the back stretch workers in any meaningful way).
        second this.

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        • #5
          On the upside, a good groom is cherished and can put their hands on some really nice horses and associate with some big name trainers over time. When we do have grooms or similar help (we're small) we pay awards referred to as "stakes" to them for hitting the board. Generally we give $100 for a first, $50 for a second and $25 for a third. The feeling of prestige lasts a lifetime though. To this day my husband flashbacks to war stories of "when I won the Haskell" or "when I was galloping My Juliet", multiple graded stakes winners he's sat on the backs of...

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          • #6
            Originally posted by crazy gray horse View Post
            such as wages, health and dental insurance, hours they work, do they get paid OT for time over 40 hours etc.

            I know how hard they work and I'd like to better explain their life to my 10 and 13 yo. We volunteer for backstretch appreciation at Saratoga. It's been a great experience and I'm hoping that they'll come away from this with a better appreciation of the things we take for granted and perhaps gain more empathy for others.
            On behalf of the grooms, hotwalkers and exercise riders at saratoga, I want to say thank you! The backstretch appreciation program is something really nice for these guys, and I know they appreciate it. I actually take my son (he's 5) over to the backstretch pretty frequently, to the soccer games and the like. Some of the guys have known him since he was tiny, and have 'adopted' him, even if they can't speak the same language. There are some really great people working on the backstretch.
            Different Times Equestrian Ventures at Hidden Spring Ranch
            www.DifferentTimesEquestrianVentures.com

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            • #7
              It is a 254/7 job. Can be hard labor. IS fun and rewarding. My day does and always has started really early. I kind of love being at the barn before anyone else (other than the night watchman). I love to see the horses doing whatever they do, whether it be flat out sleeping or munching quietly. Time to think and just be.
              Grooms get to the barn (depending on the barn) at 4 am. Pull bandages, hotwalkers rake up and fill haynets, poultice is washed off, horses that worked or ran jog on the road, temps taken, legs checked. Then the work begins.
              After training there may be schoolers, horses treated or shod, the barn tidied and raked up. Tack cleaned, race equipment set and re cleaned.
              Maybe time for lunch before the races start.
              Then schoolers of in horses, runners, etc... at 2 or 3 grooms and hotwalkers that aren't running or schooling show back up and pick stalls, pull bandages, hose and ice, jog workers, treat horses, mix feed, walk the ones that require it..... in the evening, waters are topped off and blankets put on. and repeat.
              In CA there is medical facilities available to backside workers.
              Wages depend on outfit and how many horses are cared for. Generally one is paid per head per week. No OT. Wage by hour would make us cry. Stakes make the world go round. Good outfits pay 1% or split 1% between staff for the month. Or pay a flat amount as someone already stated. I used to live for the 1%. Made my wage look MUCH better!!! You will find different folks different strokes

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              • Original Poster

                #8
                Thank you all for your replies. I started thinking on this back a couple of months before the Saratoga meet started when I met a older lady hotwalker in Barnes and Noble one Sunday afternoon. We chatted for a bit. She told me how she hadn't seen her husband for 3 months and wouldn't see him for yet another 3 months. He was retired from the track and was living in TN. Lovely woman - talked of her family, how she missed them, how tough track life is yet how much she loved it. Then when the chance to volunteer came up I thought it was a great idea for the kids - but my 13 yo started asking me more questions about track life than I could answer.

                Anyways, I thought perhaps things might vary from track to track - say the likes of Saratoga and Fingerlakes.

                "The Horse the God Built" has just moved to the top of my reading list. Thank you for the suggestion.

                Timex: The backstretch appreciation program seems like a wonderful thing. It serves a lot of guys and gals - and they truly appreciate it. We've met some great folks doing this and enjoyed ourselves at the same time.

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                • #9
                  I work a 8-5 job which includes lab, office and farm work. I have my own farm and I am very familiar with manual labor. This summer I took a week off work and worked at the track as a groom/stable hand. Granted it was a low end track with low end horses but I was very glad to get back to my 8-5 job with full benefits.
                  Up before 4 am at the track at 4:30 am. Pull wraps and cleck legs. Put horses on walker while you clean stalls. (I hate cleaning stalls bedded in straw) Clean water and feed buckets. Refill hay bags. Groom and tack horses for exercise rider. Walk with rider to track. Cool out horses. Check legs. Bathe horse. Walk some more. Wrap. Repeat with each horse going to track. Feed. Clean tack. Clean shed row. Ok now its all of 8:30am and now you can start prepping some of the horses that are entered today. Most days I left the track by about 8-9pm. I worked for free as it was a learning experience for me and I was bringing a couple of the horses from that barn home with me. I got lessons on condition books, training aspects, treatments on the track, horses way of going, etc.
                  I met several of the back stretch workers. Unfortunately, especially for women, there were alot of substence abuse issues. Two of the women I worked with got drunk immediately after they were finished. Both had children the state had taken and they didn't even know what state they were in. They were paid by the week and lived on the track. It is a rough life. The pay is low and the hours are long. The trainers carry work man's comp very little else. You really have to love working with the horses and track life to do it every day.

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                  • #10
                    A typical groom has 3-4 horses assigned to him/her. Day starts at 5ish. Each horse needs buckets and tubs scrubbed, stall mucked, bandages pulled, and to be groomed and tacked when it is set to go to the track to train. After training, the groom bathes or rubs out the horse and gets it walking with the hotwalker. After cooling out, legs are washed off and the horse is put back in the stall. Each horse is then groomed and bandaged. Shedrow tidied, and halters cleaned, equipment and bandages washed. Then comes lunch (for the horses), around 10:30. The grooms then get a break until the afternoon feed. Most barns have a partner system so every groom does not have to do the afternoon feed every day. The groom usually runs through stalls and refreshes water, and sets in the afternoon feed.

                    On race day, the groom has to prep the horse for the race and take it to the paddock. Then the horse is cooled out and bandaged after the race. This is a long day if you have to ship to another track to race.

                    Most groom jobs are 6-7 days a week, depending on the barn.
                    Man plans. God laughs.

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                    • #11
                      Ah yes, stakes. They made life a bit easier.
                      I have to admit that I am a bit surprised that so little has changed in the years since I was living and working on the backside. In big oufits, stakes were $100/50/25. Others did the 1% split among the staff.
                      Grooms back then typically received $50/head per week, and the weeks were a full 7 days. Most had 4 horses, some five.
                      Glad it's changed to include time off. Seven days, no holidays or time off was hard.
                      What has the per head average gotten to now?
                      Freelance rates from that era; $2 to cool a horse out in the morning, $5 in the afternoon. $10 to take a horse to the post in the afternoon. Pony people got $5 in the morning, $10 in the afternoon. It was $5 for an exercise rider in the morning. Jocks would breeze for free if they rode the horse. Some up and coming bugs would gallop for free as well.
                      Day rate (at a lesser track) ranged from $20 to $35. Layups farms ranged from $8 to $10 per day.
                      I'd be curious to know what todays wages/rates are.
                      Oh, and one other memory that just occured: You had to be in the shedrow at 5 a.m. promptly. One outfit I worked for had a radio tuned to a public radio station that came on the air at 5. They always opened the broadcast day with Kate Smith belting out "God Bless America" They had it turned up pretty loud too.
                      If you heard that song playing while you were still walking through the barn area, you RAN to get there before she finished! I can still remember sprinting through the dark and seeing co-workers running as hard as they could between the barns as well!

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Lady Counselor View Post
                        Day rate (at a lesser track) ranged from $20 to $35. Layups farms ranged from $8 to $10 per day.
                        I'd be curious to know what todays wages/rates are.
                        I pay $70/day at Preque Isle, $85/day at Churchill and you can get $65/day at Calder. The low rate at Calder is actually with a BNT, but his 'extras' bill is more than the training bill every month, so he's making it up in other places. I pay $75/day for 2yo in training at a farm in Ocala and lay ups are $55/day. You can find lower and higher rates than those, but I think they represent the norm. Haven't a clue about the wages.

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          I think those rates are a tad high, IMO, Las Olas. I've had horses come north from reputable farms who charge $45-$50 for 2 year old training. The $70 a day at Presque Isle is about $20 more than the average there.

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                          • #14
                            Don't know offhand what the going rate for grooming is, but a guy next to me at Keeneland was making $250 to rub 2 and walk 2. Kentucky going gallop rate is $15, some pay $12, down in Louisiana I think some still pay $10. Keith Asmussen might be UP to $5 per head at the farm in TX though

                            Race day rate: pony is $25-$40, running a ship in is $40-$50.
                            To get in the winners' circle you must first get into the gate

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                            • #15
                              Originally posted by DickHertz View Post
                              I think those rates are a tad high, IMO, Las Olas. I've had horses come north from reputable farms who charge $45-$50 for 2 year old training. The $70 a day at Presque Isle is about $20 more than the average there.
                              Well, that explains why it hurts when I bend over

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                              • #16
                                Originally posted by Las Olas View Post
                                Well, that explains why it hurts when I bend over
                                If you're turning a profit, then what does it matter what the day rate is??? If you're happy then move forward, but $70 is near the top in Erie. I mean, there are all sorts of hay nearby and the workmans comp isn't outrageous. $70 is excessive, but if you are getting results then press on !

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                                • #17
                                  Originally posted by DickHertz View Post
                                  If you're turning a profit, then what does it matter what the day rate is??? If you're happy then move forward, but $70 is near the top in Erie. I mean, there are all sorts of hay nearby and the workmans comp isn't outrageous. $70 is excessive, but if you are getting results then press on !
                                  I wouldn't say I turn a profit, but for the most part, they pay for themselves.

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                                  • #18
                                    Here in the NW, day rate is anywhere from $40-65/day. Our grooms get $12/horse/day. Exercise riders who go by the horse get $10-15/horse depending on how good they are. Others are on salary (ours gets $100/day riding anywhere from 8-12 a morning.) Afternoon pony is $20.
                                    It's a uterus, not a clown car. - Sayyedati

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                                    • #19
                                      Many years ago after leaving a job in advertising, I went to work as a sales rep for an equine product selling at the track, my new office was on the back stretch...

                                      I observed amazing dedication and hard work from the grooms along with long hours and poor living conditions. I hope that things have gotten better since 1980!

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                                      • #20
                                        Originally posted by MintHillFarm View Post
                                        Many years ago after leaving a job in advertising, I went to work as a sales rep for an equine product selling at the track, my new office was on the back stretch...

                                        I observed amazing dedication and hard work from the grooms along with long hours and poor living conditions. I hope that things have gotten better since 1980!
                                        In Canada, a good groom grosses $800 per week to groom 5 horses five and a half days per week and gets 1% of his horses' earnings. They take turns feeding are out of there by noon at the latest most days. There aren't enough good grooms to go around so things have changed dramatically since 1980 when I was paid $120 (entry level) for 7 days and had to come back 5 afternoons. I think I was earning $2 per hour. My trainer would not let me live in the dorms so I needed a car, to pay rent.... I quit and went back to school only to come back as a rider! Exercise rates went from $5 to $15 in that time. One year, a friend of mine groomed really good horses and was staked almost $30,000. You need to be a pro to groom grade one horses though. Also, one can live in the dorm at Woodbine very reasonably. It is nice for grooms with families to work at tracks with long meets. I think the worst thing about KY is the shipping every few months. It is hard to keep living out of a suitcase!

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