Home Is Where the Horses Are

15 Nov 2012, Posted by admin in Packages,Stories, No Comments. Tagged , , , , , , ,

Home Is Where the Horses Are


Long hours. Grueling work. Low pay. Life on the backside of River Downs is not easy, but a passion for horse racing keeps workers returning to the track.

Story by Tia Garcia, photos by Carlo Cruz

It’s mid-morning on the backside of River Downs Race Track, and Kevin Zeis has been awake for six hours. His white cut-off shirt is smeared with a mix of dust and sweat, his jeans are brown from dirt, and his work boots are covered in mud. His hands, calloused from years of shoveling hay, could use a deep cleansing.

Zeis left his home in Burlington, Ky.,  at 4:30 a.m., and arrived at the Cincinnati track by 5. Within an hour he had fed four horses and cleaned four stalls. But Zeis is in charge of more than just feeding and cleaning on the backside; his responsibilities include developing and carrying out exercise routines for the horses, following strict training schedules, grooming the 1,000-pound creatures and making sure they are in top health condition. On a normal day he’s at the track until late afternoon. On a race day, he could be working late into the evening.

Zeis is one of the more than 250 people who work on the backside of River Downs Race Track from May through September. This includes trainers, groomsmen, outriders, hot walkers and more. Some come from nearby tracks; others travel from as far away as Ecuador and Mexico. All must follow their horses from track to track to keep their jobs. For some, this means commuting to work daily, as Zeis does. For others, this means taking residence in dorm-like rooms near the horses’ barns.

The backside is located behind the track and consists of dozens of barns, each with multiple horses’ stalls. During the summer, hundreds of horses reside in the barns. Some of their caretakers live in the buildings next to them. The complex is complete with exercise equipment near the barns, picnic tables close to the rooms, and a lounge hall up front attached to the main offices.

The horses are kept in dozens of barns aligned throughout the backside.

Life on the backside is not easy. Workers are on the job in the early morning, late at night and on weekends. Although they toil in a billion-dollar industry, they are paid little and receive no benefits, all while constantly living with dust in their hair and the smell of horses on their clothes. Despite the difficult conditions, backside workers at River Downs seem to relish their work.

“You got to like it,” says Kelly Hedges, an outrider and exercise rider at River Downs. “You got to love it. But I’ve been around [horses] since I was 3 years old.”

Hedges, 50, used to show horses as a child. Her parents were trainers, so she was always around horses. She loved the lifestyle and knew she wanted to work with horses as an adult. She entered the horse racing industry when she was 21. She commutes from her home in Kentucky to the track daily.

Like most other River Downs workers, Hedges follows her horses from one track to another each season. When she leaves River Downs, she continues her exercise training at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky.

“We’re like carnies. We all travel around together, get to know one another, and love what we do,” she says.

A system of hierarchy for the workers

In the horse industry, the horse owners hire the trainers, who in turn hire the groomsmen, outriders and hot walkers. While the racetrack provides housing, backside workers are not employed by the track. They must follow the rules and regulations of the horse industry while abiding the owner’s wishes.

This system of hierarchy makes it difficult for workers in the industry to live comfortably. The workers make little money, receive no health benefits, and many do not have a means of transportation. This makes it difficult for some to visit relatives or even go grocery shopping. Because of the workers’ sometimes poor living conditions, some members of the Cincinnati community have established organizations to help.

In 2004, Dr. Joe Keisler from the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Family Medicine began a weekly clinic providing basic health care for workers. The health clinic, which is run out of a small trailer provided by the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, is located close to the entrance of the backside.

Keisler, along with residents from the University of Cincinnati’s Medical Campus, help workers deal with diabetes, high blood pressure, and horse-related injuries such as horse bites, trauma, and muscular skeletal problems from cleaning stalls and barreling hay. For the workers actually living on the backside, Keisler says he sees more mental health issues than physical ones.

“There’s a lot of isolation being away from their families, so depression is one feature we definitely see in primary care,” Keisler says.

The trailer used as a health clinic provides exam rooms for the backside workers to receive free medical attention.

Other locals have stepped up to improve the lives of the workers. Friends Erik Zamudio and Andrew Savitz, two students from the University of Cincinnati, borrowed land from local farmers in the Cincinnati area and have started growing produce vegetables for the workers.

In summer 2012, the two students started taking the produce to the backside, allowing the workers to choose from fresh tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, peas, and more. They even offered bananas, plums, apples, and peaches, donated from local growers.

“I’ve been volunteering here for a while, and from the beginning, it has amazed me to see how much these people do and how much they love their jobs, but don’t have much to show for it,” Zamudio says. “It’s great to be able to give something back to them for all their hard work.”

Life on the backside may not sound appealing, but the workers make the best of it. On a hot day, 27-year-old exercise rider Bernie Vasques can be found relaxing in the shade under a tree with a couple of friends and a case of cold beer. A red pickup truck is parked nearby, and Spanish music from the radio echoes throughout the backside. Although most of their time is spent working with the horses, Vasques says he and his friends find ways to have fun.

“Me and my friends go fishing, go to concerts next door at Riverbend, and sometimes even go to King’s Island,” Vasques says. “It’s a fun job where we hang out with a lot of friends and meet a lot of new people.”

A family circle

The workers at River Downs vary in age, ethnicity and background. Some are in their 20s; others are as old as in their 50s. Some speak primarily in Spanish, while others don’t know more than “hola.” Some are single, while others have children and families. It’s a community with differences among individuals, but a commonality among all.

“It’s like a family circle, you know. We just follow the circle,” says Ron Williams, a 54-year-old backside worker who claims he does “everything but ride” at the track.

Williams has been working with horses his whole life. His real home is in Kentucky, but during the summer, he lives in the dorms on the backside of the racetrack.

“Just like most people have a dog and a cat, I grew up around horses,” Williams says.

Even when he’s not with the horses, Williams spends much of his free time reading about horses and discussing horses with fellow workers.

“We pretty much all know each other, you know?” he says. “I mean sometimes we don’t see each other until this meet starts, or if we get lucky they might bring a horse to Kentucky, or we might come to Ohio and we run across one another. But most of the time we do know each other and laugh and joke, and say ‘How was the winter?’ ‘How was the summer?’ You know?”

The backside of River Downs has morphed into its own culture. The fashion is jockey silks, the music is the sound of horses’ hooves, and the language is the jargon of racing. It’s a culture with its own rules, hierarchy and values. Workers come to River Downs to follow their jobs, and they create a community through their passion for horses.

Backside worker Ron Williams uses his break to enjoy a beer outside his room and read up on the next race.

Workers living on the backside make use of what they have in order to complete daily tasks.

The trailer donated by the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America doubles as a chapel where backside workers can attend church services.

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