The backstretch at any racetrack is a strip of land that is part of the actual track itself. It is the far-side of the track, away from the clubhouse and grandstand. The backstretch begins after the clubhouse turn, and ends at the second (homestretch) turn.
It is a physical place, a strip of land covered with dirt, sand and the other materials on which horses run. (In some places, for whatever reasons, some track is composed of artificial dirt, ground up rubber tires and jelly cable, a carcinogen.) But the track of which we speak today is the beautiful, brown, deep dirt at Saratoga Race Course – America’s oldest race track, the Grande Dame of American racing ovals.
Backstretch refers to the track, itself, and to the area just behind that stretch of track where the horses live, work and interact with their humans.
This region is alternately Heaven and Hell, healthy and dysfunctional, bliss-inducing and a major stressor – all at once. In other words, the backstretch is a community, a family – and is a microcosm of society. The people who live and work there come in every beautiful color, nationality and economic condition. This family of horse lovers is the United Nations of sports.
There is nothing inherently bad or good about the backstretch. Like most places, it’s just a physical location, and the actions (or inactions) of the humans therein are what determines the moral or ethical judgments that are heaped upon the place.
Some people who don’t know what they’re talking about project that the backstretch – referring specifically to our backstretch in Saratoga - is populated by “low lives.” First, that judgment is insulting to everyone who steps onto that piece of property. Ninety-nine percent of backstretchers at any given time, on any track, are there to work, whether they are a trainer, groom, hotwalker, starter, cook, farrier, veterinarian, writer, handicapper, photographer, commentator, water truck or tractor driver – or any of the other hundreds of jobs that are filled by hard-working, honest people. Without these people, horse racing would not – could not – exist. The horses are God’s most perfect creatures, they’re beautiful. But they don’t just magically appear on the track, and put themselves into the starting gate.
If it takes a village to rear a child, then surely it takes a megalopolis to get a horse onto the track for her first race, and every race thereafter.
The backstretch is, indeed, misunderstood by many who sit outside the gates on either Nelson or Union Avenue. Many locals complain that, “in the old days,” anyone could just walk into the back and watch the horses work out. This is true – but NYRA must be firm about today’s “no credentials/pass - no admittance” rule for two reasons:
* The backstretch isn’t Disneyland: it’s the work environment for many people, and therefore a very busy place. (It would be unacceptable if I walked into your office, pulled up a chair and start talking to you about nonsense as you tried to work, yes?) The people who work in the backstretch are very friendly, by-and-large, and offer a welcoming hello to acquaintances. But they’re there to work, whether that work includes mucking stalls, cooking breakfast for hundreds of others or checking a horse’s legs for heat.
* Safety, for all concerned. Many who acquire passes to visit the backstretch don’t realize that while horses look like great, big stuffed toys – they’re not. Again, not Disneyland. Horses are gentle-of-heart, innocent, and generally kind. But they’ve survived for four million years by being on their guard. “Fight or flight” is their motto. If a horse encounters little Jimmy, and Jimmy starts screaming or running at the horse – that horse’s natural instincts tell her to bite, kick or run. It takes finesse to hang with horses, and that finesse can be learned by virtually everyone – I’m a big fan of growing the sport of horse racing by introducing people to horses. But a person who knows horses well should do the introduction, and encourage the growth of that relationship – walking up to a horse you don’t know isn’t smart, and can be dangerous.
So no, unfortunately, the backstretch isn’t necessarily accessible to everyone who’d like to be there – but there are good reasons why. If you’re sincere about wanting to meet a horse and becoming part of the family, you can figure out how to meet a horseman or -woman, and meet some beautiful steed, up-close-and-personal. Who knows, you may become a horseperson yourself.
The backstretch is a beautiful, serene-at-times, frenetic-at-others, place. It is a bustling Petri dish, chock-full and teeming with life, and gusto, and joy. But above all, the backstretch – of Saratoga Race Course, or any other track – is home to many horses, and therefore – at least, for people like me – a place of deep reverence.
During the rest of the Saratoga meet, I’ll introduce you to some great people and their jobs at the track. The unseen, unknown souls without whom the races could not happen. If your horse racing experience has been all from the front of the house, you may be surprised to realize that these people and their jobs even exist – so I hope that you enjoy the stories, and learn to love and appreciate these beautiful souls who make this place tick. Come along with me to the backstretch, and get to know some people who may even inspire you to pursue your own dreams of a career in horse racing. It’s the only sport on Earth worth watching, in my humble opinion, and you may find that you want to become part of this wild, peaceful, spirited community of people who love horses obsessively.
If you have any questions, please contact me through SaratogaWire.com. I invite you to get to know the backstretch, the people, the horses – and to consider how you, too, may fit into our lovely Family of the Horse.
ON THE WIRE