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Stable Views: Stories and Voices from the Thoroughbred Racetrack

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A woman setting up a video camera. Another woman is in the background.
Ellen McHale prepares for an interview with fellow New York folklorist Eileen Condon in 2017. Photo by Stephen Winick.

The following is a guest post by Ellen McHale, Ph.D., creator of the Occupational Folklife Project collection Stable Views: Stories and Voices from the Thoroughbred Racetrack. Explore the collection at this link!

My introduction to the racetrack and its world of racing began in 1996, when I was asked by the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame at Saratoga Spring, New York, to conduct an ethnographic study of the “backstretch.” At that time, the Museum was searching for a way to interact with the wider racing community and to expand their audience beyond the general public who were largely racing consumers. They were also interested in increasing their knowledge of the racing environment around the Saratoga racetrack which could serve to inform their public educational programs and their curatorial and exhibits program. My work was initially supported by the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts, which provided grant support for documentary fieldwork and for programming. I received an Archie Green Fellowship in Occupational Folklore from the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress in 2012, which allowed me to expand my research beyond New York State to include racetracks and stables in Kentucky, Florida, and Louisiana. The entire project resulted in a traveling exhibition and a book published by the University Press of Mississippi, Stable Views: Stories and Voices from the Thoroughbred Racetrack (2015).

The thoroughbred racetrack serves as a centerpiece of a unique world of work, with specialized roles and tasks, specific language and vocabulary, rituals, and a shared knowledge and history among the people who make the race meets occur. Because of their commonality of experience, those who work at the racetrack in its various roles make up a distinctive occupational folk group. Whether working within the stable areas of Belmont Racetrack in New York City, or Tampa Bay Downs in Florida, thoroughbred racetrack workers can easily adapt to the rhythms of work because of their shared occupational folklife. When a backstretch worker enters the backstretch, he or she will already have information regarding a shared vocabulary, a way of work, and the common courtesies which are expected to be followed in order to maintain the safety of all in the backstretch. In his 1993 book Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes, Archie Green, who devoted his life to the study of workers’ lives in the United States, characterizes this “labor lore” as encompassing “job technique, customary practice, verbal art, and ideological cause.”  The racetrack and its workers provide a case study for an examination of Green’s labor lore, a testing of its use as a defining keyword.

Race track exercise rider Lorna Chavez, dressed in black and pink, sits on a horse.
Race track exercise rider Lorna Chavez on a horse at New York’s Saratoga Race Course in 2012. Chavez’s interview is part of the “Stable Views” Occupational Folklife Project collection. View the photo with its related materials here!

The occupational world of the racetrack is dictated by a training regimen designed to ready a racehorse for competition. It is the care of the racehorse, and its abilities to win races and thereby provide remuneration for its owner and workers, which drives the working environment of the backstretch. All activity hinges on the horse and each day is a routinized and ritualized series of activities revolving around this animal. In its focus on the care and training of racehorses, the thoroughbred racetrack supports many occupational roles that are unique to animal husbandry. As part of my documentation as an Archie Green Fellow, I sought to interview individuals in as many different occupational roles as possible, and to especially seek out individuals who had long time family involvement in thoroughbred horse racing. I interviewed those who worked directly with the horses, especially those who were part of small stables of fewer than twenty horses. Within the racetrack environment, those who have served in a long term capacity within the backstretch may have trained, then exercised horses, and now may be riding while training one’s own horse on the side.

Prestige is accorded to those who have made a lifelong commitment to the care of the race horse. Longevity and hard work are admired. In her 1991 book Down the Backstretch, sociologist Carole Case states, “Through the nature of track life frustrates affective relationships with those on the outside, workers maintain them inside the fence. The relationships are characterized by intimacy, the sharing of belongings and emotional investment in one another despite distance and time.”  In such a circumscribed environment, friendships are important to maintain a support network. Relationships last for many years. In his interview, rider Robert Paterno said:

No matter where I go, if I go to a racetrack I’ve never been at before, I know that sooner or later I’ll run into somebody that I know. And sometimes I meet people that I haven’t seen in twenty years. And it’s just like we hadn’t seen each other since yesterday.

A trend towards the involvement of entire families in racetrack professions permeates the entire racing world. As an Archie Green Fellow, I encountered many instances of spouses, children, and other members of a worker’s extended family working within the backstretch or in allied occupations. Family members are frequently involved throughout their lives and find their niche within the established. I interviewed several people who talked about family members who were trainers, jockey agents, jockeys, makers of racing silks, or those who held other roles within the corporate world of racing. Extended family involvement is also relevant to those in service positions within the racetrack environment. Such is the case with farrier Ray Amato and his family, as he explained in a 2012 interview:

I’m just shy of 80 years old and I’m still working which is very odd in this business.
My back never bothered me.
My dad was that way. My dad had a good back….
After I learned and got on my own and got going and established pretty good in the industry,
my dad taught by brother Tony
Then I taught my brother Paddy.
Then I taught my son, Ray, Jr.
And I taught by nephew Chris.
And they’re all doing good too. Good horseshoers…Only in the thoroughbred industry and they turned out to be good horseshoers.

Patrick Bovenzi and an unidentified man hold a horse's head while Bovenzi looks at the horse's lip.
Patrick Bovenzi checking a horse’s lip tattoo before a race at Tampa Bay Downs. Bovenzi’s interview is part of the ”Stable Views” Occupational Folklife Project collection. View the photo with its related materials here!

Training a horse is perceived as a gamble, as a single incident can belie weeks of training. Training is an inexact science that demands psychological insight into animals and humans, perseverance, innovation, and luck. It is also an occupation which requires a love for horses, long hours which begin before the sun and finish well into the day, and the ability to deal with both stable staff and the horse owner who wishes to realize profit from his or her investment. Consistently, when asked what makes a good trainer, the response was “A good horse makes a good trainer”, meaning that the only reason that a trainer is doing his job well is because his athletes are already gifted.  Similarly, the rider, or “jock”, can be said to have only a small part to play in the outcome. As retired trainer Dave Erb said in a 1997 interview:

There’s an old saying “Riders don’t make horses but horses make riders.” You only have to get on one or two good horses and then you’re in demand. I’ve seen a lot of riders, real good riders who could compete with anyone, just never got that break. Just never got a good horse to ride.

As is the case with other occupations, the use of language and specialized vocabularies help to mark membership within the racetrack environment. The colorful and specific language, the tight-knit bonds of family and friendships, and the variety of activity within the occupational setting makes the thoroughbred horse industry a fruitful arena for ethnographic study.  Please explore the collection at this link.

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