School of Hard Knocks and Early Education for Racetrack Kids

| May 30, 2012 4:00 AM

Kim Brooking exercising a horse at Belmont Park. Photo by Lili Holzer-Glier.

Kim Brooking, 26,  supports herself, her boyfriend Mike Kaetzel, and their 12-month-old son, Joseph, on $75 a day exercising horses at Belmont Park racetrack.  At $15 a piece, some days she gets on three horses, sometimes eight. The couple once earned upwards of $60,000 together until they both were laid off from permanent jobs.

Tammy Edwards, 41, earns $56 a day, plus tips, selling programs at Ozone Park’s Aqueduct Racetrack. She supports herself and her two sons, 12 and six, on $13,440 a year, $4,870 below the poverty line for a family of three. She may make another $10 to $50 a day in tips, but she can never count on that.

Elena, 38, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, and her partner Raul, 29, support their three young children, all U.S. citizens, on $25,000 to $35,000 a year (the family’s first names have been changed to protect their identities). They work at Belmont as “hot walkers,” the staff who cools down the horses, walking them around the barns after they exercise.

These are racetrack families, native and foreign-born, who live in a tight-knit and often secretive world that make up horse racing’s backside in New York’s Belmont Park in Long Island and Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens.

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Their jobs are often seven-days-a-week and the work is back breaking, sometimes literally. Horses routinely throw or fall on exercise riders.  Grooms are kicked and bitten by their charges. Hot walkers are on their feet for hours, walking horses in circles. “Racetrackers,” a term workers call themselves, rake, haul and clean dozens of stalls per day.

Although racetracks employ thousands of parents nationwide, Belmont Park is the only track in the country with daycare. Each day about 50 children out of the 800 or so belonging to Belmont Park’s 2,000 track workers arrive at the Anna House Day Care Center. The executive director of Anna House, Donna Chenkin, estimates it costs about $17,000 a year to care for each child,  though most racetrack parents pay nowhere near that amount. Before Kim and Mike lost their salaried jobs, they were paying $1,200 a month for daycare, based on their income. Now Mike cares for Joseph at home while Kim brings in the only paycheck.

“It’s been hard,” says Brooking about her role as a new mother whose job entails hard, physical work. “Anna House was awesome and I think Joe misses it a lot.”

Available only to children of track workers, Anna House opened in 1998 and caters to the peculiarities of racetrack life. It opens at 5 a.m. so parents can make it to work on time. To accommodate the large Spanish-speaking community, all employees are bilingual. According to Chenkin, the racetrack’s extreme hours make it nearly impossible for parents to find babysitters or use traditional daycare. “Parents were desperate,” says Chenkin, “When they had to work they’d leave their kids in cars, or let them sleep in the horses’ stalls. It’s just dangerous.”

Besides being a safe haven for track kids, Anna House provides essential early education for children. “Some kids who were born in the U.S. come in here and don’t speak English,” says Chenkin, “We help them learn the language, and I think it gives them a huge advantage compared to other racetrack kids starting school.”

All of Elena’s three children were enrolled in Anna House at just six weeks old. Her older boys graduated from the program but still receive biweekly tutoring. “They all love it,” she says, “and I think it’s helping them in school.”

Chenkin began her career at the United Nations, setting up child crisis centers in Somalia and Bosnia. She says working at Anna House is not much different. “The issues are the same: parents always want their kids to be safe, and once safety is established, then they want them to get some education. I know this is America and it’s supposed to be the land of milk and honey, but the poverty here is the same as in a third world country. Poverty is poverty.”

Anna House charges parents on a sliding scale. A single mother making $350 per week as a hot walker is charged a nominal fee or receives free day care. A couple making $1,300 a week, similar to what Kim and Mike earned, are charged the full amount.  Although Mike is now unemployed, Kim’s average $500 weekly pay is still too high to receive free daycare, but not high enough to pay for day care and feed the family.

Chenkin says the track workers she has met have been almost invariably hardworking and dedicated to providing a better life for their children.

Both of Tammy Edwards’ boys were enrolled in the Anna House program for most of their young lives. “Not only did I know my kids were safe, they were learning a lot too. Anna House was a blessing.”

  • Steve

    What a wonderful place Anna House is. 

  • Nick

    What a moving article, and accompanied by extraordinary photos really showing me a new, different world. Thank you.

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