Virtually each morning, Felipe Pulido Mendoza begins work at round 4:15 a.m. Earlier than the solar rises, the seasoned groom greets the 4 Thoroughbred horses in his care, feeds them, cleans them and prepares them to be walked, educated or raced.
Pulido Mendoza is one among about 950 individuals who stay and work on the backstretch of the Del Mar Fairgrounds – almost 1 / 4 of Del Mar’s year-round inhabitants – for about 10 weeks every summer season and 6 weeks within the fall.
They play an integral half within the multimillion-dollar horse racing business, but they’re largely unknown to the thousands and thousands of followers who go to each summer season and are a forgotten voice within the ongoing debates across the age-old business and those that consider it needs to be shut down.
Backstretch employees are liable for caring for as much as 2,000 Thoroughbred horses. They’re made up of grooms, scorching walkers, train riders, pony riders and assistant trainers.
Most of them are from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, and Spanish is usually their first language. Each women and men work on the backstretch, although about 80 p.c are males, and a wide range of ages are represented. A few of the employees are single and a few have households that they’re separated from throughout the season.
The work itself is bodily and mentally demanding, requiring lengthy days in the summertime warmth, arduous labor and the persistence to deal with almost 2,000-pound Thoroughbreds.
They have to additionally adapt to a sometimes-challenging way of life – the nomadic nature of dwelling at totally different racetracks throughout the totally different racing seasons could make it troublesome for them to commonly see their households or to keep up a secure neighborhood again dwelling.
However regardless of these challenges, their love for the horses shines by and their dedication to the game retains most of them round for the lengthy haul.
Final month, Pulido Mendoza obtained a Dedication to Racing Award as a part of the annual Thoroughbred Trade Worker Awards.
“My favourite factor is my horses,” Pulido Mendoza stated when requested about the most effective a part of his job. “I work with them each day and I feel they know me – they don’t converse, however they know.”
‘We Go The place the Horses Go’
Pulido Mendoza working on the Del Mar Fairgrounds. / Photographs by Ariana Drehsler
In 1974, earlier than Thoroughbred horse coach Richard Mandella turned a family title and a member of the U.S. Racing Corridor of Fame, he employed Pulido Mendoza. He was a hotwalker when he and Mandella first crossed paths, however he rapidly turned Mandella’s most trusted groom.
Grooms act because the horses’ private attendants and simply spend probably the most time with the horses. Hotwalkers are tasked with cooling down the horses after train.
Pulido Mendoza was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and got here to the U.S. nearly 50 years in the past. His household lives about 10 minutes away from Santa Anita Park, however, like many of the different backstretch employees, he lives and works on the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
As soon as the season ends in Del Mar, he and his friends will migrate to Santa Anita Park for the beginning of that racing season. Subsequent 12 months, he’ll do it another time.
“We go the place the horses go,” he stated with fun.
Earlier than getting into the horseracing world, Pulido Mendoza grew up round horses and, for him, it was second nature.
“I simply love the horses,” Pulido Mendoza stated, beaming from ear to ear, gazing at one among his horses within the close by stall. He’s not a person of many phrases, however his interactions along with his horses stated all of it.
A number of years in the past, Mandella tried to advertise Pulido Mendoza, however he opted to stay a groom to remain nearer to the horses.
“As a lot as he loves his horses, it didn’t shock me due to that,” Mandella instructed The Paulick Report in 2018. “He’d slightly work with horses than folks, and that’s comprehensible.”
Gary Mandella, Richard Mandella’s son, and now a coach alongside his father, was solely two years outdated when Pulido Mendoza was employed into his dad’s secure.
“I’ve by no means seen anybody love horses greater than he does,” Gary Mandella stated. “They actually soften into him. They belief him as a result of he has a delicate soul. I’m extremely proud to work with him and name him a pal.”
On the day we visited, Gary Mandella was busily making ready his horses and employees for a race that upcoming Saturday. His dad was out sick, and 7 of their Thoroughbreds could be getting into the race.
He talked concerning the significance of getting a reliable staff across the horses, particularly on the essential days proper earlier than a giant race.
“There’s a good variety of these guys which have labored for us for a very long time,” Gary Mandella stated. “Most of us discovered our means right here as a result of we had some kind of interplay with horses as younger folks, and that bond and that love for horses, it simply will get into you, and you’ll’t let it go.”
Andres Mora is one other groom on the Del Mar Racetrack. He works for two-time Kentucky-Derby-winning coach Doug O’Neill. Mora’s father, Leandro Mora, is O’Neill’s assistant coach and right-hand man.
Mora has identified O’Neill since he was a child, when he used to go to the monitor along with his dad. The 28-year-old was raised round horses, so following in his father’s footsteps was by no means actually a matter of “if,” however a matter of “when.”
Like most of the different backstretch employees, Mora goes the place the horses go. He’s even labored at racetracks in numerous elements of the world, together with Dubai and Japan. His house is in Santa Anita, however throughout Del Mar’s season, he lives and works on the backstretch.
Along with his groom duties, Mora additionally works with the Thoroughbreds doing horse remedy. His days begin concurrently the opposite grooms, however usually wraps up a pair hours later.
“You get to create a bond with the animal – lots nearer of a bond than most assume,” Mora stated. “I get to know them, and so they get to know me, as a result of, you recognize, you’re going into their dwelling. You need them to really feel snug, so that they don’t really feel such as you’re a risk getting into their area.”
The one factor Mora treasures most is seeing the horses develop to take care of the people who take care of them.
“I have to deal with [the horses] simply in addition to they’re going to deal with me,” Mora stated. “I would like them to be good to me, so I’m going to be good to them.”
He swiftly pulled out one of many carrots he retains in his pocket, which is without doubt one of the methods he likes to point out kindness to his horses.
After the season ends, Mora is planning on going as much as Santa Anita Park along with his dad and the remainder of the barn, however he hopes to finally return to high school to grow to be a trainer, which, he says, his horses have ready him properly for.
Strolling by the backstretch nearly looks like getting into one other city. The fresh-cut grass, well-manicured hedges and vivid flowers that greet guests as they enter the racetrack are changed with grime roads and box-shaped dormitories.
Out of doors strolling rings that hotwalkers use to chill down the horses are positioned from time to time, together with the occasional Thoroughbred getting hosed down by a groom.
Clothes strains are hung throughout fences and between poles holding denims and numerous different clothes, and bundles of hay are scattered all through the neighborhood.
A mixture of backstretch employees lookup and wave at passersby, smiling and providing a greeting. Because the day begins to wind down at round 11 a.m. for many of the employees, teams begin to collect, their laughter piercing the air as they inform tales of the day.
In complete, about 950 backstretch employees stay within the dorm-style housing, which often holds two folks per room, freed from cost.
The property has 43 barns on the bottom, every with a number of bedrooms in them. There may be additionally a dormitory, generally known as “Motel 6,” that homes slightly below 100 folks, in addition to roughly 50 trailers which are imported every summer season.
Wages fluctuate among the many employees. Entry degree jobs, like scorching walkers or brand-new grooms, pay minimal wage, however there are alternatives for everybody to work their means up, obtain raises and a few may even grow to be salaried. And a number of the employees, just like the train riders, are unbiased contractors.
In addition they have the choice to enroll in a statutory backstretch pension plan, which is sort of a 401k.
All backstretch employees even have full medical, dental and imaginative and prescient protection for themselves and their households with minimal prices. Since 2001, the Gregson Basis has sponsored faculty scholarships for kids of backstretch personnel in addition to outings for the employees and their households to locations just like the San Diego Zoo, Sea World and Padres baseball video games.
The employees additionally take pleasure in going out to the seashore and exploring Del Mar’s points of interest of their free time.
A big eating corridor serves breakfast, lunch and dinner at decreased costs. That and the “Rec Room” with TVs, pool tables and ping pong tables have grow to be a spot for all the employees to assemble, socialize and unwind after a tough day’s work.
“Dwelling on the backstretch, you actually get that sense of household,” Mora stated. “A whole lot of the workers have been right here for some time. They’ve all identified one another for fairly a while, and it’s to the purpose the place if somebody close by is making meals, they all the time ask you, ‘hey, you need a taco?”
Most of the employees pursued this profession to offer for his or her households whereas nonetheless having the ability to do what they know and love.
Backstretch work has offered them with a possibility for stability, monetary safety, security and companionship. That, and the simple love they’ve for his or her horses, has created a particular type of success that many aren’t planning on giving up any time quickly.
As Del Mar’s summer season 2022 season involves an finish, most of the backstretch employees shall be heading to Santa Anita Park, however the horses shall be again right here within the fall, and the backstretch employees will observe.