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Voices Spring-Summer 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the excerpt of “An Ethnography of the Saratoga Racetrack” by Ellen McHale here.
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Volume 29

An Ethnography of the Saratoga Racetrack by Ellen McHale

The backstretch of the thoroughbred racetrack at Saratoga Springs, New York, is an "intentional" community, a voluntary community forged through a common occupation—the care of the racehorse. Here the assistant trainers, exercise riders, jockeys, and others tend to the horses that are a locus for wealthy owners and high-society spectators and bettors. This backside community creates its own identity through naming practices, speech, and the use of language. It is a community that views itself as generous, open, and regular yet is marked by secrecy and control and ruled by chance. Because the workers’ future is never certain, allegiances are tenuous and identities are constructed.

From the second week in July through Labor Day, Saratoga Springs experiences the carnival known as the Racing Season. During this six-week period, thousands of spectators throng into a city of 60,000, swelling its population into the millions. The subject of interest, the thoroughbred racetrack, employs thousands of people: betting clerks, wait-staff, custodians, parking lot attendants, food service workers, groundskeepers, tip sheet hawkers, security guards—all of whom take temporary employment during the racing season.

Besides the workers of the "frontside" are the thousands of workers in the "backside." This underclass of track workers comprises temporary residents of Saratoga Springs who are permanent employees in the business of racing. They are the people whose lives are inextricably linked to the horses: the grooms, "hot walkers," trainers, assistant trainers, and exercise riders...
Photo of Juan Bon Bom Galbez demonstrating the Chilean art of braiding manes
Juan "Bon Bom" Galbez demonstrates the Chilean art of braiding manes and tails at the National Museum of Racing’s annual Fiesta of Racetrack Traditions. Galbez is an outrider for the New York Racing Association. Photo: Dorothy Ours, courtesy of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
The Track and Its Workers
...A unique world of work revolves around the racetrack, with specialized roles and tasks, specific language and vocabulary, rituals, and a shared knowledge and history among the people who make the races occur. Because of their common experience, those who work at the racetrack make up a distinct occupational folk group, with shared experiences, a specialized language, specific tools and techniques, and unique customs and beliefs. Their occupational world is dictated by the horse. Each day has a routine, ritualized series of activities that constitute an attempt to control the unpredictable and make a racehorse run to its full potential.

One groom explained:

I come in about four-thirty. Feed breakfast. Most people have watchers [who observe a horse to make sure it is eating well and shows no signs of illness] when they feed breakfast. We don’t because the stable’s not that big. But I come in about four-thirty. Feed. Muck out my stalls. Then about five-thirty—six we start training. You know, we pack them up and send them to the track. They come back, we bathe them. But that lasts until ten or ten-thirty. Then we do them up. We put all kinds of liniments and poultices on them and put bandages on them. We feed about eleven a.m. Then we come back about three-thirty. Muck out the stalls again and feed them about five. And then we’re done...
Photo of Juan Bon Bom Galbez with horse with completed hacerie chapé
Juan "Bon Bom" Galbez with horse with a hacerie chapé, a Chilean braided mane.
By six or six-thirty a.m., the exercise riders have begun the horses’ daily workouts. It is the exercise riders’ job to advise the trainer about the mood and fitness of the horse. He or she will let the trainer know if the horse is "off," an indication that there might be a hidden physical ailment. The workouts continue for the next few hours, as each horse is run through its paces. Untried horses—two-year-olds that have not yet raced—are schooled during this period. If they are entered in an upcoming race, they will be taken to the practice starting gates. The horses are then led to the shedrow between the barns and walked until their body temperature cools. They will be bathed, rubbed down, and returned to their stalls. Other service people begin to appear—the salespeople for feed, shoes, and medicines are arriving—as do the farriers who will fit each horse entered in the day’s races with new aluminum shoes...
If a horse is entered in that day’s race, the trainer has the groom remain with the horse and accompany it to the track. Many grooms are proud of the part they play in the success of their horses, but they are frustrated as well, for the grooms are the most invisible people at the track. Although they, the exercise riders, and the hot walkers have been involved with the horse on a daily basis and are present at the race, in the winner’s circle, it is the owner, trainer, and jockey—who arrives only minutes before the race to take his mount—who receive the accolades...

Chance and Ritual
Just as with other sporting activities, horseracing involves elements of chance, but as sociologist Carole Case points out, activities in the backstretch to prepare the horses are ritualized to minimize the risk. Techniques that appear efficacious will be repeated in an attempt to duplicate the favorable outcome. One trainer routinely shares his best Scotch with a certain horse, believing that it makes the horse run faster. Other trainers use magnetic blankets, deep tissue massage, or specially mixed salves for sore legs and feet. Trainers are not allowed to practice veterinary medicine, and any infractions of the strict rules governing accepted treatments can lead to censure or loss of one’s training license. However, salves and liniments are often concocted from secret recipes.
I had a filly that had bad feet and [my father would] tell me some kind of stuff to use. It was a combination of a medicated mud, a poultice with bran, Epsom salt, and a black drawing salve which is a combination of all of that stuff. You use that as a drawing to get the heat out. That was pretty good.

The old-timers, they made their own medications. Now they buy everything. I don’t think that’s so good. Like when my father trained, he’d use like cucumbers, stuff like that for cracked heels. Now they’ve got all those salves and stuff. I mean, it does the trick but it takes so long to do it. With the cucumbers and whatever stuff he’d use, in two or three days it was gone.
Photo of Ted Baxter, a veterinarian's assistant, practicing horse dentistry.
Ted Baxter, a veterinarian’s assistant, practices horse dentistry at the 2001 Fiesta of Racetrack Traditions. Photo: Dorothy Ours, courtesy of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame,
The element of chance that is experienced in the backstretch of the racetrack can negate weeks of training. A pebble is kicked up, a horseshoe is thrown, a saddle slips. Any of these seemingly minor events may cause a chain reaction in which a horse is injured and those who work with the horses are reminded that their occupation is highly dangerous. One exercise rider was thrown from his horse during a morning gallop; his broken ribs left him unemployable for the remainder of the year. A groom is stepped on by a horse, his foot breaks, and he is temporarily out of work. Unemployment can be devastating in this world of contractual employment...

Identity Markers
In his edited volume, Usable Parts, Tad Tuleja draws attention to the variety of stylistic resources people use to manipulate their identities: any cultural trait can denote group membership. In the backstretch, one’s identity is often a constructed identity. Personal and family identities take second place to one’s job position, employer, or ethnic group. Nicknames abound, and surnames are virtually nonexistent among grooms, hot walkers, and gallopers. To locate someone in the backside, one must know who that person works for and what number barn he or she is in.
Photo of Juan Orozco, a ranchera player.Juan Orozco, a ranchera player, relaxes with fellow track workers in the evening hours. Photo: Ellen McHale.
...If a horse is not performing well at one racetrack, it can be shipped without a moment’s notice, and the groom and the hot walker ride with the horse in the trailer to the new racetrack or perhaps back to the home barn in Kentucky or Florida. Because of the migratory nature of this work, allegiances are tenuous and identities are constructed...

One marker used at the racetrack is the specialized vocabulary that denotes membership in the life of the backside. Wisdom and lore are imparted through proverbial expressions. "Riders don’t make horses but horses make riders" acknowledges the horse as the determinant of a jockey’s fate: jockeys need to win races before they can be hired to ride winning mounts. Another proverb that speaks to the uncertainty of life at the racetrack is, "Chickens today, feathers tomorrow": one’s fortunes can change within moments.

As with other occupational groups, a specialized argot serves as a marker for group membership. A groom "rubs" a horse. A horse that wins his first race "breaks his maiden," as does a jockey who wins her first race. When a horse "spits the bit out," he has been running well and then all of a sudden falters...This specialized language is important in maintaining a boundary between those who inhabit the horse world and those who are merely spectators on the frontside.

Material Culture
...Material culture in the backstretch serves as another indicator of identity. Racing silks, the jackets and caps worn by the jockeys during a race, are identity markers. Each owner registers his colors and silk design with the Racing Association, and from then on they identify his horses, jockeys, and barns. Trainers use color-coordinated feed tubs, and initialed and color-coordinated stable gates. A Jewish trainer incorporates the Star of David into his stable designs, and an Irish trainer colors all his stall decorations and accoutrements in the orange, green, and white of the Irish flag.

Even the plantings around the barn are color-coordinated to match the owner’s silks. The planting of flowers is one of the first activities in the week before the meet begins. As trainers arrive with their horses and workers to set up the barn, flowers are planted in color schemes that mark territory for the six weeks of the meet.
Saratoga Racetrack is known for its extensive decorative plantings.Saratoga Racetrack is known for its extensive decorative plantings, whose colors indicate the owners of the stables they surround. Photo: Ellen McHale.

Photo of a pommel padAccessories such as these crocheted pommel pads were often made by Saratoga-area women and peddled at the racetrack. Photo: Ellen McHale.
...In this intentional community, identities in the backstretch are forged through one’s relationship with the horse. In a world where the horse is king, it is truly "Chickens today, feathers tomorrow."


Ellen McHale is executive director of the New York Folklore Society. Her research was supported in part by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts and by the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.Photo of Ellen McHale

Although they, the exercise riders, and the hot walkers have been involved with the horse on a daily basis and are present at the race, in the winner’s circle, it is the owner, trainer, and jockey—who arrives only minutes before the race to take his mount—who receive the accolades.


Abrahams, Roger. 1982. Play and games. Motif: International Newsletter of Research in Folklore and Literature. June (no. 3).

Case, Carole. 1991. Down the Backstretch: Racing and the American dream. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Harrah-Conforth, Jeanne. 1992. The landscape of possibility: An ethnography of the Kentucky Derby. Ph.D. dissertation, Indiana University.

Hotaling, Edward. 1995. They’re off: Horse racing at Saratoga. Syracuse University Press.

Jones, Michael Owen. 1997. How can we apply event analysis to 'material behavior,' and why should we? Western Folklore Summer/Fall: 199-214.

Thomas, Jennie B. 1995, Pick-up trucks, horses, women, and foreplay: The fluidity of folklore. Western Folklore July: 213-28.

Tuleja, Tad. 1997. Usable Pasts: Traditions and Group Expression in North America. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Spring-Summer 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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