- Published: Monday, 15 February 2016 19:35
Donna O’Connor has worked on the backstretch at Laurel Park for 15 years and she has seen a lot of things, but when the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association started holding open forums with the backstretch community last summer and then actually followed up on things that were discussed she was almost speechless.
“I’ve lived here for a long time,” O’Connor says. “There have been years when you feel you don’t matter. I’ve had a long-standing issue with people smoking in the barns. I think it is ludicrous to be smoking in a barn and I’ve tried for years to get it addressed, but nothing ever got done.
“Then, last summer, they started holding these meetings. I went and the first time I brought it up, one of the security guards stepped up and said, ‘I’m going to take care of it.’ The next day in our barn those people [smoking] got written up. That guard was a man of his word and we don’t have a smoking problem anymore.
“I feel they really listen and even if you bring up things that can’t be or haven’t been done yet, it just feels good to get it off your chest. David [MTHA Executive Director David Richardson] said ‘Tell us what you need and we will do our best to make sure it gets addressed quickly.’ I don’t think we knew what to say. Tell you what we want? We’d never heard that before.”
The MTHA had been – and still is – looking for ways to improve communications and living conditions on the backstretch of its Maryland racetracks – Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course. It came up with the monthly forum to allow residents to constructively participate in the process of improving the industry from the ground up.
Meetings have been held at Laurel Park but plans are in place to also have them at Pimlico as well.
“The backside community has always seemed to be a forgotten place,” Richardson says. “We’ve really made a concerted effort to make improvements in people’s lives. We set up this open forum for people to come and started asking, ‘What can we do? What do you need?’”
It was, in fact, a simple approach and, as O’Connor says, shocking to the backstretch employees who felt shut out and neglected for so long.
On the first Thursday of every month at 2 p.m., in the Laurel track kitchen, employees are invited to the open forum to speak their minds about things they need and to make suggestions for ways to improve living conditions on the backstretch.
Richardson says if it is possible for the MTHA to get something done, it will.
One of the first issues brought to the MTHA’s attention was resident’s mail situation. Backstretch workers weren’t always getting their mail because the stable gate functioned as everyone’s post office. When it arrived at the racetracks it was thrown in a cardboard box and people could come in and rifle through it, able to take their own mail and even that of others.
When Richardson heard about it, he approached the MTHA Board of Directors and asked for nominal funding to build a mail room.
“There was a recreation room at the track not being used,” Richardson recalls. “It was kept locked except for certain special occasions. We asked if we could open it up, build a mailroom and make use of the rest of it to be a community area so workers can enjoy it.
“Now we have a mailroom similar to a college. Every person living on the backstretch will have his or her room number on their own locked mailbox and a key to open it. And we also received a little funding for the recreation room rehab project. We’re making a living room-type area with a couple TVs, vending machines and microwaves. We heard people saying, ‘We need a place to go to just hang out during down time.’ We’re rehabbing the whole place, making it like it was designed to be. We want people to be able to come watch a movie. We’re hoping to have gatherings, bring people together to watch a boxing match or have a Super Bowl party.
“We’re trying to improve the community as a whole,” he says. “The backstretch is a great place, it has just needed some attention and leadership. Instead of it being transient and forgotten, we want to build a sense of community. The people who live and work on the backstretch are the backbone of the industry. Without them there would be no industry. We’re just trying to make a concerted effort to make people’s environment more livable.”
There are people who have been living in single rooms on the backstretch for many years, who seldom – if ever – leave the racetrack. When the MTHA, the Maryland Jockey Club and MedStar Sports Medicine set up the new Horsemen’s Health Program in September, the doctors discovered in trying to get people to live healthier lives, they were fighting not only a culture of lethargy built by decades of unresponsiveness, but a food and exercise desert.
Many had no access to an exercise area or a grocery store or much of anything else. Hardships are everywhere on the backstretch, but now things are improving.
When residents came to the forum and said one of the chief concerns was transportation, the horsemen’s organization secured use of a 10-seat transport van and is in the process of setting up regular schedules for its use. Once a month it is taking workers to Social Services to allow workers the opportunity to take advantage of the many program they qualify for. Richardson says he hopes a weekly trip to the grocery store and possibly trips to the movies and a mall will be coming soon.
Backstretch worker Wayne Smith, who works for trainer Damon Dilodovico, says he signed up for a ride to the Medicare office so he could sign up for health care, “That was a big help,” he says.
O’Connor said she’s looking forward to a movie trip, when that gets scheduled.
“There has been a lack of communication,” Richardson says. “Now there is a forum for constructive dialog. We want to get things done for them.”
Bobby Lillis, the MTHA’s Benevolence liaison said backstretch workers can bring issues and ideas to the forum and expect a response.
“If it’s something we can do, we will,” Lillis says. “It’s all about making life better and for the betterment of the backstretch residents.”
Smith says he is delighted by the idea of the new mailboxes. “I will be able to find my mail easier and no one will take it,” he says. “And, MJC got my roof fixed. It had been leaking for four or five years right over my bed when it rained real hard. Now it’s fixed. It’s good to see what’s going on.”
Fixing gutters and building a basketball court are two many things the MTHA has gotten done. Sending cleaning crews into the bathrooms more often is another. The need for a more robust clothing drive came to light as well, so the MTHA bought clothing distribution bins and built a more assessable distribution center in the kitchen.
Richardson says. “We collect the clothes once a week, launder and clean the items we get and hang them up for people to come in and get them.”
O’Connor says she isn’t sure how many people are yet aware of the forum and the fact that it is responsive.
“They can’t do everything,” O’Connor says. “They listen and they tell us if things are out of their hands. . . . But everything that has been suggested that is reasonable has been addressed. I’m over the moon happy. And when they get the van going to the grocery store there is a 70-year-old man here who has a bike and rides, wobbles it to the grocery store now. When they start going with the van, I’m going to make sure that man gets on the van, because what he is doing is so dangerous.”
O’Connor paused for a moment, and then gave her highest praise.
“There are no negatives about this forum,” she says. “I just wish more people would come and make use of it. Maybe employers can tell their employees or post the page from the newsletter on the stable bulletin boards. This really is a good thing.”