Racing's glitter conceals 'ragged' hidden culture


May 14, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

It is not much of a life. Oh, no. Home is a small, dark room with bare walls and painted windows that block out the sunlight. There is little ventilation and neither a toilet nor a kitchen. The furniture is old and dusty, and often infested with bugs. Rats are a common sight along the floor.

Not much of a life. Many are those who drink all day while handling their horses. Drugs are commonplace. And the thing is, it is all a sanctuary compared to life on the other side of the fence that encloses the Pimlico Race Course.

In the mornings, particularly this time of year, during the Triple Crown season, the famous and rich swoop in. Trainers. Owners. Jockeys. Journalists. The talk is of dreams, of fortunes won and lost, of idyllic mornings spent pursuing the sport of kings.

But that is just a saccharine myth to the grooms and hot walkers living in the track's old, rotten barns. They are racing's invisible culture. They get left behind every day when the sun goes down and the famous and rich swoop back out. And their lives aren't the stuff of kings. Oh, no.

"It's ragged as hell back here," Brad Merrell said yesterday, as he hosed down a horse a couple of barns over from where Strike the Gold and the other Preakness colts were being readied for Saturday's race. He is 28 and burly and friendly and once lived on the track but couldn't take it.

"It's just a gypsy's life is what it is," he said. "People are here one day and gone the next. Lot of drugs, even more drinking. You don't make much money. I worked six years without a raise. A gypsy's life. I lived here at the track three or four months, but it's pretty rough."

The theory itself is sound enough: Make life easier for horse-a-holics who work at the track. There are dozens of rooms available free to backsiders who can pass a track inspection and put down a $100 deposit. The price is good. And it beats sleeping on the street. But the process engenders a sad, transient culture.

"There just aren't facilities for a decent life," Merrell said. "They close the track kitchen in the afternoon, and you can't cook in your room, so you have to go off the track to eat dinner. And that's dangerous here. Pimlico is a drug neighborhood. Just looking at someone wrong you can get shot going to eat."

Merrell works with a young man named Robert, who lives on the backside and didn't want his full name used for fear of angering track officials and losing his room. Robert used to leave the grounds for dinner, usually eating at a nearby McDonald's, but now he rarely does.

"I'd rather sit in my room and starve myself until breakfast the next morning," he said. "Going out for dinner is too dangerous. It's pretty bad around here, period. I fixed my room up nice, but not many do. My neighbor, he lived like a bum. Dirt, stink, rats. Then he was just gone one day last week. They must've caught him with something in his room."

That means drugs, probably. Drugs are in the barns at every track in the country. Homebuilder Jim Ryan has donated millions to a national anti-drug program for backsiders. But it is a difficult fight. There is nothing to do at Pimlico once the sun goes down. There is no game room, as is true at other tracks. No pool tables. No television room.

"What are you supposed to do, sit in your lousy room staring at the painted-up windows?" Merrell said. "It's no surprise people turn to drugs and alcohol. How many books can you read? There's just nothing else to do once the racing is over. Laurel has a nice game room. The people who run this place ought to do better by us."

Rick Anderson, a security official who runs the housing program at Pimlico and Laurel, said: "We try to get them to better themselves. A lot of them don't want to. We've got drug counseling. A lot of them don't want to. Some will go, keep on drugging and drinking. Some are fine. We've had people stay here for years. It's mostly the younger guys, 20 to 25, that don't hang around."

Although drugs are the vice that gets the headlines and philanthropic millions, drinking, Merrell said, is a far worse problem.

"You walk around here all day and you won't see any needles or anyone smoking dope while they tend to their horses," he said. "I mean, there's guards around here. But you will see 20 or 25 people drinking six-packs and leading their horses over to race staggering drunk."

Such is part of the backdrop as the famous and rich swoop in again on Pimlico this week, bringing the shimmer of national attention. The country's fastest horses are here. So is a subculture of men and women making between $250 and $350 a week, men and women who move from track to track as the racing dates change, living from barn to barn.

"And I just don't see it getting any better," Merrell said. "The backside in New York, they got a union, but they're the only ones. No one really wants to talk about it, or face it. What happens back here just gets ignored. It's the hidden part of racing. It's just a damn shame."

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