LOUISVILLE - The twin spires of Churchill Downs and its annual Derby are known around the world. But long before and long after the crowds have visited, hundreds of men and women devote their lives to caring for horses beyond the backstretch. To casual fans, they often go unseen. To the horse world, it is where everything is made possible.
"Everybody just sees the glitz and glamour of the Derby..." said Dennis Fries, an assistant trainer at Churchill Downs. "But they don’t realize the care it takes to get the horse there on a daily basis, not just for the Derby."
1,000 workers tend to every horse - not just for Derby - but nearly year-round. 600 of those workers live in apartments on site and, some, even directly above the stables. They work seven days a week with pay ranging depending on the position.
Sherry Stanley, executive director of the Backside Learning Center, estimates between 70-80% of US horse workers are from other countries; every worker we met on the backside is from a Spanish-speaking country. To help them learn English and provide other essential services for the families, the Learning Center was established; helping these vital workers from around the world become a strong community in Louisville.
"The men and women who do all of the care for the horses day in and day out, the workers in the barn, they are, really, the backbone to a very important industry," said Stanley.
"There’s a lot of friends here, a lot of friends here," smiled Henry, a Guatemalan immigrant who has been working at the track for three years. "My friends is my second family here and the Learning Center is my second family."
In addition to English classes the center offers evening family programs, after-school tutoring, referrals to legal help, and a place just to relax from the full-week job.
Stanley says the workers are humble, kind, and generous to a fault. Though their labor is often overshadowed by race day, she says Louisville, too, benefits from their presence.
"I do believe that we’re working to build this generation of leaders in our community."