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Baltimore Living

The Long Run

Life, and Death, on the "Backside" of Pimlico

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Michael Corbin | Posted 9/13/2000

When Warren Hammond didn't show up at the Pimlico barns to start his predawn routine on a cold morning last January, another groom went looking for him, climbing the wooden stairs of the decaying buildings the track makes available to trainers to house itinerant workers.

The night before, a buddy of Hammond's had helped him up those steps. With his work done (horses brushed, watered, fed, and bandaged; stalls cleaned) and a few dollars in his pocket, Hammond, struggling with the demons of a backsliding addict, had helped himself to some of the goods available in nearby Park Heights. Returning after getting his fix, he had fallen while climbing the rickety stairs. A co-worker had helped Hammond up to his room. It was open--the padlock that was the only means of keeping the door shut wasn't locked--and Hammond entered and lay down across the soiled twin mattress splayed on the floor of the unheated room, shoes and clothes still on. That's how the groom found Hammond's body the next morning. He was 49.

This is what they call, in the horse-racing world, the backstretch; at Pimlico it's more commonly known as the "backside." At the far end of the North Baltimore track from the grandstand and clubhouse, the backside consists of barns and stables and pampered horseflesh. An entourage of trainers, assistant trainers, hot-walkers, jockeys, and grooms comes and goes, preparing the thoroughbreds for the glory of the sport of kings. Among this entourage is a set of track habitués, longtime grooms, and factotums of horse stalls and horseshit who, in the employ of individual trainers, call the backstretch home.

Up to 200 of them populate Pimlico's backside, scratching out a communal existence by keeping the hay and water fresh and the horses primped and primed. Backsiders live in austere dormitories, suffer the meals of a group kitchen, follow the trainers' regimes for tweaking the thoroughbreds just so. They pay no rent--the rooms are courtesy of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs the track--but do pay for their meals. It's a company town.

Backsiders follow the rules and regulations of the Maryland Racing Commission and try to keep on the good side of the track security. To make your living in close quarters with thoroughbred horses requires a sense of craft. To muck a stall or move manure requires tolerating the bottom rung of the employment ladder. Few have vehicles of their own; they catch a bus when something outside of track life needs doing. Most stay close, exorcising their demons in this self-contained village. The backside is home.

When Pimlico's season is over, some grooms migrate with the horses that travel to other tracks to race. They might go south to the backstretch at Laurel Park or the training facility at Bowie, or north to Delaware Park in Wilmington. The fortunate ones catch work at Florida tracks for the winter. And some will stay on, tending to horses that trainers keep stabled in Baltimore, or looking for day labor while continuing to live on the backside, mainly because they don't have anywhere else to go.

"There used to be a classic [type of] groom who lived at the track," says former News-American and Washington Post racing reporter Clem Florio, éminence grise of the Pimlico press box. "An older single guy with a cat at his side. Knew everything, knew everybody--every track had them." The classic groom refined his horse sense and aimed to make it to assistant trainer, maybe even trainer, by the time he was 60 or so. He was in the business, a lifer. He had to have a passion for horses--why else would he put up with the hardships of the backside life? But classic grooms don't exist anymore, Florio sighs, and "nobody's replacing them. There is no money in it. . . . You get a different clientele now." Hammond was classic-groom material--but he was new clientele as well.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving last year, the Maryland Racing Commission made a big show of its disfavor with this new breed of backsider. With city cops brought in as backup--but asked not to make any arrests--74 workers on the backside were given impromptu drug tests. Thirty tested positive and were ordered off the track grounds. The "drug sweep" was an acknowledgement of an open secret at the track: There was some serious social dysfunction in the backstretch.

Bobby Lillis is the person in charge of dealing with that dysfunction. The benefits director of the Maryland Horsemen's Assistance Fund, he provides what social safety net there is on the backside. Using funds collected from gate fees at Maryland tracks and from private donations, he ministers to backside denizens' ailments with the patience of a parish priest tending to a wayward flock. Most backsiders have no health insurance, but Lillis can usually help. He can get you a deal on your prescription at the CVS on the corner of Park Heights and Rogers avenues, and he regularly negotiates with nearby Sinai Hospital to cover the costs of a worker's emergency-room visit. He finagled a hearing aid for one backsider, and he's trying to get the same man a set of dentures.

"A worker comes to me and he's worked on the backstretch for six months, I'll do what I can for him. No question," Lillis says from his desk, tucked away in the corner of a building next to the barns. As the only advocate a backsider can turn to who is not in the employ of the trainers or the track, he is often called upon to nurse more than physical ailments. He tries to arrange counseling for personal or family problems, and the Horseman's Assistance Fund will bury a backsider if he dies alone.

Lillis started out in the business hot-walking--walking the horse before and after morning workouts--in 1969 in Detroit. It's how many in the industry get started. He has the small, muscular frame of a jockey, and his intense eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses give him a scholarly look. "The work hasn't changed much since I started on the backstretch," he says. "Same things need to get done." Lillis' budget isn't enough to cover what workers bring to his desk, but he does what he can. Why don't trainers--the backsiders' bosses--or tracks provide more for backstretch workers, an important link in the horse-racing chain? "That's a good question," he answers dryly.

Hammond knew horses, loved horses. During better times, he had even owned some and been employed as a trainer. He was good at his job. He could be trusted with the animals, to keep them healthy and to get the most out of them. He would speak patiently and directly to the horses and chastise when necessary. He was a craftsman. Hammond's struggles with chemicals, bouts of mental illness, and a gambling jones conspired to keep him on the backside. But he was there too because horses and running them were the things of his heart. He wanted a life at the track and he worked hard at the only thing he knew.

"I used to make six figures in the car industry," Pierre Poncelet says. A handsome, strongly built man, Poncelet makes direct eye contact when he talks, to let you know he is not exaggerating. This is his second year on the Pimlico backside. "I had a few things happen to me. A divorce . . ." He pauses, looks away. "Most of us have had a few things happen."

His hand sweeps to take in the rest of the stable. Horses' heads loll over the edge of the stalls; grooms move around in the barn, bustling with the ordered chaos of valets in the king's bedchamber. The air is a fragrant hay-and-manure mix, mustier than usual because of all of this year's rain. "Many are one step away from being homeless. Drinking . . ."

Poncelet pauses again, and picks up one of the ubiquitous linen towels used for rubbing horses down and hangs it on a rail. At 56, with a bit of black holding out against the gray under his baseball cap, he is a respected groom, given autonomy by his trainer to oversee the horses. He's authorized to tell a vet what dosage of the drug Lasix a horse is to receive, because his trainer knows he'll get it right. He's a craftsman too.

"I make enough to survive, now, working here. Of course, we rub four horses instead of three like we used to," Poncelet says. "Pay is about the same though." He is at work by 5 A.M., getting his horses brushed and bandaged, making sure the dirt and mud are under control. "Especially the legs and hooves. You have to keep the dirt off the horse's hooves." Every groom has a trick of the trade, a secret recipe, a sorcery peculiar to him for making the horse go faster. Most of Poncelet's work is done by 11:30 A.M.; he'll do an afternoon feeding and some evening chores before finishing for good around 8.

"Pimlico is a little bit poor," he says matter-of-factly. The workers' rec room is a couple of pinball machines in the foyer of the track kitchen. The kitchen is really a small cafeteria where the workers get breakfast and lunch, but it doesn't always do dinner. "Most of us would like to be off [the backside]," Poncelet says. "I worry about getting off by winter. Before it gets cold." He cuts off the conversation, apologizing that he has to get back to work.

In the room where Warren Hammond died, there was an unopened six-pack and an old set of heroin works. The medical examiner's report blamed the death on acute toxicity. But heroin is not the most widely used substance on the backstretch. The drugs of choice here are Lasix and Phenylbutazone.

Lasix is a diuretic used to stanch the internal bleeding now common among racehorses. "Bute" is a powerful painkiller that can keep a horse running despite overwork and injury. The Daily Racing Form lists which horses are on which drug; a good handicapper's life is now predicated on knowing the minutiae of horses' body fluids. Workers on the backstretch will tell you that large-scale use of the drugs has diminished today's thoroughbred. Others will tell you it has dumbed down the backstretch worker. It's not the skilled groom anymore keeping the horse healthy and running. It's the pharmacy.

Still, the trainers, the tracks, and an industry competing for the dearly stretched consumer gambling dollar need the backsiders. They need the shit shoveled and the overhead kept low. So when there's a raid, the cops come along, but not to make arrests. You don't want investigators looking too closely at the backside, because the tracks need workers such as Hammond to make the show come off.

Bill Borchardt works in the same building as Bobby Lillis. Outside is a galvanized metal bin where Borchardt puts the plastic containers of urine he collects from backstretch workers. The samples are picked up by a lab and analyzed for drugs. Borchardt is a chemical-dependency counselor and social worker, employed by the University of Maryland and contracted out to the track. Since the November raid he has been busy.

"The goal is to take back the track," Borchardt says. He's asking trainers to sign a voluntary "drug-free workplace" pledge, with mixed results. Not all trainers see signing the pledge as being in their best interest, and Borchardt isn't popular with the backsiders either. He thinks the problems of the backside are no more severe than those of the larger society. He notes Pimlico's location, hard by a drug- and violence-plagued urban neighborhood. "What you have there, well, it's shark-infested waters."

On June 14, about two months after The Los Angeles Times reported on "unsanitary" and "substandard" conditions for California's 4,000 backstretch workers, state officials descended on Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Los Alamitos, and other tracks to look at payroll records and housing and working conditions. "These are significant problems we are finding," a spokesperson for the state's labor commission told the newspaper. "Throughout the different tracks, they are finding some minimum-wage violations, but that is not as prominent as overtime violations and cash pay." The raids "confirmed for me there is a major problem here, that for years this is an industry that has been unregulated when it comes to the backstretch work force," California Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg said. "There needs to be basic standards, and no industry should be exempt from those standards."

Hammond regularly got paid in cash. Sometimes he got a legitimate paycheck with a legitimate tax withholding--the rudiments of legitimate employment--but other times trainers and their proxies just peeled his pay off a roll of greenbacks, like tellers at the betting window.

Jim Fay has lived at Pimlico since 1988. He walks hots and works part time for the track, collecting parking fees from cars and sweeping up the swirl of losing tickets outside the grandstand when the races are done. "I get paid by the day," he says. When they get checks, he says, backsiders routinely line up at the track office to cash them. Most don't have bank accounts, and the check-cashing joints in Park Heights charge fees, some as much as 10 percent. But track officials don't want crowds at the office window on payday, so some trainers started paying their grooms in cash.

Many of the workers employed by the track proper are unionized and regularly tussle with management when they think it demands too much or offers too little. Not so on the backstretch. The union workers "call [the backsiders] brothers and sisters," Clem Florio says, "but when it comes down to it . . ." He makes an umpire's out gesture, throwing his thumb back over his shoulder.

Hammond would have been hard to organize. He was a loner, suspicious of others, hiding his ghosts in the closet, as did many on the backside. It was easier not to raise a fuss. Just do the work that needs doing, get paid. It's a company town.

The neighborhood that spreads out from Pimlico's razor-wired fence has its share of troubles. Drugs, crime, and underemployment connect the lives of many residents with those of the backsiders. One of the things that prompted last year's raid was the appearance of some horse tack--expensive leather harnesses, bridles, and saddles--on neighborhood pit bulls. Track officials deduced that a backside entrepreneur was trading the tack for a high. While waiting for the economic boom to trickle down to Park Heights, folks make do with the markets they've got.

Pimlico officials, meanwhile, are looking toward boom times ahead. Tucked away in the legislative flurry at the end of the last General Assembly session was the Maryland Racing Act of 2000, the culmination of several years of lobbying by the industry. With aging facilities and no slot machines to fall back on, racing officials contend, Maryland is losing customers to other states' tracks. It's a threat that carries weight: Horse racing is a $500 million- to $1 billion-a-year business in Maryland, and the Preakness is the state's biggest one-day sporting event, netting $51 million for the city and state.

Among other things, the legislation raises the amount the Maryland Jockey Club can skim off the top of each wager, and allows for the issuance of bonds backed by the full faith and credit of Maryland taxpayers to fund improvement at the state's racetracks. Joe DeFrancis, president and CEO of the Jockey Club, has big plans for Pimlico--an attractive stakes barn, pricey grandstand terraces to attract deep-pocketed patrons. The measure does not establish any minimum space, ventilation, or safety requirements for employee living quarters at Pimlico. The lawmakers didn't empower any regulatory body to monitor labor conditions on the backstretch.

Track security let Hammond's family pick up the few belongings he had at Pimlico: a couple of bags of Salvation Army-issue clothes, a Christmas picture of his young niece and nephew that he had just received, some boilerplate photocopies from a recent AA meeting he'd attended. No one at the track took much notice. A groom who was a buddy of Hammond's mumbled some condolences, said he admired Hammond's work, then quickly slipped off. Track officials were busy fixing fire-code violations in the grandstand; the state was putting pressure on management to make the long-overdue repairs. Everyone wanted Pimlico to look good for that spring's Preakness, barely four months away.

Hammond was always at the track for the Preakness. He did his part polishing the second jewel of the Triple Crown. He missed it this year. His family took his ashes back home to Burlington, N.C., where he was born, and buried them there.

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