Off Track

Staring out from behind enormous eyeglasses, Rudy Turcotte smiles and asks for a look at the day's Suffolk Downs racing program. He turns his glasses upside down, balancing them unsteadily on the bridge of his nose, and begins to regard the daily entries. Turcotte takes a final drag on his Marlboro then lights a new one off it just before it dies.

Aside from his diminutive height of 5-foot-2, there isn't much anymore to vouch for Turcotte's glory days as a jockey, not much to suggest he earned more than $1 million in his career. Those days ended two decades ago, when the weight and the alcohol got out of control. He's gained 35 pounds since then, the money's gone, and, at 54, his broad face carries the lines of perpetual fatigue. He gallops horses in the mornings at tracks up and down the East Coast now, training runs that pay $10 a ride. He used to drive a Jaguar and make love to beautiful women. His brother rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown. Now Turcotte sleeps in a horse barn some nights and turns his glasses upside down when he reads so the one remaining lens covers his weaker right eye.

Here on the Suffolk Downs backstretch, where the horses are stabled, the only thing all that special about Turcotte's down-and-out story is that it includes a time when he wasn't down and out. Most of the hundreds of men and women here never had a single glory day. They probably never will. They are the hotwalkers, stable hands, grooms, and training riders who take care of the 1,300 horses that run at Suffolk Downs each season. They sleep in rows of tiny, attached rooms or, for the less fortunate, in horse-barn equipment rooms. Some make $500 for a seven-day work week, others half that, some even less. They get no benefits and no overtime from the horse trainers who employ them.

When the racing season ends this month at Suffolk, nearly all the workers will pack their few belongings and move on to another backstretch somewhere else, some of them riding on the floors of vans carrying the horses they tend. They are an all but invisible population: migratory, poor, undereducated, ripe for exploitation.

But it's more complicated than that. Spend some time on the backstretch and you'll understand that, for all its woes, the backstretch offers opportunities to the sort of people who might otherwise be on the streets. The physically disabled, the addicted, the emotionally crippled — here they can find a home, a steady paycheck, even self-esteem. For the estimated 50 percent of backstretch workers in the country who are illegal immigrants, the backstretch can actually be a step up from their previous living conditions. And then there are those who simply love horses, who choose the toil and low pay because spending their days with thoroughbreds beats wasting their life in an office.

The people here are survivors. They work, they endure, they live.

The workd ay begins at 5:30 a.m. By midmorning, the flurry of activity starts to die down. Over by the barns, grooms bathe and hose down the last of the horses coming off workout runs. They brush them and feed them and apply the necessary medications and leg wraps. Chickens peck at the dirt and cats stretch lazily in the warming morning sun. It's sort of jarring at first, a barnyard in the middle of East Boston. The Blue Line rumbles just outside the rear entrance, and every few minutes another jet descends into Logan Airport, gliding so low overhead you can read the logo on its tail.

During the four days a week when the horses run, the bustle starts up again as it gets closer to 12:45 p.m., post time for the afternoon's first race. Grooms slip racing bits into the horses' mouths and often rewrap their legs. Trainers talk strategy with jockeys. But on the three dark days, when there's no racing, the morning lull lingers into the evening.

James “Jimbo” McCloskey Jr. pedals by on his bicycle, wearing the helmet and protective vest of an exercise rider. He's been a jockey, a galloper, a groom, and just about everything else, and you can tell it just to look at him. At 46, his face is weathered beyond its years. His nose is crooked, and the right side of his chin is scarred. He can't remember how many bones he's broken.

McCloskey grew up at Suffolk Downs. His father was a trainer and started bringing Jimbo around when he was 14. This is the first racing season he's spent at Suffolk in decades.

He almost got kicked out back in May when the stewards found out about a three-day bender he'd been on. His trainer, who had brought him up from Florida, was frantic, pounding on the door of the Eighth Pole, a nonprofit agency located right at the track that provides an array of services to workers on the backstretch. “My jockey's dead drunk!” the trainer shouted. “I can't handle him. I don't know what to do.”

Jimbo McCloskey won the first three races he ever rode. That was in 1975, when he was 17 and riding for his dad. He finished the season as Suffolk's second-winningest jock. He made a name for himself on New England's racing circuit, which ran year-round back then: winters at Suffolk and summers at New Hampshire's Rockingham Park. He was the leading rider at Suffolk in 1977 — and one of its leading drinkers. In 1980, a fire shut down Rockingham Park. Needing work, McCloskey left the familiar New England circuit and headed down to Delaware. “That was when the problems started,” he says. “Well, the problems were already there. They were just catching up to me.”

A friend had said he knew a trainer in Delaware who could put McCloskey on a few horses. The rides never came through. Rather than hustle for other opportunities to race, McCloskey took a job as a galloper, or exercise rider. His drinking got worse. He'd have a few beers before galloping the horses at 6 a.m. “I drank a six-pack just so I could get out the door,” he says. “I couldn't do anything without it. I drank all day.” He stayed away from Suffolk, working the backstretches up and down the East Coast for years, finally settling in Ocala, the heart of Florida's horse country.

By last year, his drinking had alienated just about anyone who had ever tried to help. Summer is when the horse industry slows in Ocala, and McCloskey couldn't find work. During the day, he'd beg for beer money outside convenience stores. At night, he'd sleep in the woods on a bed of pine needles. When it rained, he got wet. Sometimes, lying out there in a drunken haze, his mind would wander back to when he first started out, how he'd won his first three races, been the leading rider. He'd drift off in memory, then awaken to stinging pain. Florida fire ants hurt.

Jim Greene sits in the Eighth Pole office, a trailer off in the midst of the backstretch. Every few minutes there's a knock or the phone rings, and he makes a show of being put out. But you can tell he doesn't mind. He founded the organization in 1989, years after he himself quit drinking, to provide drug and alcohol counseling to backstretch workers. Today the Eighth Pole offers access to free medical and dental care, food and supplies, even therapy.

Greene owns a few horses with a partner in Florida, so he knows all about the life of disinterested horse owners, afternoons spent laughing with the boys in the jockey club bar. Most owners have little involvement with the care of their horses. They hire the trainer and the trainer hires the help. An owner looking in on his horses barely notices the workers, Greene says. “They obviously get a week's pay of some sort, they obviously live somewhere. You don't bother to ask where.”

Greene says more needs to be done for the workers, but profit margins are generally thin in horseracing. Big venues thrive, but secondary outlets like Suffolk are having a harder and harder time getting by. Competition from casinos and lotteries has hurt tracks badly. Suffolk Downs turned a $4.1 million profit in 2002, but that was attributable mainly to the sale of a 29-acre tract of its land. Without that deal, track officials say, Suffolk would have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars that year. The track's closing has been rumored for years, with speculation that the site would be converted into anything from retail developments to a new home for the Red Sox or Celtics.

Rockingham Park abandoned thoroughbreds last year, switching to harness racing, which costs less to run. That meant the end of a way of life for lots of backstretch workers who for years had alternated between the New Hampshire track and Suffolk, about 35 miles apart. Suffolk now runs from May to November. At the end of this month, the workers will either have to head elsewhere or look for other work to hold them over until the season starts up again in the spring.

During the off-season last year, Candice Graham took a job at a thrift store. “I hated every moment of it,” she says. “For me, it was just something to get by those months until I could come back here. That job meant everything to [other workers there], just like the horses do to me. I found that funny, that somebody would feel that way about a job that didn't really matter.”

Graham has already decided to travel to Tampa when the Suffolk season ends. She is 48 and has been working at Suffolk since she arrived as a 19-year-old, one of the first female grooms. She spent a year in college but never really wanted to do anything other than work with horses. Over the years she's been a groom, a trainer, and even owned a couple of successful horses. She's grooming again for now, tending six horses while she gets some time away from the stress of training.

It was hard being a woman on the backstretch at first, she says. No one took you seriously. She recalls how one of her friends trained horses with a boyfriend. “Whenever she won a race, they used to look at her boyfriend and tell him, 'Nice job.' They would never say that to her. That was the point where I realized horsewomen weren't taken that seriously. She was more competent than he was.”

Life on the backstretch hasn't changed much in 30 years, Graham says. But there have been some changes.

Felix Perez sits at a desk in a barn equipment room, looking out over the stables of the 14 horses he and two other grooms care for. He is short and squat and, at 63, figures he doesn't have much time left on the backstretch. He came from Puerto Rico when he was 18 to pick tomatoes in Florida. He quickly left for the backstretch at the old Tropical Park, near Miami. His father managed a horse farm back in Puerto Rico, so Perez knew all about the animals. He wanted to be a jockey, of course, but was too heavy, so he spent 10 years as a galloper and pony boy. Now he's a groom. He makes $550 a week, enough so his family can live in a $1,300-a-month apartment in Lawrence.

Perez predicts that in the next eight years, almost all the grunt work on the backstretch will be done by Hispanics. “It's because the money's no good,” he says. “The guy comes from Mexico, he's not used to making money.”

Besides that, the Hispanic workers tend to come from rural areas where farming and caring for animals is commonplace. They have become dominant as jockeys, too. Riding academies have sprung up in Latin American countries. Horseracing, fading to irrelevance in the United States, remains a path to success elsewhere.

What Perez doesn't see changing so easily is the fact that most trainers and owners are white. But he's got a plan. He nods proudly out at the stables, where a slender boy in jeans and a white tank top gently rakes wood shavings and hay from the floor. His name is Joseph Rodriguez. He's Perez's nephew, but Perez thinks of him as his son: Rodriguez has lived with the Perez family since he was 5.

“My other kids, they love school — all A's,” Perez says. “But him, he says, 'I don't like school. I try hard, I can't do it.'” So Perez talked his boss into putting the kid to work on the backstretch, and Rodriguez surprised everyone. He took to the horses immediately, proving himself smart and curious. You showed him something once, and you didn't have to show him again. He makes just $250 a week, but Perez says he'll make $500 next year. And that's just the beginning. The two of them have already owned and trained one horse. Perez is convinced Rodriguez has what it takes to make it to the top levels of the industry. “That kid, the way he's going, if he behaves, he's learning a lot, very quick. The ones that don't care, they just do it for the money. That's it. Him, he wants to be a trainer. He doesn't want to be a groom. The way he's going — four or five years. It took me 30 years to be a trainer. It was very, very difficult for a Hispanic guy to be a trainer. No more. Now, you are good, you get the shot.”

Rudy Turcotte arrives at Jim Greene's stables and puts on a thin orange vest adorned with the number 7. That's the number Greene's horse Bull N Bob will wear in the afternoon's final race. Rudy will make $30 to lead Bull to the paddock before the race and bring him back afterward.

As he leads the horse through the backstretch and then onto the track, Turcotte moves with small, stubborn strides. He whistles and clicks to soothe the horse. It's easy work, easy on an aching body battered by decades of riding, and it doesn't require much thought. He keeps his head down as he plods along. You want him to turn to the few fans scattered through the grandstands and scream, “I'm Rudy Turcotte! I won almost 2,000 races! My brother is Ron Turcotte!” But he doesn't scream that. For the most part, he's accepted what he is now — an aging exercise rider. And the part of him that hasn't accepted it leaves him feeling more beaten than angry.

He hasn't ridden in a race since 1982. He made a few comeback attempts, but, as always, he found himself overwhelmed by the battle to keep the weight down. After retiring, he got by well enough for a time, making good money during five years in Japan. He broke in horses there and taught the Japanese how to gallop. He's been working the backstretches for years. But galloping pays by the ride. The younger exercise riders can get on 10 horses in a day, easy. Turcotte's body won't handle more than 5 or 6 anymore. “It just seems to be a struggle every day, getting older,” he says. “Racing's the only thing I've known since I left high school. I stuck to the racetrack after I quit riding. Now I'm stuck here. It looks like I've resigned myself that this is what I'm gonna do until I can't do it no more.”

Jimbo M cCloskey eventually found his way out of the woods in Florida and onto a trainer's farm. The trainer asked him to ride for him at Suffolk. McCloskey agreed. “The racetracks, you can live there, you can work there. I knew I needed at least that,” he says.

He was startled by how many people remembered him at Suffolk. Everyone kept coming up, saying they were sorry to hear about his father, who had died the year before. “I got to really thinking about it, being a little kid here, growing up here with my father. It just kind of all flooded in at once.” He found a bar. After two drinks, he found a liquor store. Three days later, the trainer was pounding on Greene's door.

The track stewards banned McCloskey from riding, so he found a job as a groom. He made $350 a week and eventually got into one of the dorm rooms. The last few months, he's worked as an exercise rider. He hasn't had a drink since May. When Suffolk closes for the winter this month, he'll head to Tampa Bay Downs. Before the season ends, though, he's hoping the stewards will let him race. It might help in Tampa. It's not about glory or redemption anymore. “No,” McCloskey says. “I'm talking about survival.”