'It made me who I am': What students say it was like growing up on the Arlington backstretch
The official farewell fanfare at Arlington Park is over. The final photo finish flashed on the screen and the grandstands have emptied.
Likely the last horse racing season in Arlington Heights ended Sept. 25, but some of the most painful goodbyes are happening this week. Hundreds of Arlington Park horse worker families who live on the so-called "backstretch" are packing their belongings to leave for what might be the last time.
"A lot of people are thinking, 'What's next for me? What's the next step?'" said Triton College student Arihatne Flores, 20, who lives and works on the backstretch with her parents and younger brother.
The residents live on the backstretch at Arlington Park from about May to September and then move to the backstretch at Hawthorne Racetrack in Cicero from about October to April. The cycle repeats each racing season, year after year.
Next year, however, they aren't expected back in Arlington Heights.
Racetrack owner Churchill Downs Inc. didn't apply for racing dates for 2022 and announced with the Bears on Wednesday that it had struck a $197.2 million agreement to sell the 326-acre property to the NFL franchise. The deal is expected to spell the end for the historic thoroughbred venue, which hosted its first race in 1927.
"I never had the impression that Churchill Downs had any commitment to seeing Arlington do well, or the well-being of those who work there," said Jacqueline Candelas, 20, who lives on the campus of Dominican University, where she is a junior, and regularly visits her parents on the backstretch. "What is more upsetting to me is the idea of where I called home just not existing anymore."
Angel Sanchez, 18, a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, echoed that. "Imagine spending all your life there and for it to just go away," said Angel, whose parents and young sister live on the backstretch.
Angel, Arihatne and Jacqueline are among 13 college students who received scholarships this year from the Chicago Thoroughbred Horsemen's Foundation, the benevolent arm of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
There is still hope within the horse racing community that Arlington Park's racing days might not be over.
"Some of the trainers are like, "Oh, this is over,'" Arihatne said. "The workers are a little more hopeful."
The horse workers -- who are employed by the horse trainers, not the racetrack -- and their families can live for free on the backstretch.
Between Arlington Park and Hawthorne, the nicer backstretch is the 160-acre expanse at Arlington Park, which also has a lot more greenery, the students agreed.
There are 10 temporary living buildings at Arlington Park, the oldest dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. Arihatne remembers living as a child in dormitory-style buildings and the unease of having to share communal, outside bathrooms.
Arlington Park agreed to build more housing after settling a 2005 lawsuit brought by a fair housing group and the U.S. attorney's office. Living conditions, particularly for families with children, have improved since, Arihatne said.
"Now they have cleaner rooms. Bigger rooms," she said.
This season, seven buildings accommodated about 785 residents, including about 250 children 17 and under.
The buildings where families live resemble two-story motels, with 96 rooms each. Up to four individuals in each family share a 432-square-foot space including a room and bathroom. If there are additional family members, they are assigned connected rooms.
Families do everything together -- sleep, talk, watch TV, listen to music and get visits from other residents.
At times, it feels cramped and devoid of privacy, but mostly, living in such close quarters means developing a special emotional closeness, the students said.
In fact, Angel said, adapting to his single room in college wasn't easy. "I was kind of lonely at first," he said. "Now I am getting used to it."
The backstretch rooms come unfurnished, so with each move, families must bring along beds, tables, TVs, microwaves and refrigerators. Indoor grills and hot plates are not allowed for safety reasons, so most families rely on outdoor grills. There is also a cafeteria where workers can buy food, and each building has pay-per-load laundry areas.
Many of the workers own pickup trucks, which they are loading up for the move to Hawthorne this week. Others rely on the assistance of neighbors and friends, or rent a truck for the day.
The racetrack overall spends about $6.3 million annually for things like backstretch building maintenance, water and electricity, the cafeteria, trash pickup, and also horsemen's insurance and manure removal from the horse stables, racetrack President Tony Petrillo said.
"We want to provide everyone with a good living, or good conditions," he said.
Horse workers don't earn a lot, so they can save by living on the backstretch, Arihatne said.
"Now that I am in college and I see there are a lot of expenses ... I understand why my parents don't want to leave," she said.
The backstretch has a friendly, communal atmosphere where people pretty much know everyone by name, the students said.
"People just say, 'Hola, como está?' and would always greet each other," Angel said. "They would hang out, drink some beers, do cookouts, make parties, like birthday parties and 'bautizos' (christenings) and other things. You can always feel that it's a very welcoming and tight-knit community."
The hardest part is dealing with strict rules: not being allowed to have dogs, which can spook the horses, and not being permitted outside visitors. "No one's ever actually seen my home," Jacqueline said.
That rule is imposed by the Illinois Racing Board, which requires individuals on the premises to be licensed by the state, or be a dependent of such an individual, Petrillo said. Approved visitors include people like social workers, he said.
"We try to let them (the residents) live as independently as possible while adhering to the guidelines and the safety standards we have to maintain."
If the track allowed visits from outside children, for example, "the liability is extraordinary," Petrillo said.
Despite the back-and-forth living between Arlington Heights and Cicero, the backstretch students consistently attend schools in Cicero. Busing is provided by Palatine Township Elementary District 15 in the morning and Cicero Public School District 99 in the afternoon.
Because of the long drive, students have to get on the bus at 5:45 a.m. and promptly catch the bus home in the afternoon, lest they lose their ride for the day. That meant having to skip before- and after-school programs that they would have liked to attend, the students said.
While many of their closest friendships come from school, the backstretch children built a special bond with each other. In summertime, there were lots of shared activities at Arlington Park, like summer camps, and recreational and sports programs.
"It definitely built a lot of camaraderie," Jacqueline said.
The activities on the backstretch have dwindled in recent years, the students said. That's due to the general decline of horse racing and breeding in Illinois, which has led to fewer workers, Petrillo said. Volunteer groups have stepped in to fill some of the gaps, such as a soccer clinic held this summer by St. Viator High School soccer players.
Living in the backstretch always felt safe, the students said.
"Everyone knows everyone. If there's an issue in the community, we all know about it," Jacqueline said.
Arlington Park security personnel can deal with situations that don't require police response, but law enforcement is called in apparent criminal matters that could range from theft to domestic issues, Petrillo and Arlington Heights police said.
The relationship between residents and security personnel can be fraught, the students said.
Security staffers can search rooms and confiscate banned items, like for indoor cooking. Most security personnel don't speak Spanish, adding to communication difficulties with the workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico. Often, the residents feel they are treated rudely and with condescension, the students said.
Petrillo said searches happen if there is "reasonable cause" to suspect illegal activity or life safety issues, and residents and representatives of the horsemen's association "are able to be present."
The racetrack makes every attempt to hire Spanish-speakers, he said. At least 25% of the backstretch staff workers speak Spanish, and the director of security is Latino and speaks Spanish. Also, security staff members have reported having objects thrown at them and being subject to verbal abuse, he said.
Value of hard work
The students said their parents love their work as horse grooms, hot walkers and exercise riders. They treat the animals with care and take much pride when they win, they say.
"I feel like it's sad, like no one knows they exist. Everything that my parents do for racing and the industry ... it's not fair that no one knows they are there," Jacqueline said.
Their parents also imparted the value of hard work, never complaining about their sacrifices, the students said.
"My mission is to reward them for doing that ... to make them feel proud of me and to give them back for what they gave me," said Angel, who worked for a racetrack food vendor in high school.
Horse workers are on duty seven days a week from about 5 a.m. to noon or 1 p.m., and pretty much the whole day on racing dates. It's hard to take time off, because there are no replacement workers. Babysitting typically is entrusted to older siblings or neighbors.
"I would explain to the class what my parents did, but they wouldn't really understand," Arihatne said. "They would never understand why they wouldn't come to field trips or early morning things."
The work is especially harsh at the height of summer and winter, and there is always the lurking danger of injury while working with powerful animals.
Arlington Park has a clinic for basic health needs -- checkups, flu shots, vaccines and dental visits for children -- but more serious issues require outside medical attention. Most of the horse trainers have only a few employees, so they don't provide health insurance.
Jacqueline said her father recently paid off a yearslong medical debt. He finally got health insurance recently after being hired to work as an outrider for Churchill Downs.
The clinic is provided by the Racing Industry Charitable Foundation, which has served the residents of the backstretch for more than 35 years, Petrillo said. The nonprofit also provides social services, mental health and addiction counseling, and assistance with things like immigration and citizenship services. Arlington Park contributes about $500,000 per year to the foundation, Petrillo said.
Jacqueline couldn't attend the last day of the season at Arlington Park because she was tied up working on campus for homecoming weekend. Arihatne and Angel said it was a sad occasion.
"I spent all day there," Angel said. "When the last race was happening, I was just sad that this probably won't happen anymore. It kind of hurts that I won't be able to walk those fields, those sidewalks, those roads anymore."
"I wanted to enjoy the moment of being able to see the last race," Arihatne said. "But at the same time, it hit me that this might be the last race."
The backstretch workers will have to make difficult decisions by spring, knowing there will be no horse racing in 2022 in Arlington Heights.
They could get temporary jobs from May to September and rent a place or perhaps move in with relatives or friends before going back to Hawthorne. Or they could leave for the summer to work at racetracks in other parts of the country.
In that case, workers with younger kids will have to decide between taking them along -- at the risk of disrupting their lives and schooling -- or leaving them behind with one parent or another relative.
Despite the disadvantages of their childhood, all three students said they deeply value what they experienced and learned.
"Being from the backstretch has made me more tough and hardworking," said Arihatne, who also works as a groom. "I am not saying this is rock bottom, but I feel like this isn't the top, either. Being here, it's a way to show me you can only go up from here."
"As much as the downsides of living here and moving and school and stuff, I enjoyed myself," Jacqueline said. "I think it was a unique experience and it made me who I am."
Angel agreed. "I would never change that for the world."