LAUREL – Anna Marie Starnes wakes up at 5 a.m. each day, throws on her ripped jeans and too-big T-shirt, and prepares to follow the same schedule she’s had for most of her working life. She reports to her barn, works through the dawn until about noon walking thoroughbred racehorses to cool them after their morning workouts, then returns each evening to her single room in the row of dorms on the gritty backstretch of Laurel Park.
Her 10-foot-by-10-foot room has no bathroom and no running water. Its only amenities are those Starnes has collected over 24 years moving from racetrack to racetrack. She has herself to depend on and her cats to take care of, as well as a small picnic table out front, a spattering of flowers and friends on either side.
Above all, it is her home – a home she fears she could lose if the Maryland Racing Commission votes Thursday to support Magna Entertainment Corp.’s plan to cut racing days at Laurel from 135 days to 94. Magna said its plan would also cutback days at Pimlico and calls for the closing and sale of Bowie.
Magna says the proposed changes are necessary to allow its Maryland tracks to compete with racing in surrounding states, where purses are subsidized by slot machine gambling.
But for Starnes and the other backstretch workers at Laurel, it feels like they have been forgotten.
“I’d be homeless,” she says with a shrug. “I have no vehicle or nothing, you know what I’m saying? So I can’t say I’ll go to Florida or I’ll go to Jersey. It’s hard for me, really hard.”
“We’re the ones that get up 5:00 in the morning and (work) seven days a week,” she adds. “They don’t care. They have no consideration about us.”
If the Magna plan goes through, Laurel would likely close for six months out of the year and the 246 backstretch employees like Starnes, who work and live at the track, would probably be out of a job and out on the street. Pimlico has about 90 employees in the same position and Bowie, a training track, about 200.
“If it wasn’t for us, there wouldn’t be people up frontside working,” Starnes said. “None of this, if it wasn’t for us.”
These more than 500 men and women work with trainers and owners behind the scenes every day – grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders – to get horses from the stall to the starting gate. Their homes are the ones that can be seen from the grandstand, the ones that look like barns.
And they aren’t much more than that, said Bill Higgins of his rent free dorm. “You’re not allowed cooking utensils, microwave or anything. But the kitchen closes at 12:00,” he said. Higgins says he has no car, and it costs him $7 for a ride if he wants to go into town. Higgins estimates he spends more than $200 a month getting to and from town.
“And you think we make big money?” Starnes asks. “Oh, hell, no. We make a little bit of cash. It’s hard. People don’t realize it’s hard. But this is our life. This is what we’ve been doing.”
“For the love of the horse,” interjects Starnes’ neighbor and friend, Christine Begley. “I blame my father for this cause he grew me up around it. It’s like a disease,” she said, laughing.
Roy Denny Banjoman, who has worked on what track employees call racing’s backside for over 40 years, said, “You sorta get it in your blood and then you can’t get away. Once you get around horses, you can’t get away from them. You leave and then you come back. You can’t stay away.”
For seasonal workers, many of whom come from Mexico, the potential changes at Laurel are more ominous. The change in racing days and their yearly work schedules would complicate the renewal of their work visas.
Cynthia Perez came to Laurel from Mexico about seven years ago. “I needed a job, money. That’s what I’m basically here for – trying to make a living,” she said. “Mexico, it’s poor over there.”
She says many workers in Mexico make only about $20 or $30 a week, but she can earn as much as $430 at Laurel, part of which goes toward the $100-month rent for the nicer dorms that have a bathroom.
Raymond Davenport lives in the new dorms, too, and he is not looking forward to any lengthening of his commute to work.
“If Laurel would shut down for 6 months, It would be very bad, very bad situation. It would be a hardship on a lot – most of – the backstretch personnel and tough on some trainers also, but it would be a tremendous hardship on the backstretch personnel,” he said. “A high percentage of them, this is all they do. This is their life for the last so many years.”
The 70-year-old Davenport said he would start looking for a job in the retail industry but he knows it might not be easy.
“You run up against two situations – income and a place to live. You would have two strikes against you,” Davenport said. “You have to think about it each day. Everybody back here is thinking about the same things. Never a day goes past where the conversation does not come up.”
But the work goes on. “I know I gotta get up. If I don’t work, I have no where to live. Because if you don’t work, you don’t have a room,” Starnes said. “This is what I have to do. If not, I have no where to live, no where.”