NYRA Cares: Rider, counselor Francisco Barrera is a trusted mentor on the Belmont Park backstretch
As a jockey, Francisco Barrera disciplined himself to laser-focus on the next race – “looking at what was just ahead of me,” as he put it, “and taking it one step at a time in order to do my best.”
Now, with race riding in his past and based at Belmont Park, Barrera takes a similar approach in both his wide-ranging work as an exercise rider – and what Executive Director of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) Paul Ruchames called, “a one-man, social-service program.”
In addition to working as an exercise rider in trainer Robert Falcone, Jr.’s barn, Barrera is an assistant tutor to fellow backstretch workers for “English as a Second Language” (ESL) classes; a trained drug-and-alcohol peer advocate coach; and manager of the weekly “bistro” where members of the backstretch community go for fellowship, snacks and to connect with family on laptops.
It’s a heavy load, making the 48-year-old Lima, Peru native, who retired from race riding in 2007, a rock on Belmont Park’s backstretch as a counselor, a mentor and just a friend to colleagues in need. If someone is having a personal issue, it’s often Barrera who takes the call and then the time, always he said, “with empathy, by putting myself in their place, and careful never to judge.”
There are no designated hours for Barrera’s volunteer role. The backstretch community knows how and where to find him 24/7, even when Belmont Park is bustling during morning training. “Sometimes, I have to ask somebody to wait because I need to ride a few more horses,” he says. “But I always get to the person and see if I can help them. We’re like a family here and we share problems. I’m always available to help.
“It’s a matter of using what I learned along the way and doing what I can where I can,” continued Barrera, who, in his career as a well-traveled jockey, rode in Peru, Ecuador and Brazil; before emigrating to the U.S. to ride at Payson Park in Florida, Thistledown Race Track outside Cleveland; and for a spell in 2007, in Saratoga. “And if I can help somebody with a problem, provide some companionship or just listen, I’m happy to do it.”
Most involvements are modest, often conversations over coffee at the Bistro or, as happened several months ago, a 4:30 a.m. visit to a dorm room, when Barrera ended up driving a resident to a detox facility. In some cases, Barrera refers a person to the B.E.S.T. on-site, state-licensed drug-and-alcohol outpatient treatment program or to Chaplain Humberto Chavez at the New York division of the Race Track Chaplaincy.
While Barrera embraces the challenge, he is too modest to talk much about his contributions. Others do that for him.
“What Francisco does, day in and day out makes him a true role model,” said Ruchames. “He is very well respected. And he’s a source of hope and inspiration for many on the backstretch.”
Chaplain Chavez agreed. “Francisco is a force for good, someone with the moral compass and the time to help a colleague in need,” he said. “And he does it with such humility and grace.”
Falcone, Jr. recalled the day that Barrera begged off a request to help transport a stakes horse in order to tutor the ESL class.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Falcone, Jr. of Barrera’s community efforts. “Francisco is dependable, always shows up and does his job the right way. He cares about the horses – and I can see him doing those things on the backstretch. He’s that type of person.”
Barrera completed peer advocate training two years ago at Ruchames’ suggestion and with the help of a scholarship from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association (NYTHA).
“It taught me how important it is to listen when talking to people about their problems,” he said. “You need to learn how to separate yourself and really hear what they’re telling you.”
Barrera called his decision to become a go-to person on the backstretch as a way of helping others face the kind of challenges he has dealt with himself. Breaking his back and forced to retire from race-riding in 2007, he returned to Peru to recover and eventually worked his way back to racing, not as a jockey but as an exercise rider.
“Doctors told me I couldn’t ride anymore, but I found I could,” said Barrera. “You have to know what to do when you get on a horse. I told myself I could still make a living in this field, which I’m doing today.”
Arriving at Belmont Park in 2008, Barrera resolved to learn English to better communicate with trainers. Enrolling in B.E.S.T.’s ESL class, he became so proficient that he began serving as assistant tutor in the twice-weekly classes, a role he continues to relish.
“Seeing the confidence that people get from learning English is really great,” said Barrera. “It helped me and I know that with a lot of hard work, it can help others.”
In February 2021, when his brother, Miguel, passed away in Peru from COVID-19, Barrera was unable to travel home for the funeral and faced the kind of isolation and loneliness for which he counsels others.
Barrera credited his wife, Amy, and their three children, Fabiana, 25; Juan, 16 and Luciana, 12, with helping him cope. And as he is apt to do in many things, Barrera has made a special effort to be a mentor to his brother’s three sons, even from a distance.
“Whether it’s my nephews, my children or someone at the track, they know me and know I’m here for them,” said Barrera. “On the backstretch, it can be any time and any issue. Or it’s just needing someone to listen. They know I’m here.”
To learn more about B.E.S.T., please visit https://www.bestbackstretch.org/.
Getting to know…Matthew Cohen
This month’s edition of Getting to know…visits with Matthew Cohen, who, as President and CEO of the Long Island Association (LIA), advocates on behalf of the region’s small, mid-sized and large businesses.
Cohen is a resident of Commack and a lifelong Long Islander; and before his current role, served as the LIA’s Vice President of Government Affairs & Communications for 10 years. Previously, Cohen was executive director of government relations at the Long Island Power Authority and served as Long Island director for U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.
Here, Cohen discusses the economic benefits generated by constructing a new Belmont Park.
Why support NYRA’s plan to modernize Belmont Park?
This project goes to the heart of our mission to support economic growth on Long Island. Simply put, a “new” Belmont Park means “jobs, jobs, jobs.” It would be a huge win for Long Island and for our state.
According to a recent study, rebuilding Belmont Park could generate $1 billion in economic activity and create 3,700 construction jobs. Once the track is rebuilt, it is projected to result in $155 million annually for the economy and could create 740 full-time jobs. The state and local governments would also benefit, with a potential additional $10 million in new taxes per year.
Those are convincing numbers – a winning bet for our region and our state!
Say I’m a Long Island resident, shouldn’t I be concerned that the new facility would raise my taxes?
The Long Island Association does not support new taxes and fees on our high-cost region and this project will not use any taxpayer funds. NYRA would be responsible for all debt service on the bonds. The modernization of Belmont Park would help to expand our tax base.
Do you think Long Island residents support a “new” Belmont Park?
Yes – and this is supported by data. Over the summer, Global Strategy Group conducted a poll that found that a supermajority of New Yorkers – 68 percent — support the project. On Long Island, the support is even stronger: 75 percent of Long Islanders want to see Belmont Park modernized.
When Belmont Park’s neighbor UBS Arena opened in 2021, advocates said it would help create a “destination” for sports fans. Would that apply to the new Belmont Park?
Absolutely. Belmont Park opened in 1905 and hasn’t been upgraded since 1968. It’s such a jewel in our state but needs to be modernized after a certain amount of time. The combination of a new Belmont plus the UBS Arena would create a major national sports destination, drawing more people to visit Long Island and spend money at local businesses.
Are you confident that this project can be completed?
The We Are NY Horse Racing coalition has more than 50 organizations – including the LIA and influential groups like the Business Council of New York State – pushing for this project to be approved in Albany.
Plus, there’s just so much upside for a “new” Belmont Park. It would create thousands of jobs, generate economic activity, and would even lead to the return of the Breeders’ Cup, which was last run in New York in 2005. It’s a win-win for the state and for the sport of horse racing.
To learn more about the Long Island Association, please visit: https://www.longislandassociation.org/.
In the community…
Christmas comes early for backstretch workers
Christmas came a few days early for approximately 150 families from the backstretch of Belmont Park at the Belmont Café at Belmont Park on Tuesday, December 20th when the New York Race Track Chaplaincy (NYRTCA) hosted its annual Sponsor-A-Family Program. A similar event was held December 6th for approximately 50 families in Saratoga.
The families received food and gifts, including new winter clothing for children, new toys and grocery store gift cards. Attendees were also treated to a medley of Christmas songs performed by the Elmont Memorial High School Jazz Choir led by Ben Pesenti.
“Thanks to the overwhelming generosity of our supporters, we were able to sponsor all of the families who requested assistance,” said Humberto Chavez, the executive director and lead chaplain of the NY Race Track Chaplaincy. “We are especially grateful to the partners of West Point Thoroughbreds, who jointly demonstrated the Christmas spirit in a phenomenal and meaningful way.”
Earlier in the month, the backstretch families also enjoyed a carnival at the Belmont Café that was sponsored by Thoroughbred owner Mike Repole.
The NY Race Track Chaplaincy serves the NY backstretch and farming communities of Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack, and Saratoga Race Course with enrichment programs for children, teens, and women, social service, recreational, and educational programming as well as non-denominational religious services. Additional information may be found at www.rtcany.org.
Support growing for We Are NY Horse Racing
We Are NY Horse Racing is a coalition of small businesses, labor unions, non-profits, and trade associations who recognize the importance of horse racing as an economic engine that creates and sustains jobs for New York families. In total, the sport generates $3 billion annual economic activity in New York State and sustains 19,000 jobs for New Yorkers.
Launched in September of 2021, the coalition has quickly grown to include more than 50 members committed to educating the public about the role the sport plays in the New York State economy and advocating for legislation that supports horse racing in the Empire State. In addition to a paid advertising campaign, the membership has engaged in dialogue with lawmakers, participated in legislative hearings and conducted grass roots events to build support for the sport.
For additional information, visit www.nyhorseracing.com
A helping hand….
National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame seeking auction items
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame will play host to a special “Countdown to the Triple Crown” fundraising event on Saturday, February 4. This new event, scheduled exactly three months prior to the 2023 Kentucky Derby, will feature hundreds of silent auction items and an online auction of unique items and experience packages to benefit the Museum.
Guests can attend the event in person at the Museum from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. or bid on special packages online. The early-bird event at the Museum will feature beer, wine, soda, light refreshments, and entertainment by Rich Ortiz.
Cost to attend the event is $10 for Museum members and $25 for non-members. Many of the auction items will be displayed throughout the Museum galleries during the event.
The Museum is asking for support from the thoroughbred racing industry and businesses throughout the Saratoga Springs area and nationally to help make this event a success. Businesses are encouraged to donate an item, experience, or gift card. Contributing businesses will be promoted by the Museum leading up to the event through the Museum’s social media channels and through database distribution. Additionally, the Museum will provide contributing businesses with a complimentary
For more information about the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, including upcoming events, please visit www.racingmuseum.org or call (518) 584-0400. ticket to the event. All donations are tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.
For more information about the event or donating an item or experience, please contact Maureen Mahoney at (518) 584-0400 ext. 109 or [email protected].
To purchase tickets, visit: https://1049a.blackbaudhosting.com/1049a/Countdown-to-the-Triple-Crown or call (518) 584-0400.
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Our mission is to preserve and promote the history of thoroughbred racing in America and honor the sport’s most accomplished participants in the Official National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. All proceeds from the event will fund new and exciting exhibits, educational programming, and help us provide the best experience to thousands of visitors annually.