NYRA Cares: Learning English and self-confidence go hand-in-hand on the Belmont backstretch | NYRA
Feb 10, 2022
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NYRA Cares: Learning English and self-confidence go hand-in-hand on the Belmont backstretch

by NYRA Press Office

It's class time on a frigid Tuesday afternoon in the "big kitchen" area of the Recreation Center at Belmont Park as 10 members of the Belmont backstretch community, all native Spanish speakers, gather for the first of the week's two English as a Second Language or ESL class.

Today’s topic is a comprehensive overview of a newspaper feature article, and for the next 90 minutes, participants will read, write about and discuss the piece – or as tutor Victoria Palacios put it, “really go over the material and in doing so, begin picking up the language.”

This is where members of the backstretch community practice and learn intermediate-level English from basic conversation and grammar to reading and writing. It’s a part of backstretch culture that many people rarely see. Combined with classes in computer literacy and citizenship – all are presented by the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.) – and the Belmont Child Care Association’s (BCCA) weekly Women’s Literacy “Zoom” sessions, the classes are a time-tested way that members of the backstretch community at Belmont are using to build both their English skills and self-confidence.

“You see people learning the language and you see their confidence growing,” said Francisco Barrera, a Belmont Park-based exercise rider for Robert Falcone, Jr. and a former jockey in his native Peru as well as Ecuador and the U.S. “People in class want to be here and they work hard to learn. Most have been up since before sunrise and some will be leaving shortly for afternoon feeding. But they make time for class and they do the homework and practice. It’s important.”

Barrera, who retired from race riding in 2007, assists Palacios as an assistant tutor and credited the ESL classes with building a sense of community on the backstretch. “People here are from different places and in the discussions, we all share our cultures and views,” he said. “We learn and help one another, and we learn English.”

That same spirt comes through at the weekly BCCA’s Women’s Literacy class, now in its fourth year, where 15 women meet to read and discuss the book, The Whale Child, an inspiring middle-grade chapter book by Keith and Chenoa Egawa. Led by Gloria Bisbal Leon, this class currently meets online due to Covid-19 protocols at the BCCA childcare center, Anna House. BCCA Executive Director, Joanne K. Adams, reads to the group and the women take turns following her lead by reading from that chapter in the book.

“The participants are backstretch women who work full time, care for their children and their families, and make time to empower themselves by learning to speak, read, and write in English,” said Adams. “It’s inspiring to see them achieve their goals.”

B.E.S.T. Executive Director Paul Ruchames agreed, calling the language classes part of the way people are working to get ahead, both on the job and in their lives.

“B.E.S.T.’s ESL, Citizenship training and computer lab programs are critical to the backstretch workers' success,” said Ruchames. “It’s all about increasing connection – to others and to the world outside the gates of the race track. And nothing can be more thrilling than witnessing one of our students finally becoming an American citizen! We’re very grateful to NYTHA (the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association) and NYRA for their unflinching support of these vital programs.”

The classes are among the programs made possible by the direct financial and in-kind support provided by NYRA and NYTHA to the backstretch non-profits, including B.E.S.T., BCCA and the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, New York division.

Both the ESL and BCCA classes incorporate what their tutors call “practical” language to assist with real world day-to-day activities.

“From our perspective, we’re not teaching English as much we’re building confidence,” said Bisbal Leon of the “Women’s Literacy” class, now in its fourth year. “You don’t have to be perfect and it takes time. But once you get over that shyness (to speak English) and with enough hard work, you can improve.”

Bisbal Leon, who is office manager at Anna House, said she sees the pride that children get when their parents from the class read to them in English. She cited other benefits, from the way the parents use their newfound language skills when talking to their kids’ teachers to incorporating English into their daily activities.

In the ESL class, Palacios blends vocabulary, comprehension and a writing exercise with a long discussion about holiday, family and good-luck customs, all in English. Everyone is encouraged to participate.

The atmosphere at both classes is welcoming. At the ESL class, where students sit classroom style at long tables, there is coffee before the lesson and box lunches afterwards when those not headed immediately back to the barns, linger and talk. For the following week, Palacios is considering Movie Day as a break from the grind of the lesson plan. She is also thinking of a Valentine’s Day theme for mid-February.

Learning a new language, especially as an adult, can be hard work. In 2018 in one of the largest linguistics studies ever conducted—a viral internet survey that drew two-thirds of one million respondents—researchers from three Boston-area universities found that children are proficient at learning a second language up until the age of 18. But the study also showed that it is best to start by age 10 if you want to achieve the grammatical fluency of a native speaker – meaning that as we age, the most difficult it is to pick up a new language.

Palacios said one of her goals is to get students to the point where they begin thinking in English. A native of Chile who emigrated to New York at age 12, she understands the frustrations and the work it takes in learning to speak a new language. So does Bisbal Leon, who emigrated to the U.S. 19 years ago from Peru. Both tutors said their own experiences learning English motivated them to help others do the same.

For BCCA class member Erika Toledo, who has two daughters enrolled at Anna House, learning English is well worth the time. “The class is very good for me,” she said. “I like it. It really helps me with the words, at work and at the stores.”


To learn more about the Backstretch Employee Service Team (B.E.S.T.), visit: https://www.bestbackstretch.org/

For information regarding the Belmont Child Care Association (BCCA), visit: https://www.belmontchildcare.org/


Terranova family providing a helping hand for the North Shore Sheltering Program

The Terranova family are no strangers to winning races at New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) racetracks, but they have also proven to be community leaders through their longtime efforts volunteering with the North Shore Sheltering Program (NSSP) in Glen Cove, New York.

Housed in the First Presbyterian Church of Glen Cove, the NSSP provides food and temporary overnight shelter for men in need during the cold winter months on Long Island. The program was launched in response to the death of two men who perished separately due to exposure in the winter of 1996.

The NSSP is privately funded by the community and assisted by more than 130 volunteers, including trainer John Terranova, his wife and assistant, Tonja, and their daughters, Paulina and Giana.

“Giana took over from Paulina, our eldest, and regularly volunteers at the North Shore Sheltering Program for men on Long Island,” said Tonja Terranova. “During the winter, we pick different days to make dinner for them and we try to collect clothing - jackets, socks, whatever might be in need.”

The NSSP, in addition to providing food and shelter for up to 15 men, also works to connect those in need of medical care to the proper agencies.

“It’s a great program,” Terranova said. “A lot of the people in need are veterans and it's so nice for them to be able to have warm food and safe shelter to sleep in.”

Terranova said the opportunity for Giana to volunteer and work with those less fortunate is extremely rewarding and provides impactful life lessons.

“It's a good thing for her to see. We have friends reach out to help as well and try to make it a special night,” Terranova said. “For these men, to have a fresh home cooked meal is very meaningful to them.”

Terranova, who took out his training license in 1993 and is based at Belmont Park, has conditioned a number of top stakes horses, including Grade 1-winner Franny Freud and the multiple stakes winner Gander, who was named New York Horse of the Year in 2000.

Juan Dominguez, a former trainer and now NYRA’s Senior Director of Safety and Racing Operations, said the Terranova family have always led by example.

“I’ve known Tonja and John for a long time. We grew up together on the racetrack and they’re very kind people donating their time and money to help people,” Dominguez said. “They’ve been doing this for many years and their daughters have grown up with it since they were both very young. It provides such a great example for how to care for people who are less fortunate than we are.”

Dominguez said he has worked with Glen Kozak, NYRA’s Senior Vice President of Operations and Capital Projects, to donate items in need, including extras from giveaway days at Saratoga Race Course.

“We’ve been helping for a couple of years now, providing umbrellas, cooler bags, socks, and the sweatshirts that were popular in Saratoga,” Dominguez said. “The people really seem to love those items and it’s special to them to get a gift item from NYRA. It’s the right thing to do to help out an organization like that.”

Terranova said those willing to donate clothing during the cold, winter months are welcome to stop by her barn on the Belmont backstretch.

“We’re always in need of anything from gently-used jackets, to winter hats, socks and sweaters. They can be dropped off to me at any time and I can take it to the shelter,” Terranova said.

To learn more about the NSSP and to donate directly, please visit https://northshoreshelteringprogram.org/


In the community...

The TRF Second Chances Program expands in New York at Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica

In collaboration with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NYSDOCCS), the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation’s (TRF) successful Second Chances program will expand in New York with a new farm located at Wyoming Correctional Facility in Attica. The TRF has a rich history in New York and launched the flagship Second Chances program at Wallkill Correctional Facility in 1984, a program that continues to operate today.

“The TRF is eager to launch the new Second Chances Program in western New York so that we can provide this important vocational opportunity to more incarcerated individuals, who will also care for up to 25 Thoroughbreds needing a safe haven after their racing careers are over”, said Pat Stickney, TRF’s Executive Director.

To learn more about the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) accredited program, visit this link.

NYRA and its horsemen are committed supporters of the TAA, which accredits, inspects, and awards grants to approved aftercare organizations using industry-wide funding.

Every owner competing at NYRA racetracks donates $10 per start to the TAA, which funds the aftercare organizations that provide homes for retired racehorses. New York’s horsemen also donate 1.5 percent of the purchase price of every horse claimed at a NYRA track to TAA and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association’s TAKE THE LEAD (TTL) program, which provides preliminary vet exams and treatment, as well as costs related to transportation and rehabilitation or retraining.

Give a beautiful horse hair locket to someone special and a Horse Sponsorship this Valentine's Day!

Donate $500 or more to the TRF Sponsorship Program and the TRF will send a special gift to your loved one (friend, parent, child or sweetheart).

Anyone who loves horses or animals will appreciate this compassionate, unique gift. *

The TRF is offering a beautiful locket with a special horse's hair and gems enclosed.

To order, please visit: https://donorbox.org/trf-valentine

* order must be received by Feb 7th to guarantee delivery by Valentine’s Day. After deadline, E-Cards can be sent until February 11th if you would just like to give a special shout out to someone.


A helping hand…


The NY Chaplaincy is celebrating Valentine’s month by inviting you to join us in Sharing God’s Love by Supporting our Food Pantry.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic our food pantry has become a critically important resource for our backstretch community.

Your support allows us to serve those who care for the horses behind the scenes with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Whether through a donation of nonperishable food or a financial contribution you may make a difference in the life of a backstretch worker today by helping us to provide nutritious food to those we serve.

More details may be found at this link.


The INN, founded on Long Island in 1983, is a non-profit, volunteer-based organization, providing a broad variety of essential services to assist those challenged by hunger, homelessness and profound poverty.

Consider supporting the second annual VIRTUAL wine tasting event in support of The INN!

On Thursday, February 10th from 7-8pm, get comfortable at home or anywhere you choose! Order your package of two or four bottles of wine in advance, and prepare to taste and learn from the experts at Sparkling Pointe Vineyards and Winery. Your wine purchase will benefit The INN’s programs in 2022.

This event will take place on Zoom. A link will be emailed to you prior to February 10th.

Date and Time: Thursday, February 10, 7-8 PM

For more information and to view the flyer, visit: https://the-inn.org/event/wine2022/.

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