Sep 7, 2021
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NYRA Cares: Food, fellowship and gratitude go together at Saratoga Backstretch Appreciation Dinners

by NYRA Press Office

There is much to enjoy at Saratoga Race Course, ranging from witnessing top thoroughbreds competing to soaking in the atmosphere at one of the country’s most venerable tracks during the 40-day summer meet that concluded Monday.

For Nancy Underwood, the Saratoga program manager of the Backstretch Employee Service Team [B.E.S.T.], the key to finding another special component of Saratoga requires leaving the main track, crossing Union Avenue and heading through Gate 16 near the Recreation Center. That trek will lead to the Marylou Whitley Pavilion, which each Sunday evening during the eight-week meet hosts one of Saratoga’s enduring, under-the-radar traditions: the Sunday-night Backstretch Appreciation Dinner.

“What you see each week is one of the best things of the Saratoga meet: a gathering where the backstretch workers get a meal and most importantly, a ‘thank you’ for their tireless dedication to our sport,” Underwood said. “It’s a weekly reminder of the people who make everything happen. They’re the heart and soul of racing.”

The backstretch is where workers, many of whom start their days before dawn, feed and care for the horses while keeping the barns clean and running. It’s the part of the track that most fans never see. It’s also where you’ll find people who work long hours and “do what has to be done,” said Nick Caras, program manager of the Racetrack Chaplaincy of America, New York chapter [RTCANY], which coordinates the dinners with B.E.S.T.

Caras said that commitment to those making a living on the backstretch is what makes the Sunday appreciation dinners so vital.

“The backstretch community are the unsung heroes of our sport,” he added. “People really look forward to Sunday nights – for the dinners of course, but also for the chance to kick back and relax.”

How appropriate that the weekly dinners take place at the pavilion that opened in July and is named for Whitney, the Saratoga benefactor and champion of the backstretch who passed away two years at the age of 93. It was Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, who 14 years ago launched the Saratoga backstretch program, of which the Sunday dinners are an integral part. 

For the first dozen years, the dinners took place under a big tent. Last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the dinners were reduced to boxed dinners dispensed to backstretch workers driving up in their vehicles. But thanks to Hendrickson, who funds the majority of the program and also organizes donations from local farms and individuals, the dinner tradition started up again this summer. And so did the other parts of the extended Saratoga backstretch summer program, from the Monday soccer league to English classes on Tuesdays, the Wednesday bingo nights, Friday field trips to Lake George, and providing opportunities for activities such as bowling, bull riding, shopping at the mall and going to the movies.

Every part of the program is popular. In the soccer league, for instance, people play for the team of their native country. No wonder, said Caras with a smile, that the games sometimes get a bit chippy. “Think about it; Mexico against Guatemala, and so forth,” he said. “People take a lot of pride in representing their country – while having some fun too.”

Hendrickson described his decision to continue funding the backstretch program as something his wife would have wanted.

“The program was important to Marylou as they still are,” he said. “The backstretch is indispensable to our sport; they’re part of the fabric of the Saratoga summer. Starting up the Sunday dinners – and at the pavilion named for Marylou – is a sure sign that Saratoga is back the way it should be.”

As in years past, Tony Panza of Panza’s Broadway Saratoga oversaw the food – making the orders, and dividing each Sunday buffet into themed dinners. Among them were Mexican night sponsored by Hendrickson; a Taste of Italy from Gainesway Farm; and barbecue night, courtesy of owners Barry and Sheryl Schwartz. On Runhappy Travers weekend, there was even a Thanksgiving dinner – or at least a preview – from Louise and Len Riggio.

Attendance varied, according to the workload and the weather, drawing on average between 300 and 600 people, said Scheriza Serravento of B.E.S.T. Like the flow of people at a restaurant, routines differed too, with some eating and staying for long afterwards, while others not lingering in order to get ready for an early start the next morning. And like most restaurants, many diners departed with leftovers – in this case, for roommates unable or too tired to attend.

Alvaro Rodriguez, a backstretch worker, said he looked forward to the dinners both for the food and the chance to catch up with friends. “The food is good and I enjoy seeing people,” he said. “It’s always nice there.”

Putting it all together each Sunday evening took a lot of organization but the staffs at B.E.S.T. and the Chaplaincy said it well worth the time.

“To me, this has been the most challenging and most rewarding summer at Saratoga that I can remember,” Serravento said. “It had to do with a lot of things from everybody coming back at the same time to the workload. But to go to the Sunday dinners and see everyone, ask about their families and see how they’re doing, well, it’s just great.”

What types of services does LifeWorks provide to help the backstretch community and others who need assistance?

“We provide help in many ways, and we have a strong focus on family services. We also have immigration service members ready to help as well. Since backstretch workers come with their families typically, we offer ESL classes right at the track during the summer. We offer free food during the summer; a lunch program, essentially. We also help them handle administrative things like taxes; just trying to help them get their bearings. We just try to provide resources that they might not normally have. One of our strongest programs is working with immigrants, but our main thing is providing assistance any way we can.”

Do you get the sense more people are eager to help and contribute to causes now that they are back on track?

“We’ve been fortunate enough that people have always been willing to help our organization. Given our location, a lot of people know about us, but I have noticed that a lot of people are willing to help in not only donating money, but their time as well. We’ve had a lot of people who are out of work or have different schedules come and volunteer for us, and that’s been huge. It’s inspired them to tell their friends to volunteer. We don’t have a shortage of help in that regard, so that’s really nice.

“It’s great to see people back at the track. Even if we’re not conversing with people about our organization, just having those conversations and face-to-face interactions are so important. A lot of people have expressed interest in what we do. A lot of people don’t know we work really closely with the backstretch. They are the moving cogs of everything that goes on here, and it’s nice to be able to honor them and shine a light on all the great things they do.”

What inspired the name change from the Saratoga Equal Opportunity Council to LifeWorks? How much has that alteration helped express the true nature of your work to the community?

“It was a good name, but at the same time, it didn’t really speak to what we do as an organization. With LifeWorks – we call ourselves Life Workers. It gives people a better idea of what we do. Saratoga EOC wasn’t necessarily a cold name, but with LifeWorks, it shows we are working to make a better life for our constituents in whatever way that may be. We try to provide the best situation as possible, whether that’s through our food pantry or our family services program. We’re trying to help our neighbors because they are the backbone of what we do. We couldn’t do what we do without them.

“It’s been a little difficult because people think we’re two separate entities when we are the same. We’ve really tried to drive home that name change, so that people see us at LifeWorks.”

How was the family services component of LifeWorks been received?

“Family services are a recently developed program. Our main focus is mobility mentoring, so that’s working on getting people to economic self-sufficiency. We have a family services manager and specialist and we work with people to get them the help they need, whether it’s rent assistance or even buying a vehicle. One of our clients recently bought his very first car. It was such a good message that with the right resources, it’s possible for anyone to come out of the dark depths of poverty. I’m glad we founded this program, because it’s vital. A lot of people are convinced it will never get better, but our program helps them see that they can get to that point.”

How rewarding has it seen seeing those initiates lead to the improvement in people’s lives?

"It’s so rewarding knowing that we touch lives. No matter how long you’ve worked for the agency, it’s a new thing every day, and that’s part of what makes it special to work here is seeing that success.”

In the community...

The Floral Park Chamber of Commerce will host a “Day at the Races” on Thursday, September 23 at 1 p.m. at Belmont Park. To register please visit, floralparkchamber.org

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