At Belmont’s Backstretch, Caring for Horses During the Shutdown

At Belmont’s Backstretch, Caring for Horses During the Shutdown

Tom Morley had two thoroughbreds entered at Belmont Park on Wednesday when horse racing returned to New York for the first time in nearly three months. No winners, but it didn’t matter — this was hardly business as usual.

No spectators were allowed in the Long Island racetrack. Temperature checks, masks and hand sanitizers have joined rakes, shovels, wraps and ice buckets as vital tools of the trade of caring for and racing horses.

Still, Morley, a trainer, and his team were gratified to be back at work after a harrowing 10 weeks. Six of his employees tested positive for the coronavirus. Four of them were hospitalized. One, Martin Zapata, 63, the barn’s foreman, died.

“He was a happy guy,” said Morley’s assistant trainer, Michelle Giangiulio, who tested positive for antibodies. “Never a day he didn’t show up. He was the very first one to get sick. He had a cold for a little bit and nobody really knew what the coronavirus was. He went downhill pretty quickly; he passed within two weeks.”

Morley secured a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal program created to help businesses during the pandemic, to keep his 16 employees working and support his young family. He has two daughters — 3-year-old Grace and 3-month-old Willow. While members of his staff were hospitalized or in quarantine, he sent some of his 35 horses to farms elsewhere in New York and in New Jersey, where day rates are cheaper.

“Without the P.P.P. loan, I’d be out of business,” said Morley, a 36-year-old Englishman from a racing family. “We trainers live on fine margins. If we cannot race, we cannot earn. My owners were great, too. I did send some bills with a note that timely payment is greatly appreciated.”

The dormitories on the backside of Belmont Park house 600 people working in a collection of barns, dormitories and walking pens where the focus is on the more than 1,750 thoroughbreds. Veterinarian vans and trucks for farriers, the people who shoe the horses, navigate the narrow lanes slowly. This is an invisible workforce that cares for and feeds the horses. They ride them in morning workouts. They ice and wrap their legs. They clean their stalls.

There have been 81 total coronavirus cases on the backstretch since March 19, 74 have recovered, and six remained in quarantine as of Wednesday. In addition, the New York Racing Association partnered with Northwell Health to offer coronavirus antibody testing to all backstretch workers and employees — 852 tests in all.

Alicia Alfaro, 52, was quarantined for three weeks.

“All paid, thank God because so many people have lost their jobs,” she said.

The Morley barn is still mourning the death of Zapata, a gentle soul from Panama who did everything from walking horses to helping with the laundry.

“We couldn’t say goodbye or see him,” said Vera Pinto. “How sad to die in a country that isn’t yours without your family. I’ve been here 18 years the time passes so quickly.”

For Morley and his staff, a return to racing is a return to a way of life. The hours are long seven days a week, but race days bring hope — for a victory, a purse check, or simply validation that the horse’s trainer and team did their job well.

“It’s been a tough several weeks, extremely distressing,” he said. “We are absolutely desperate to get back.”

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