June 2013, I traveled south to Lexington, Kentucky for a week. One hot afternoon, my host recommended that I take the car and see Keeneland Racecourse: a thoroughbred horse racing facility and sales complex. It was a humid day with distant clouds threatening the vacant track and I found the well-maintained grasses lush and pristine. The arena was virtually void of people and besides the chance custodian; no one appeared to be busy. The only visitors I saw that day were a handful of lounging television watchers sitting in plastic chairs in the covered shade.
I walked through empty stables in search of horses and activity. After passing four desolate rows, I nearly stumbled upon a BBQ in progress tucked between two of the empty stables. A thin, young man caught me off guard by offering me a beer. I refused, and upon the second offer, I surprised both him and myself by accepting his Budweiser. The Mexican migrant worker, José*, proceeded to invite me to join the workers for dinner. A few men were attempting to get a small BBQ going for beef tacos but had forgotten coal so they were burning down wood scraps and cardboard. It was possibly the most unrushed cooking job I had ever witnessed. Luis spoke to me in broken English wanting to know why I was there with a camera and if I wanted to see the horses. Luis wanted to be a jockey someday. As we spoke, I met a few of the other Mexican, migrant workers relaxing around the stable after their workday was complete. Most of the ten or so employees did not speak to me but nodded or smiled in my direction. The only woman present stood alone while I spoke with the men. Each worker who did speak with me, every single one, commented on how visitors never stopped to talk to them. No one quite knew how to relax now that I had actually accepted the offer to join their afternoon.
While speaking with José and watching his friends work the fire, two new arrivals on the edge of the party beckoned me over. The father and son were native US, white citizens. The family was originally from Syracuse, New York before they started working as a ranch hands 17 years ago. The father had not lived anywhere longer than a year since then. On average, they stayed only three to six months in each location. The son, Bryan*, 25, was a ranch hand who wanted to go back to work in the warmth of Florida. Bryan, like José, wanted to become a jockey. He usually moved around with his family but sometimes would leave for a job and meet back with his parents after a few months, do the circuit there, then move on again. They had another son working as a ranch hand in Arkansas and a daughter studying at a college in Syracuse. The mother came out from the stable and, while not speaking much, was not unfriendly in demeanor. In an attempt to hold my beer and camera without juggling awkwardly, I had placed my purse on a folding chair behind me. The father, attempting privacy in the company of his coworkers, advised me not leave my belongings here. This appeared to be his original goal of calling me over further into the stable row. I returned to the nucleus of the gathering a bit uneasy, though with my purse.
While José attempted to impress me by talking about his jockey dreams, Miguel*, a middle-aged horse handler and ex-jockey, took the initiative and walked me uphill to where the ‘million dollar horses’ were housed. Miguel had raced in his youth but now jokes that he is too heavy from beer and tacos. One should weigh about 110 pounds. He unabashedly asked my weight, and we agreed that I am too tall and heavy to be a jockey as well. Miguel’s family was in southern California at the time. He moved all over the United States staying an average of three months in each location; seven months was the length of his longest job. He lived in an apartment building a 15-minute drive from Keeneland with other racetrack workers. While most of the workers had never met before a month ago, they all carpooled to save money. After a few months they would go their separate ways again. I asked Miguel if he enjoyed his job, he pragmatically stated, “Its my job. What else would I do?” When I asked if he ever wanted to stay at one work site for a longer time, he said again, “Its my job.”
As we walked past stables, Miguel pointed out notable buildings and stables that housed important horses during race times. We meandered through a few half full stables, seeing tethered horses stick out their heads in curiosity. He showed me how to properly pet a horse and corrected my movements. As I took photographs he would point to things he thought I should shoot. The great majority of the horses I saw, over fifty easily, had at least some of their lower legs wrapped in dirtied, gauze bandages. When I asked Miguel, he explained that they were splints for sprains and mild shin injuries from over working the horses. Miguel’s voice lowered and he looked down as he spoke with genuine concern for the animals. The large quantity of mild injuries upset and worried him. Overworked. Stress injuries. Nothing he could do.
Beers gone, we made it to the main exhibit. But approaching the stall, Miguel was disappointed to see the ‘million dollar’ horse had been moved. His second choice was a racehorse named Lovely Lady* he claimed had won $800,000. She was a lively, flaxen sorrel colored horse with a blaze white facial marking just tracing the contours of the eye sockets. Miguel got into the stall and called me in so he could take a photograph of me with the horse. After a little coxing, he propped me up bareback and a mere few seconds later, with her bouncing and trying to shake me, I succumbed to sliding off the back of the horse, landing on my butt and very quickly getting out of her kick zone. With my heart racing, Miguel had me up again so he could get a better photograph. He was confident with the horses, taking deserved pride in his work and abilities. He was completely comfortable here, in the stables with the animals. I went up again standing on Miguel hands and he pushed me by my thigh over the horse. It was amazing to feel her warmth and short coat on my skin as my pulse pounded. This time I stayed on, plodded around the stall, and Miguel took his snapshot. After a couple minutes, I slid off onto the straw bedding and exhaled a fraction of my adrenaline. We then strolled back down the hill to rejoin the BBQ crowd.
“They don’t talk to us,” explained Miguel as we walked, speaking of the visitors, tourists, and white Americans. Miguel continued, “You are the only person who stopped.” Miguel seemed amused by my presence and simply enjoyed the break in pattern. He spoke of the discrimination against Mexicans working legally in the United States. People assume they are illegal or do not know how to speak English. He and his coworkers work long hours, sacrifice being with their family, and often struggle to get by financially all while dealing with daily bias. He wanted to share his passion and pride in his work; he wanted me to know about the hardships he and his fellow workers faced in the racecourse circuit.
The coal substitute still burning and the light just starting to fade, I prepared my return. After declining generous, repeated offers of food and beer, I did my best to politely slip away. As I walked uphill past the first stable, José came running up behind me calling my name. I turned; he was waving two cans of beer in his hand. As I started to apologize he grabbed my waist and kissed me quickly without hesitation. After turning away, I continued more briskly up the hill laughing at my heightened pulse, eager to have the solace of the car to filter through my afternoon at the racetrack.
*All names have been changed