Finding good caretaker help is a growing problem. Just ask a cross-section of the industry.

Where did all our caretaker help go?

March 14, 2021

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Finding good caretaker help is a growing problem. Just ask a cross-section of the industry.

by Bob Heyden

Finding good caretaker help is a growing problem. Just ask a cross-section of the industry.

Trainer Greg Trotto: “It’s everywhere. Not having barn areas anymore hurts. Used to be there were kids hanging around all the time. Eventually they grew up to become grooms and some became trainers.”

Driver Bob McClure: “I know up here (in Canada) it’s been a struggle for a lot of stables. New generations are not getting involved in the industry.”

Pat Lachance: “They can collect more with unemployment sitting home. Plus, it’s long hours.”

Brett Pelling: “I’m two people short. I have never in my career not had enough staff.”

Connie Hochstetler, daughter of Hall Of Famer Doug Ackerman and race secretary: “It’s not like it used to be when my dad trained. It’s just a job to most grooms, but it’s a way of life that WE love.”

Jeff Cullipher: “I am short two people in Indiana and one in New Jersey. It’s tough. The Grand Circuit involves a lot of traveling. The younger people aren’t getting into it. It’s a tough job, physically, seven days a week. And living quarters are an issue.”

From New Zealand, Jess Davidson: “It’s pretty tough down here, too.”

A former groom in New York who relocated back to Michigan: “No one wants to work. Plus it’s a lot of hours and work for not a lot of money. Barns need to offer more incentives.”

Driver Tyler Smith: “I just think we have to do something to get our sport out there more. I mean back in the day it was on TV and everything. Now it’s on the back burner. It’s very bad right now. I’m not smart enough to know what needs to be done. But I know we have to promote the sport. It’s crazy we can’t get it out there.

“Nobody wants to work. Not like when I grew up. I was made to work. Not now.”

Carl Howard CEO Fazoli’s: “Yes, it’s tough everywhere, including the restaurants. It’s hard to get help when the government pays more to stay home. Sounds rude, but it is true.”

Ex-Jockey from NYRA Maylan Studart: “Pay them more and include benefits and you’ll get people. It’s the same for exercise riders today. It doesn’t pay for the risk involved.”

Ryan Macedonio: “The hours wear you down and things are very inefficient. From racing to training to organizing. COVID plays a part, but pretty much every stable I’ve seen — except a few — can be massively improved.”

Carter Pinske: “No one wants to work for the amount we ask them to work for, which is what we can afford to pay. Horses are a lifestyle, not a job. Seven days a week is hard and then we ask them to do it for little money and no benefits. None of that helps the industry, in particular. Mix that with a work force that doesn’t really ‘want’ to work and we have a real problem. It’s hard to reprimand the help or be picky, simply because of the ‘I’ll go to the next barn’ attitude.”

Trace Tetrick: “It’s just hard to find anyone who wants to work, let alone take pride in it. Maybe there’s just not much dedication anymore. I’m not sure.”

Chrissy Markos trainer/caretaker who had Foiled Again at 2-3 for Herman Heitmann: “They don’t really need it. It’ll keep you in shape, that’s for sure. It’s a lot of work.”

Carrie Cameron is no longer in the business of taking care of horses and her comments surely resonate: “If I am going to work seven days a week doing something, it’s going to be for myself. If you don’t you could easily find yourself 60 years old and with little money and no retirement.”

Bob Boni: “Everything is different today, and not for the better. It’s almost impossible to get enough staff. Faster horses, slower people.”

Long-time horseman, trainer, driver, owner Jim Bernstein: “The traditional grooms who were young and eager who took care of 2-3 horses now don’t want to work 50 hours a week for low pay taking care of 6-8 horses. They can get much better jobs at fast restaurants, etc. Most importantly, harness racing doesn’t have the glamour and interest level it used to have.”

Robert “Spence” Taylor from Hoosier Park: “The good help are the ones who aren’t bouncing around from job to job every season. I’ve got a few that have been with me a while and I appreciate them. But then you get the ones that are moving from stable to stable every year just for the paycheck and aren’t devoted.”

Dawn Allen, wife of Rod Allen and daughter-in-law of the late Carl Allen, has been ringside for the past three plus decades watching the sport from every angle. Their farm in Ocala, FL hires lots of help: “Pay. Caretakers ship and paddock most of the time more than one horse. They get home late and have to be back at work in the morning, especially for the monopoly stables. There are NO living quarters at the track — for the horses and the people. Lack of experienced caretakers. Everyone wants to be a trainer or driver most with very little experience.

“I have a girlfriend in Canada. She’s living with friends after seven winters in Pompano. There was no racing for a couple of months at Mohawk. She grew up in the business. She’s now 58. It’s been difficult to make the car payment. In Ontario, where her trailer is parked, that park is closed. If she flew to Pompano, she’d have to leave her car and that is not an option. Canada did give the owners in racing some money, but not the grooms as far as I know.”

Linda Toscano: “Payroll Tax. Trust. I pulled a guy out of retirement to work for me. I cannot remember the last time somebody came by looking for a job. The good existing people now have to shoulder more because there simply isn’t enough good help. I can’t send just anybody out of town for a stake, so I have to go, no matter what. There are lots of outside jobs — Amazon is one where they can work inside and not such long hours. There’s nobody like myself anymore who came right out of high school to the barns. It’s hard work. A way of life. No stabling at the track, no dorms. It used to be when school let out or around the holidays when someone’s Christmas bonus wasn’t what they thought it would be that people would be looking to work. Do all the owners understand? I am not sure that I am as forthright with them as I probably should be. Unemployment benefits are an issue sure. It’s a mess.”

Ross Croghan: “Trainers are really up against it today. When I send my rig to Yonkers to race there may be only one or two on there. It’s $164 round trip in just tolls. I have to invoice my owner $300 just for that. Today, if you yell at your help, they might just up and walk away. You often have to get them rentals. Try and find a place in central Jersey that’s affordable. The days of a groom sleeping outside of his horse’s stall on a cot are gone. The work can be brutally hard. Sometimes you think you have a good one, but then they get home at 2 a.m. a couple of times and quit. I remember years ago at Hollywood Park. They had 40 stalls, 16 tack rooms, big backstretch that was immaculately cleaned at least twice a day. Those days are gone forever.”

COVID, borders, excess money for unemployment, living arrangements, travel expenses, travel itself, scalding hot weather, Lasix. You can see some of the issues that are dogging the business and, as Linda Toscano said, “I don’t see it getting any better.”

This is a monstrous issue — one we will continue to explore — with potential solutions thrown around in an upcoming article.

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