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The culture of horseracing from behind the scenes

Down the Backstretch

Racing and the American Dream

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Carole Case

Horseracing—the sport of kings—has fed imaginations for centuries. The romance of the striving horse, the dauntless rider, and the "pot of gold" at the finish has rendered the remote possibility of success as inconsequential. Carole Case joined the racetrack world, working as a groom and a walker, in order to understand the culture of horseracing from behind the scenes. The backstretch is an area not readily accessible to the average fan where trainers, grooms, jockeys, and other workers prepare the thoroughbred for a fleeting moment of success against great odds. The strenuous, sometimes dangerous, poorly paid, and lowly nature of that work seems to have little bearing on the dedication and enthusiasm of these workers. In Down the Backstretch, Case explores the motivation for such a career, its tenuous rewards, and its links to the American Dream.

Case analyzes the culture that persists through its rituals, beliefs, and magical practices, all of which center around the thoroughbred horse. The community adheres through a shared sense of risk, ceremonial activities such as the paddock ritual, the racetrackers' argot, informal patterns of exchange, and a strange litany of proverbs, such as "Chickens today, feathers tomorrow." With fascinating detail, Case reveals the vivid contrast between the pomp and circumstance of the grandstand and the sweat and manure of the backstretch.

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Excerpt

Voices from the Backstretch

"I started galloping horses at fourteen. I've been raised on the racetrack. It keeps your heart. It's a hard life. Ninety percent don't make it. Five percent barely survive. Two percent do real good. Three percent get it all." —a jockey agent

"The average horse owner doesn't know his ass from his elbow as far as the horse is concerned. There isn't 10 percent of owners that know anything. They just do it to go to the races in the afternoon and be a big shot." —a groom and foreman

"[I] can 'whip the world' when I get up in the morning. I'm here seven days a week from 5:30. Every morning I write up a schedule for the day. Check the temperature of the horses; check the feed.... At 11:30, I go to lunch. I don't take a nap. Then, back to the track to watch the horses race, and to the barn at 5:00. I come back to the house at 6:00. My social life is to go to sleep." —a trainer

"You don't get respect. Don't get pay. The groom is 90 percent of the horse but ain't going to make any money." —a groom

"I'll ride as long as I don't have to fight weight like others have to and as long as I am in good shape. It's a funny game. Things can really change...chickens today, feathers tomorrow." —a jockey

"I like the horses. I want to be a trainer. But it bothers me to move around all the time. I usually rent a trailer. I used to have a family. You stay on the track all the time. It is hard." —an assistant trainer

"Yeah, racetrackers don't write and racetrackers don't have telephones. They don't read newspapers. Racetrackers don't have vacations, so they can't come and visit. . . . We live in a sort of closed-off world. What happens to everybody else doesn't happen to us." —a female groom and hot-walker

"You start early with something you like and you keep it. You don't think about money. You got to know your mind and concentrate on the work. I do it because I love it. My horse is sacred." —a groom

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Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
1. Entrance to the Backstretch
2. The Sport of Kings
3. The People
4. The Paddock Ritual
5. "Chickens Today, Feathers Tomorrow"
6. A Day at the Track
7. Routine, Ritual, and Magic
8. Disguise, Deceit, and Conspiracy
9. Barbers, Butchers, and Gyps
10. Racetrackers
11. Life Stories
12. The Dream
Glossary
References
Index

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About the Author(s)

Carole Case is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a Research Associate at the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy.

Subject Categories

Sociology
General Interest


In the series

Labor and Social Change, edited by Paula Rayman and Carmen Sirianni.

Labor and Social Change, edited by Paula Rayman and Carmen Sirianni, includes books on workplace issues like worker participation, quality of work life, shorter hours, technological change, and productivity, as well as union and community organizing and ethnographies of particular occupations.

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