Traveling and Barnwalking through the Underbelly-Backside-of the Kentucky Derby

Growing up in the South Bronx I dreamed of traveling the country in a Winnebago.  The Price Is Right just made it seemed so fun, sexy and free-spirited. I thought those were the coolest thing ever-you mean you can ride in a car and still use the restroom?  Score! My love of –or fantasy of the Winnebago-also extended to the idea of the mobile home-the Trailer home. I thought Winnebagos and Trailers were one and the same. I thought they would be cool places in which to live.  Remember, that growing up in the South Bronx, Las Casitas were a grassroots phenomenon that made randomly built structures a really empowering action at the community level [see my previous blog on Las Casitas].  I had no real concept of what living in a mobile home or trailer park really meant.  On my first cross-country trip, I came across Trailer Parks in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I was fascinated by the grounds and the overall environment.  It wasn’t exactly what I had pictured from the Price Is Right.  Since then I have had the experience of visiting other trailer parks, as part of community mapping endeavors, in places such as North Charleston, South Carolina.  While these have seemed like a community living on the margins, they still seemed liked a cohesive community-or at least a community protective of strangers. And that sentiment, even in the big city-we understand all too well in the South Bronx. .


This past week has been rough in terms of travel. I am basically on the road for six weeks. I get to go home for a few days in between but the level of travel is dizzying. So much so, that I got both a sinus and ear infection. What a double whammy!  On one of my more intriguing and eye-opening trips, I had the distinct pleasure of going to the grounds of the Kentucky Derby called Churchill Downs for a business meeting. The grounds were majestic and you could feel a sense of deep history even with the damp air lingering about and clouding the pictures. The Kentucky Derby is a race that is held annually in Louisville, Kentucky, on the first Saturday in May, generally capping off a two-week-long Kentucky Derby Festival.  When its race time, the media goes crazy declaring that the race is the “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports”.  Furthermore, the race is often referred to as “The Run for the Roses” because of the overwhelming number of roses that are draped over the winner.  On the Kentucky Derby grounds there is also a section referred to as “Millionaire’s Row” referencing the expensive box seats that attract the rich, the famous and the well-connected.  Thus, the impressions I had beforehand was that of a magnificent, elegant and vibrant space.

Stunningly, despite the popular media’s widely promoted images of millionaires and confetti of roses what I had experienced on the grounds was vastly different.  My sense of it was that the grounds included an extremely secluded and often overlooked isolated world.  In an area called the “Backside” for it is at the backside of Churchill Downs, there are dozens of barns that house more than a thousand horses and it also houses 600 to 1000 stable hands who live and care for the horses.  As we “barnwalked”, I noticed that the barns had clotheslines, satellite dishes and planters. I incredulously asked our host “people live here?” The rooftop (dome) part of the barns had been turned into housing units.  From the looks of things those units must have been tiny.

The backside of the Derby is home to the transient workers of the horse racing industry. Most of the workers are Central American immigrants-Guatemalan actually, who move around the country looking for work with stables and trainers.  It is mostly men as well; although there is a substantial number of women. Things are also segregated by gender. Gender roles are steep and permeate every corner and interaction. They have no kitchens in their rooms. They rely on their daily outings to the local Krogers or other local eatery to get their sustenance when they can actually get out. Their days are long.  They start their workday at 3am and go to about 11:30am. Then they head back to work at 3pm and go to about 11pm. Time to reflect, make friends, develop their own identity is very limited.  They are cogs in a machine and may not be much more if not remembered.


What a stark contrast to millionaire’s row or confetti of roses. While some get roses and champagne, others live deep in horse manure and hay.  The stable hands roughly earn between $250 and $800 a week for a variety of jobs caring for the prized horses. These marginalized human beings –the poorest of the poor-caring for the richest of the rich and not many know of this stark and harsh underbelly.  This is ostensibly a set of trailer parks on the tops of the prized horses and to me there was deep suspicion of outsiders –again, that is understandable.  This trailer park setting is not however what I had envisioned as a young girl or even what I have seen in other communities throughout the South.  The main issue being that there is not much sense of community amongst the workers. They work such long hours and on specific horses that there is not much interaction amongst the workers. Interestingly, many do come from specific towns in Guatemala but don’t carry that sense of village to the Derby due to their hash working life.

It’s not an easy life.  I was shocked to my core yet I did feel a sense of pride and hope. On the grounds, there is a community based organization that is trying its hardest to help these marginalized men and women.  These stable hands have gone through immense journeys to get to do that work, leaving their homes in Guatemala and leaving family members behind. They then travel across the country with the horses leading a very transient life.


The irony is that the grounds, Churchill Downs, was founded by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., the grandson of William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark great expedition fame).  Clark’s history was embedded in adventure and discovery. And while the grounds have proven to be a playground for the rich it has become a place where the marginalized have journeyed to and lead a very secluded, isolated life limiting their interactions with the greater community and creating a culture of fear.  While the Derby is steeped in adventure and discovery, the migrant stable hands are too fearful of venturing too far from the grounds for fear of being harassed, stigmatized and the like.. There is still hope that these marginalized stable hands will attain a good quality of life through the helping hands of others. There is great pride in their work and next time you see that confetti of roses reigning down on the field, don’t forget the backside that helped it happen.

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