Racing! A visit with the backstretch workers

A backstretch worker cleans stables run by trainer Hector Palma at Santa Anita Park.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Hello, my name is John Cherwa, and welcome to our horse racing newsletter as we finally get to the last weekend of the Santa Anita meeting.

We’re going to do things a little different today and turn over the top of this newsletter to a slimmed-down version of a story that Alejandra Reyes-Velarde and Haley Branson-Potts did for The Times on the backstretch workers and their effort to save their jobs.

This spawned out of a rally that was put together by trainer Doug O’Neill and the California Thoroughbred Trainers. It was held just before noon at Clockers’ Corner on Thursday.

So, rather than me babble, take a read of this. The full story can be found by clicking here.

Dagoberto Lopez begins each work day at Santa Anita Park at 4:30 a.m., checking on the five horses under his care: War Beast, Of Good Report, Carnivorous, Kissable U and Juggles.

“He checks their temperature. He makes sure they’ve had enough to eat. He gives them sponge baths. On race days, he braids their hair and talks to them, hoping they’re not nervous.

“ ’They’re like another child for us,’ said Lopez, a 63-year-old groom from Cudahy who has worked at the racetrack for 35 years. ‘They’re like humans. They just don’t talk.’

“A steady beat of horse deaths at Santa Anita — 29 since the start of the race season on Dec. 26 — has animal rights activists and politicians calling for the suspension of racing at the track.

“But many of the roughly 1,500 humble backstretch workers like Lopez who labor behind the scenes — grooms, trainers, exercise riders and stable cleaners — say powerful people and the media are talking over them, unconcerned about their fate.

“Among the employees, mostly low-wage Latinos, there is a growing sense of being an invisible underclass in the sport of kings.

“On Thursday, with a June gloom haze hugging the San Gabriel Mountains behind them, dozens of backstretch workers and their families held a news conference at Clockers’ Corner in an attempt to make their voices heard.

“They held handmade signs behind a speakers’ podium:

“’We love our horses. We love our jobs,’ one read.

“’Soy madre soltera. Necesito mi trabajo,’ read another. I am a single mother. I need my job.

“From the podium, Arnie Lopez, a deacon who hosts Bible studies at Santa Anita and helps employees apply for U.S. citizenship, sprinkled holy water on the workers and said a quick prayer: ‘God, we give thanks for our jobs and the love we feel for our horses. Please don’t let something bad happen to our track.’

“On Thursday, backstretch workers said they feel like the track has been vilified by journalists, politicians and animal welfare groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. But few people, they said, talk to them.

“Their biggest fear is that the track will be shut down permanently amid the controversy.

Ricky Ajarie, an exercise rider at Santa Anita, said there would be few options for backstretch workers if the track closes, especially those with specialized training.

“‘We’d be homeless,’ Ajarie said. ‘We’d have to get a tent and get in line, because where are we going to go? That’s what’s going to happen. PETA doesn’t think about that.’

“Today, many lower-level backstretch workers at Santa Anita make about minimum wage and live in the stables, rent-free, so they can work around the clock.

“On Thursday morning, the Santa Anita stalls overseen by trainer Hector Palma buzzed with activity. A horse covered in a heat-therapy blanket munched on hay while another stuck its head out of the stables, its legs wrapped with cooling bands. Nearby, two workers bathed a horse, with one man washing its tail with soap and another running his fingers through the animal’s mane.

“Palma, an 82-year-old trainer, began working at a Mexico City racetrack at 13 and came to the U.S. in 1959 to work in American stables, where the pay was better.

“Palma is one of the few Latino trainers at Santa Anita. Now, he employees nearly all Latino workers and has helped at least 30 gain citizenship and work permits, he said.

“Palma worries about his employees amid the controversy and think the politicians and media don’t understand their situation.

“’They focus on the fatalities. It’s the first thing they talk about,’ Palma said. ‘They never talk about the people who take care of them and love them. … There’s no one who suffers more than us when a horse is injured. We take care of these horses better than some take care of a child.’”

Hope you enjoyed this story, which you can read in full here. Great job by Alejandra and Haley.

Santa Anita preview

Santa Anita has a nine-race card scheduled for its final Friday of the meeting. There are five turf races, three allowance races, four restricted to Cal-bred and five races worth $65,000 or more. First post is the usual 1 p.m.

The field sizes are good, especially considering that the super-panel ruled that eight horses that were entered were not fit to race. Those horses were Solar Nova, French Getaway, So Conflated, Bullion, Lorelei’s Warrior, Dynamic Duo, An American Jet and Fright Night.

We’re not going to pick a feature among the three $67,000 races. But Eric The Trojan, for trainer John Sadler and jockey Flavien Prat, is the 3-1 favorite in the fifth race for horses 3 and up going five furlongs on the turf. Proud Pedro, at 2-1, is the favorite for Leonard Powell and Prat in the seventh. The race is one mile on the turf for 3-year-olds.

Here are the field sizes, in order: 9, 8, 8, 6, 9, 6, 7, 8, 8.

Ciaran Thornton’s SA pick of the day

RACE FIVE: No. 2 Awesome Heights (12-1)

Awesome Heights races protected today after winning at this distance last out off a year break. We see a sharp work last week and go fast early as jockey Edwin Maldonado rides again and he is winning 40% for trainer Genaro Vallejo. Second start off the layoff and racing protected today in a sign of optimism we are getting great value at 12-1.

Sunday’s result: Giddymeister was positioned perfectly going into the turn and looked like he would blast them away in the stretch. Alas the horse had nothing left in the tank and faded to fifth.

Ciaran Thornton is the handicapper for, which offers daily full card picks, longshots of the day, best bets of the day.

Los Alamitos weekend preview

It’s time to turn things over to marketing and media guru Orlando Gutierrez, who will tell us about the upcoming weekend at Los Alamitos. Orlando, the floor is yours.

Juan Sanchez, the co-leading thoroughbred rider at Los Alamitos in 2017, returns for the first time in nearly eight months when he has two mounts Friday night.

“Sanchez will be aboard Quantum Force in the third race and then Cioppino Pasadino in the fourth. He has been out of action since being involved in a spill on Oct. 26. The jockey endured several injuries as a result, most serious being a pancreatic fracture. He has been exercising horses at Los Alamitos for the past month.

“ ‘I feel very motivated,’ he said. ‘I've had so many people encouraging me and helping along the way. It felt good to have so many people there for support.’ 

“Sanchez tied Vinny Bednar for leading thoroughbred rider with 62 wins in 2017 and was on pace for another great season in 2018 before the injury. He finished the year with 51 wins. Sanchez, who has won races at a 24% clip over the past two years, has 243 thoroughbred wins during his riding career.

“Six mares that competed in the Grade 3 Miss Princess Handicap on May 13, including the top three finishers, are among the eight that will be in action in the $35,000 Ivan Ashment Handicap on Saturday at Los Alamitos.

“The Miss Princess returnees will be headed by La Rusa, a 4-year-old mare by Walk Thru Fire who won the Miss Princess at 23-1. Trained by Jose Flores, La Rusa's victory was also the first stakes victory for teenage jockey Oscar Andrade Jr. La Rusa will enter the Ivan Ashment with career earnings of $76,116, which includes trial wins to the PCQHRA Breeders Futurity and Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity. Strawfinders Jessee finished second in the Miss Princess and now returns in the Ivan Ashment, as does Madam Of Fire MV, who posted a strong third in the Miss Princess.

“The Grade 1, $1,070,000 Ed Burke Million Futurity is California’s richest race of the weekend. The 350-yard dash for 2-year-olds is slated as the eighth and final race Sunday evening and will be headed by Dreams Divine, who had the fastest qualifying time during trials. The filly by Apollitical Jess finished third to the unbeaten Chayito Cartel in the Grade 2 Robert Adair Kindergarten Futurity on May 19. Mental Effort, the runner-up in the Kindergarten, is another top Ed Burke contender following his ¾-length trial victory. Geothermal and Tea Pod, both out of the Grade 1 stakes winning mare Terrific Energy, are two other top contenders after combining to win their first four career starts. Geothermal won her trial by ¾ lengths, while Tea Pod posted a daylight victory in her qualifying heat. A total of 10 juveniles will run in the Ed Burke.”

Ed Burgart’s LA pick of the day

SEVENTH RACE: No. 6 High Flier (3-1)

He overcame a sluggish start while bumped leaving the gate in last head victory when stepping up from the $4,000 to the $12,500 claiming ranks for trainer Ricardo Guillen. Now, the gelding draws the comfortable outside post and moves up to a restricted $16,000 claimer that has conditions that allow horses that have won for $12,500 or less to qualify. He is one of the field’s two three-time winners (the other is 5-2 ML favorite JB Gray Dawn).

Final thought

If you would like to subscribe to the newsletter you can click here and sign up. Remember, it’s free, and all we need is your email, nothing more. Tell your friends, or even people you don’t like that much.

Any thoughts, you can reach me at You can also feed my ego by following me on Twitter @jcherwa.

Now, the star of the show, Friday’s entries.

Santa Anita Entries for Friday, June 21.

Santa Anita, Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, California. 32nd day of a 41-day meet.


5 Furlongs Turf. Purse: $46,000. Maiden Claiming. 3 year olds and up. Claiming Price $75,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Lincoln CityEfrain Hernandez120J. Eric Kruljac20-175,000
2Fifteen to VegasIgnacio Puglisi120Matthew Chew15-175,000
3GreyhammerEswan Flores120Val Brinkerhoff30-175,000
4Mercy RuleEdwin Maldonado120Jonathan Wong4-175,000
5River GodJorge Velez113Vladimir Cerin4-175,000
6Street ImageMartin Pedroza120Philip D'Amato6-175,000
7Castle GateDrayden Van Dyke120Patrick Gallagher6-175,000
8Seeking RefugeRafael Bejarano120Doug F. O'Neill7-275,000
9Oil Can KnightAbel Cedillo120Doug F. O'Neill3-175,000


4½ Furlongs. Purse: $65,000. Maiden Special Weight. Fillies. 2 year olds. State bred.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Unchain Her HeartAaron Gryder122Brian J. Koriner5-2
2NocherylikemycheryEdgar Payeras122Mike Harrington8-1
3Warrior's MoonFlavien Prat122Peter Eurton6-1
4A Royal AceAbel Cedillo122Edward R. Freeman10-1
5Fran's EmpireRafael Bejarano122Vann Belvoir8-1
6VeganMario Gutierrez122Doug F. O'Neill3-1
7Takes a VillageEdwin Maldonado122Luis Mendez3-1
8CircleofcolorNorberto Arroyo, Jr.122John C. Ivory20-1


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $65,000. Maiden Special Weight. 3 year olds and up. State bred.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Etterbay UcklayJoseph Talamo120Ronald W. Ellis8-1
2PeedieMario Gutierrez120Ben D. A. Cecil6-1
3Cafe ClaraHeriberto Figueroa120James F. Sayler30-1
4Jamming EddyFlavien Prat120Peter Miller5-2
5Good Bye PutinVictor Espinoza120Carla Gaines4-1
6General MoDrayden Van Dyke120Jerry Hollendorfer8-1
7Loaded JoeRafael Bejarano120Carla Gaines5-1
8No Parking HereNorberto Arroyo, Jr.120Steven Miyadi3-1


1 Mile. Purse: $67,000. Allowance Optional Claiming. 3 year olds and up. Claiming Price $20,000. State bred.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1I Can Do ThisFlavien Prat125Mark Glatt8-5
2Hard to Come HomeJ.C. Diaz, Jr.111Clifford W. Sise, Jr.12-1
3Poppy's C NoteAbel Cedillo118Antonio Garcia10-1
4Feeling StrongTiago Pereira118Hector O. Palma3-1
5Oh ManJorge Velez116Steven Miyadi5-2
6Tribal RoarEdwin Maldonado123Genaro Vallejo4-120,000


5 Furlongs Turf. Purse: $67,000. Allowance Optional Claiming. 3 year olds and up. Claiming Price $40,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Very Very StellaAbel Cedillo125Doug F. O'Neill12-140,000
2Awesome HeightsEdwin Maldonado123Genaro Vallejo12-1
3The Rule of King'sJorge Velez116Ruben Gomez15-1
4Make It a TripleVinnie Bednar125Keith E. Craigmyle8-1
5Regal BornTiago Pereira125Tim McCanna4-140,000
6Eskimo RosesMario Gutierrez125Shelbe Ruis5-1
7Morgan S.Drayden Van Dyke125Dan L. Hendricks6-1
8North County GuyNorberto Arroyo, Jr.125Richard Baltas7-2
9Eric the TrojanFlavien Prat125John W. Sadler3-140,000


6 Furlongs. Purse: $42,000. Maiden Claiming. 3 year olds. Claiming Price $50,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1BabaelJoseph Talamo124Ronald W. Ellis9-550,000
2R B EyeJ.C. Diaz, Jr.117Vann Belvoir12-150,000
3Cross TownEvin Roman124Vann Belvoir12-150,000
4Fait AccompliNorberto Arroyo, Jr.124Marsha D. Schwizer12-150,000
5ReedleyMartin Garcia124Bob Baffert8-550,000
6Call You TomorrowMario Gutierrez124Ben D. A. Cecil2-150,000


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $67,000. Allowance Optional Claiming. 3 year olds. Claiming Price $80,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1ContagionAbel Cedillo122Doug F. O'Neill6-1
2NoldeVictor Espinoza124John A. Shirreffs5-2
3Proud Pedro Flavien Prat124Leonard Powell2-1
4Tikkun OlamNorberto Arroyo, Jr.122J. Eric Kruljac8-1
5Power Down Joseph Talamo124Ronald W. Ellis12-1
6Of Good ReportRafael Bejarano124Doug F. O'Neill9-2
7Order and LawAaron Gryder122Vladimir Cerin5-1


6½ Furlongs. Purse: $43,000. Starter Allowance. 3 year olds and up.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1ForestationNorberto Arroyo, Jr.120J. Eric Kruljac12-1
2Royal TrumpJoseph Talamo125Mark Glatt2-1
3Sea's JourneyHeriberto Figueroa125Jerry Hollendorfer12-1
4Bouncing AroundIgnacio Puglisi125Jack Carava8-1
5AcedMartin Garcia125Peter Eurton9-2
6Vander KelenTiago Pereira125Mark Glatt3-1
7ConcurRafael Bejarano125Manuel Ortiz, Sr.5-1
8ItalianoEdwin Maldonado125Steven Miyadi5-2


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $42,000. Maiden Claiming. Fillies and Mares. 3 year olds and up. Claiming Price $50,000. State bred.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Lucky StepperVictor Espinoza120Carla Gaines9-550,000
2Charlotte LouiseJ.C. Diaz, Jr.118David E. Hofmans6-150,000
3SpringsterFlavien Prat120Richard Baltas5-150,000
4Golden NecklaceJoseph Talamo120James M. Cassidy8-150,000
5Laker JetAbel Cedillo120Doug F. O'Neill9-250,000
6Sidepocket ChargerAaron Gryder125Philip D'Amato6-150,000
7Magical SmileJose Leon115Clifford W. Sise, Jr.8-150,000
8Morgan's HumorTiago Pereira120Antonio Garcia10-150,000

Get our daily Sports Report newsletter