The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation
Shannon Kelly
Shannon Kelly, Executive Director, The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation

STUART S. JANNEY III: Next, I would like to welcome Shannon Kelly, executive director of The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation to speak about the state of our workforce on the backstretch and the contributions that the Safety Net Foundation makes to the sport.

Itís something weíve all got to be thinking about. Shannon.

SHANNON KELLY: Good morning, everyone. It does not need to be said that if you are here today it is because you love horse racing. This audience encompasses many facets of the sport, including owners and racetrack management.

But how many of you have actually been on the backstretch, and not to see a horse before the Kentucky Derby or the Travers, but instead at the 5:00 a.m. training set in January or the evening feed on a dark day?

I have. I grew up in a racing family. My grandfather, father, and uncles were all trainers. I was too young to work for them, but I spent a lot of time on the backstretch, and I witnessed the lifestyle firsthand.

Our industry relies on its backstretch workers. It is impossible for us to exist without them. Think about how much people are required to care for one horse. A trainer, a groom, a hot walker, exercise rider, jockey. And thatís not taking into consideration others who youíll see the backstretch, the people who take care of the racing surfaces, the people who work in the track facilities and in the kitchen.

Here is a breakdown showing the size of the workforce in three key states, New York, Kentucky, and California. As you can see, it is no small feat. It takes a great deal of skill, patience, and time to get our horses to the races, and for most, it is their whole life.

Early mornings, inclement weather, and long hours on their feet. Through it all, their love for the horse is evident. Watching a groom celebrate as their horse crosses the finish line is an amazing moment to witness. It is their work materialized, and it means as much to them as it does to you all.

This love and dedication aside, there are a few things youíve probably never thought about when it comes to life on the backstretch. Many live in dormitories at the track and donít have any means of transportation. When a groom travels with a horse, they often leave their family behind for weeks.

This nomadic lifestyle can be lonely and can often lead to mental health issues and substance abuse. And what happens when a backstretch worker gets sick? They canít just work from home the way all of us can. Imagine being too scared to call in sick. Imagine knowing that if you donít show up for work, even if you somehow made it to the doctor for proof, that you could lose your job.

So you go to work sick and you risk making others sick. Let that sink in.

The Safety Net Foundation disperses nearly a half a million dollars a year on a confidential basis in financial relief and assistance to needy members of the Thoroughbred industry and their families.

Recipients represent virtually every facet of the industry, from jockeys and trainers, exercise riders and grooms, to office personnel and other employees of racetracks, racing organizations, and breeding farms.

Adversity or hardship can present itself in a variety of ways, so The Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation remains flexible in the type of support it provides. Assistance can come in a number of forms, including financial aid for basic living needs, medication, surgical, and hospital costs.

This type of emergency individual assistance is our main focus. Just this summer I assisted a foreman with an outstanding medical bill for a knee procedure. She had left work for the day and fell in a parking lot. This injury made it impossible for her to put pressure on her leg, so she couldnít get to work and she would have to go weeks without pay.

Another young groom let a toothache go too long, only to realize he needed multiple dental procedures, amassing a bill of $9,000. In two other recent cases that the foundation assisted, one was for a groom who had a heart procedure. We provided a grant for a hotel because he didnít have a safe and clean place to live while he recovered from a very serious open-heart surgery, and his doctor was concerned about infection.

The other case was to help a groom renew her license. On her salary, she could not afford the $42 necessary for fingerprints.

The Safety Net also assists other organizations with their broader work, and we are very proud of these partners, especially the racetrack chaplains and the horsemen organizations, and the work that theyíre doing to make the life on the backstretch better. Health clinics, food pantries, holiday meals, daycare services, soccer leagues, winter coat drives, education classes, spiritual guidance, and field trips.

We have seen the positive impact of implementing these programs and services. They create a family environment for those who may be far away from theirs, a support system and a safety net.

Just last month here in Saratoga, and thanks in large part due to the generosity of John Hendrickson and the late Marylou Whitney, ground was broken on a new health clinic for the backstretch workers in partnership with Saratoga Hospital.

This clinic will provide expanded care services to the hundreds of backstretch workers who are here for the racing season. For many, this may be one the few medical visits that they have access to.

So we commend the team at BEST and NYRA for embarking on this very worthy venture.

Quite regularly we receive calls for help with filling a food pantry for the backstretch workers. This assistance does not come in form of a few cans of soup. We are allocating tens of thousands of dollars for food pantries. What does that tell us? That tells us that our workforce on our own backstretches are unable to satisfy this basic human need. The people who feed our precious equine athletes cannot feed themselves.

And remember, racing is not immune to the trends that the country is facing with regards to the workforce. We are competing with companies such as Amazon and Walmart that pay $15 an hour and offer benefits like sick days, vacation time, and five-day work weeks. Why would anyone choose to work for us? At a certain point, a love of the horse just isnít enough.

(Video shown.)

We need our workforce. We need our backstretch to be a place that people want to work and where they feel safe and welcome. Emergencies will always exist and the Safety Net will be there to step in, but we need to make sure that our workersí requirements to live on a daily basis are met. That need for that type of assistance should be obsolete.

I want to thank those in this room and virtually who have continued to support our efforts. You have enabled us to help many people. I hope that if we continue to speak about that we can eradicate the issue.

It is not a compartmentalized approach. It is not just fixing the issues related to horses. It is fixing the issues related to humans. Without one, we do not have the other.

Thank you.

STUART JANNEY III: Thank you, Shannon. That was a very compelling presentation. The work the Safety Net Foundation does is so important to our industry, as Shannon so well demonstrated. Our horses always come first, so imagine where we would be if we didnít have caring, experienced people looking after them for us.

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