Not a whisper of light had peeked over the horizon when Jose Martinez rolled out of bed and hustled down the stairs. At 4 a.m., a herd of hungry thoroughbreds was sounding racetrack reveille, whinnying and stamping for breakfast to be served in Barn D-7 at Canterbury Park.
The Thursday night races at the Shakopee track had ended less than six hours earlier, but Martinez’s horses were up before dawn and, as a veteran groom, so was he.
Seven days a week, he makes the short walk from his dormitory to trainer Valorie Lund’s stable. After feeding the seven horses in his care, Martinez will spend up to 14 hours a day bathing and brushing them until their coats gleam, keeping their straw beds clean and running his hands gently down their legs to check for swelling.
It is exhausting and sometimes dangerous labor, far from his family in Durango, Mexico. Yet Martinez feels at home in this workplace perfumed by liniment and alfalfa, where he belongs to a larger family of people bound by the unique culture of horse racing. “If you love your job, you never get tired,’’ he said, pushing another wheelbarrow of manure to a dumpster. “But this job never ends.’’
Canterbury’s four-month racing season attracts grooms from varied backgrounds, including Hispanic men, horse-savvy young women and people who are following parents or grandparents into the racing life. Most live at the track, transforming it into a summer-only Shakopee suburb, bustling with sports tournaments, barbecues, church services and English lessons.
Most of their time, though, is spent nurturing the 1,600 high-maintenance horses they know and love like siblings, in a place where they don’t have to explain their devotion.
“This isn’t a job to me, it’s a lifestyle,’’ said Bridget Finke of Lakeville, an assistant to trainer Tony Rengstorf. “It’s kind of like being a nanny for five very large children.’’
Forming a bond
Martinez, 51, came to the racetrack seven years ago at the urging of his nephew, a groom in California. Martinez’s upbringing on a farm helped him pick up the routine quickly.
The grooms feed the horses well before the track opens for training. They saddle them for their workouts, keep their stalls clean, maintain equipment, tidy up the barn, and offer hoof care and ice treatments.
After training ends in late morning, grooms get a break until about 3 p.m., when they return for afternoon feeding and chores. On race days, they help prepare their horses for competition and lead them to and from the track. When Canterbury’s races are held in the evenings, they may not finish work until after midnight. They typically make $500 to $700 per week, plus a small bonus when one of their horses wins.
Each groom usually cares for five to seven horses, with whom they often form close bonds. Martinez notices the slightest changes in the horses he tends, watching for anything that could signal illness or injury. He’s earned the trust of Mezzanotte, the Grans, Makinmymark and Bear Facts by treating them with tenderness and respect. He hoards peppermints for the ones with a sweet tooth and he lets the three-year-old filly Enlightened rub her head on him during her bath. In turn, she stands perfectly still when he rubs a clay poultice on her legs.
“Without good grooms, you can’t run a stable,’’ said Lund, who trains 50 horses at Canterbury. “This is all-encompassing work, day in and day out, year in and year out. But if you love horses and come to the racetrack, you probably will never leave.’’
That’s what happened to Finke, 24. She holds a degree in animal science from the University of Minnesota and once aspired to be a veterinarian. But when she began working in the Rengstorf barn as a college sophomore, caring for racehorses became her calling.
She works alongside men and women ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, handling 1,000-pound animals that are bred and conditioned to be high-strung. Despite the bond between groom and horse, accidents still happen. Finke has been bitten and kicked, incurring broken bones and lacerations requiring stitches. Last fall at Canterbury, groom Jorge Ortega, 56, died from injuries caused when a horse reared and pushed him into a wall.
Finke lives in Lakeville with her mother, but spends nearly all her time at the track. In the 24-horse Rengstorf stable, grooms get one or two free afternoons a week, and one full day off per month. The hours mean Finke rarely goes out with friends, who fail to appreciate the allure of a workplace full of sweat, dust and manure.
“They’re like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ ’’ said Finke, who sports a horseshoe tattoo behind her right ear. “This is an industry that can be difficult for people to understand. I’m always getting asked when I’m going to get a real job.
“I could easily be making more money doing something else. But I’m getting paid to do what I love. And my family and friends can see the passion I have for this.’’
That passion, according to trainer Bernell Rhone, is essential to the job. When he advertises for grooms before Canterbury’s season starts in May, he finds few local applicants willing to put in the time and effort required to look after such temperamental, fragile animals.
That’s why more than half of Canterbury’s grooms come from Mexico, Central America or South America. Many were raised on farms, where they developed the work ethic and affinity for horses that make them such prized employees. All nine of the grooms in Rhone’s 54-horse stable are Mexican, who hold H-2B visas that allow them to work in the United States on a temporary basis.
In order to hire Mexican grooms, Rhone must prove he can’t find enough workers locally, then get permission from the U.S. Department of Labor. He hires a lawyer to go to the U.S. Embassy to file the necessary paperwork. It costs him $1,250 per employee, but some of Rhone’s grooms have been with him for more than 16 years, and he considers them like family.
“My son and daughter grew up with some of these guys,’’ said Rhone, a Prior Lake native. “I’ll get a few [local] applicants, but most people don’t want to work a seven-day-a-week job, or they’ll disappear for an hour to go get coffee. These guys really care about the horses.’’
While some grooms bring their families with them, many more travel solo and save their money to send home. They live free-of-charge in cinder block dorms above the barns and cook meals on hot plates or in microwave ovens. Bicycles are the preferred mode of transport; at Rhone’s barn, only one of his 12 employees has a car.
It can be lonely. Martinez, who has a green card that allows him to live and work permanently in the country, returns to Mexico each year for a week or two to visit his wife and 7-year-old daughter. Frequent phone calls and texts help bridge the divide, as does the makeshift family at the track.
Canterbury Park chaplain Ed Underwood and his wife, Patrice, executive director of the Minnesota Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, try to make the stable area feel like home. In addition to a weekly worship service and dinner, the track offers a softball league, a soccer tournament, a children’s camp and a free dental clinic next to the racing office. Track workers also can attend English language classes and 12-step meetings on the grounds, and a shuttle ferries them to local stores.
“Even though racing is highly competitive, there is a community that develops back here,’’ Ed Underwood said. “People are very busy, and they travel a lot, but they still want to form relationships and have things to do. We try to help them not just with their spiritual needs, but with whatever they need in their lives.’’
When Canterbury’s season ends Sept. 13, most of the grooms will move on to other tracks for the fall and winter racing seasons. Martinez keeps a scrapbook filled with winner’s-circle photos of his horses. At Christmas, he’ll take it home to show his daughter, Sol Guadalupe, who wants to come with him to the track when she is older.
This summer, he has added seven new pictures, more than of any of the grooms in Lund’s stable. That helps him keep the smile on his face when he rises at 4 a.m. for another day in a job that has become a way of life.
“When my horses win, I feel like I’m the best,’’ Martinez said. “My horses want to make me happy. I want to make them happy, too. I want to do this job — until I can’t do it anymore.’’