Almost every morning, Felipe Pulido Mendoza starts work at around 4:15 a.m. Before the sun rises, the seasoned groom greets the four Thoroughbred horses in his care, feeds them, cleans them and prepares them to be walked, trained or raced.
Pulido Mendoza is one of about 950 people who live and work on the backstretch of the Del Mar Fairgrounds – nearly a quarter of Del Mar’s year-round population – for about 10 weeks each summer and six weeks in the fall.
They play an integral part in the multimillion-dollar horse racing industry, yet they are largely unknown to the millions of fans who visit every summer and are a forgotten voice in the ongoing debates around the age-old industry and those who believe it should be shut down.
Backstretch workers are responsible for taking care of up to 2,000 Thoroughbred horses. They are made up of grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders, pony riders and assistant trainers.
Most of them are from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, and Spanish is often their first language. Both men and women work on the backstretch, though about 80 percent are men, and a variety of ages are represented. Some of the workers are single and some have families that they are separated from during the season.
The work itself is physically and mentally demanding, requiring long days in the summer heat, hard labor and the patience to handle nearly 2,000-pound Thoroughbreds.
They must also adapt to a sometimes-challenging lifestyle – the nomadic nature of living at different racetracks during the different racing seasons can make it difficult for them to regularly see their families or to maintain a stable community back home.
But despite these challenges, their love for the horses shines through and their dedication to the sport keeps most of them around for the long haul.
Last month, Pulido Mendoza received a Dedication to Racing Award as part of the annual Thoroughbred Industry Employee Awards.
“My favorite thing is my horses,” Pulido Mendoza said when asked about the best part of his job. “I work with them every day and I think they know me – they don’t speak, but they know.”
‘We Go Where the Horses Go’
Pulido Mendoza working at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. / Photos by Ariana Drehsler
In 1974, before Thoroughbred horse trainer Richard Mandella became a household name and a member of the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame, he hired Pulido Mendoza. He was a hotwalker when he and Mandella first crossed paths, but he quickly became Mandella’s most trusted groom.
Grooms act as the horses’ personal attendants and easily spend the most time with the horses. Hotwalkers are tasked with cooling down the horses after exercise.
Pulido Mendoza was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and came to the U.S. almost 50 years ago. His family lives about 10 minutes away from Santa Anita Park, but, like most of the other backstretch workers, he lives and works at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Once the season ends in Del Mar, he and his peers will migrate to Santa Anita Park for the start of that racing season. Next year, he’ll do it all over again.
“We go where the horses go,” he said with a laugh.
Before entering the horseracing world, Pulido Mendoza grew up around horses and, for him, it was second nature.
“I just love the horses,” Pulido Mendoza said, beaming from ear to ear, gazing at one of his horses in the nearby stall. He’s not a man of many words, but his interactions with his horses said it all.
Several years ago, Mandella attempted to promote Pulido Mendoza, but he opted to remain a groom to stay closer to the horses.
“As much as he loves his horses, it didn’t surprise me because of that,” Mandella told The Paulick Report in 2018. “He’d rather work with horses than people, and that’s understandable.”
Gary Mandella, Richard Mandella’s son, and now a trainer alongside his father, was only two years old when Pulido Mendoza was hired into his dad’s stable.
“I’ve never seen anyone love horses more than he does,” Gary Mandella said. “They literally melt into him. They trust him because he has a gentle soul. I’m incredibly proud to work with him and call him a friend.”
On the day we visited, Gary Mandella was busily preparing his horses and staff for a race that upcoming Saturday. His dad was out sick, and seven of their Thoroughbreds would be entering the race.
He talked about the importance of having a dependable team around the horses, especially on the crucial days right before a big race.
“There’s a fair number of these guys that have worked for us for a long time,” Gary Mandella said. “Most of us found our way here because we had some sort of interaction with horses as young people, and that bond and that love for horses, it just gets into you, and you can’t let it go.”
Andres Mora is another groom at the Del Mar Racetrack. He works for two-time Kentucky-Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill. Mora’s father, Leandro Mora, is O’Neill’s assistant trainer and right-hand man.
Mora has known O’Neill since he was a kid, when he used to go to the track with his dad. The 28-year-old was raised around horses, so following in his father’s footsteps was never really a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when.”
Like many of the other backstretch workers, Mora goes where the horses go. He’s even worked at racetracks in different parts of the world, including Dubai and Japan. His home is in Santa Anita, but during Del Mar’s season, he lives and works on the backstretch.
In addition to his groom duties, Mora also works with the Thoroughbreds doing horse therapy. His days start at the same time as the other grooms, but normally wraps up a couple hours later.
“You get to create a bond with the animal – a lot closer of a bond than most assume,” Mora said. “I get to know them, and they get to know me, because, you know, you’re going into their home. You want them to feel comfortable, so they don’t feel like you’re a threat entering their space.”
The one thing Mora treasures most is seeing the horses grow to care for the people that care for them.
“I need to treat [the horses] just as well as they’re going to treat me,” Mora said. “I want them to be nice to me, so I’m going to be nice to them.”
He swiftly pulled out one of the carrots he keeps in his pocket, which is one of the ways he likes to show kindness to his horses.
After the season ends, Mora is planning on going up to Santa Anita Park with his dad and the rest of the barn, but he hopes to eventually go back to school to become a teacher, which, he says, his horses have prepared him well for.
Walking through the backstretch almost feels like entering another town. The fresh-cut grass, well-manicured hedges and bright flowers that greet visitors as they enter the racetrack are replaced with dirt roads and box-shaped dormitories.
Outdoor walking rings that hotwalkers use to cool down the horses are placed every so often, along with the occasional Thoroughbred getting hosed down by a groom.
Clothing lines are hung across fences and between poles holding jeans and various other garments, and bundles of hay are scattered throughout the vicinity.
A mix of backstretch workers look up and wave at passersby, smiling and offering a greeting. As the day starts to wind down at around 11 a.m. for most of the workers, groups start to gather, their laughter piercing the air as they tell stories of the day.
In total, about 950 backstretch workers live in the dorm-style housing, which usually holds two people per room, free of charge.
The property has 43 barns on the backside, each with several bedrooms in them. There is also a dormitory, known as “Motel 6,” that houses just under 100 people, as well as approximately 50 trailers that are imported each summer.
Wages vary among the workers. Entry level jobs, like hot walkers or brand-new grooms, pay minimum wage, but there are opportunities for everyone to work their way up, receive raises and some can even become salaried. And some of the workers, like the exercise riders, are independent contractors.
They also have the option to enroll in a statutory backstretch pension plan, which is like a 401k.
All backstretch workers also have full medical, dental and vision coverage for themselves and their families with minimal costs. Since 2001, the Gregson Foundation has sponsored college scholarships for children of backstretch personnel as well as outings for the workers and their families to places like the San Diego Zoo, Sea World and Padres baseball games.
The workers also enjoy going out to the beach and exploring Del Mar’s attractions in their free time.
A large dining hall serves breakfast, lunch and dinner at reduced prices. That and the “Rec Room” with TVs, pool tables and ping pong tables have become a place for all the workers to gather, socialize and unwind after a hard day’s work.
“Living on the backstretch, you really get that sense of family,” Mora said. “A lot of the employees have been here for a while. They’ve all known each other for quite some time, and it’s to the point where if someone nearby is making food, they always ask you, ‘hey, you want a taco?”
Many of the workers pursued this career to provide for their families while still being able to do what they know and love.
Backstretch work has provided them with an opportunity for stability, financial security, safety and companionship. That, and the undeniable love they have for their horses, has created a special kind of fulfillment that many aren’t planning on giving up any time soon.
As Del Mar’s summer 2022 season comes to an end, many of the backstretch workers will be heading to Santa Anita Park, but the horses will be back here in the fall, and the backstretch workers will follow.