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Eddie Sweat has been there and back, not once but twice, and the memories still drive him at age 52. In 1973, Sweat achieved a kind of celebrity unmatched since the days of Will Harbut. He rubbed the 1972 Derby winner, Riva Ridge, and the next year came back to Churchill Downs with Secretariat. That first Saturday in May 1973, Sweat became the first groom in memory to have rubbed back-to-back Kentucky Derby winners, and five weeks later he became the first in 25 years to burnish a Triple Crown champion. He nearly won a third Derby with Chief's Crown, who finished third in 1985. Today, Sweat is like the old fighter who wants one more dance in the lights.
"Just one more Derby," he says, "and I'll be the happiest little ol' black man you ever want to see. Just one more Derby. That's all. Just one."
Solís, 35, has been there too. He was raised riding horses, learning at the knee of his caballero grandfather. But nothing prepared him for the shock he got in 1982, shortly after he had bridled a 21-1 long shot, Gato Del Sol, and walked him to the paddock for the Derby. Solís watched by the outside rail as the field came charging past the stands the first time, with Gato floundering, 19th and last. "It was like a dream," says Solís. "I was at the rail with all the other grooms, and when he came by, all the dirt was flying up in his face, and I remember thinking, as his groom, He hasn't run a quarter of a mile and already he's dirty! I couldn't see him because of the infield crowd, and then I heard him called fifth at the far turn. They came into the stretch, and I could see him. I could see the silks. He was running toward me, on the lead. I had both fingers crossed and I was praying. There are some things you remember forever. For me, the day I graduated from high school. And my first home run in Little League in Mexico—it hit the roof of a two-story house, right center. And the stretch run of the Derby. They are things you remember forever."
Off to the side of Excavate's stall, Solís is paring wedges from a large carrot and adding them to the colt's tub of oats and sweet feed. The horse comes wide-eyed to his door, sniffing, looking for the groom. "After you taste it once," Solís says of his Derby victory, "you want to taste it again."
Of course, tasting from that julep cup has been reserved for only a slim crowd of racetrack swipes who woke up one morning to find themselves, through the whims of chance, leading the racehorse of the moment to the horse race of the year. Most grooms have never made it to the paddock for the Derby and never will, and for many of them nothing will ever taste sweeter than coffee and doughnuts at 6 a.m. As folksy as he made his corner of the world seem with his homespun dialect and charm. Harbut's existence was far from idyllic. Back in the 1920s, says Rodger Gill, trainer of Chas' Whim, "grooms were like slaves. They slept in a stall. The privy was outside, and they sat on a rail to go to the bathroom. They were abused by work. They got up at 3 a.m., and the stalls were mucked out and the horses brushed off before the trainer ever stepped into the barn."
At many racetracks today, the living conditions for grooms and hotwalkers are not much better. In New York, the cradle of American racing and the citadel of the sport's eastern establishment, some of the housing for backstretch workers is a scandal. In May 1989, Charles Clay, the California-based groom of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence, accompanied his colt to Belmont Park to begin training for the Belmont Stakes in his quest to become the 12th Triple Crown winner. The colt was racing's reigning star, so he ended up in a barn with far cleaner quarters than the racetrack gave to Clay. The groom found himself in a room that would have shamed a Bronx slumlord.
"Filthiest place to live I ever saw in my life," Clay said. "First thing I did is, I cleaned the whole place with Clorox cleanser. Scrubbed it down. Then I set off two roach bombs. Then I set out 40 little roach traps along the walls. They expect people to live in that kind of filth? It was a disgrace."
Not far from the hole-in-the-wall where Clay lived for three weeks is a single-story stone building containing room C-61, which is shared by five Mexican nationals. One of the cots in C-61 is rolled up each morning so that the men have room to move around. Like most Mexicans who work backstretches in America, they are willing to endure the cramped quarters because racetrack housing is free, enabling them to send the bulk of their earnings home to their families. Room C-61, entered through a knobless door with one lock, is spare: In it are a 13-inch TV atop a small refrigerator, a hot plate and stove for cooking frijoles and tortillas, and a four-door wooden closet. A tattered maroon blanket hangs across the window. Groom Antonio Amezcua, 30, sends $800 of the $1,000 he makes a month to his wife and son in the state of Michoacán, west of Mexico City. Amezcua has not been home since last spring. His is a lonely life, a routine bracketed by sleep and hours of tedium.
"We don't go out much," says Amezcua. "We amuse ourselves here in the room, talking and looking at television. Sometimes, when it gets warm, we find an open space and play soccer, kick the ball around. We miss our families. We write a lot. Once a month we may make a call, but mostly we write. My life in Mexico has changed much since I started working here. I live a little bit better than before. I think my life will get even better if I continue to work hard."
There is no running water in the room, no bathroom, no private shower. In the winter the men dress against the cold before heading out to the washroom, 25 feet away. If there is a saving grace for the five amigos living cheek by jowl in C-61—"like cigarettes in a package," one of them says—it is that they do not have to endure the eye-watering odors and discharges that befoul life in C-40W, a two-story redbrick dormitory for grooms and other track employees across from the Frenchman's Kitchen, the cafeteria in the stable area.