James Ryan was one of those rich and remote owners, all caught up in the clubby atmosphere of the Trustees Room at Belmont Park and The Jockey Club in Manhattan, when he first looked into the many faces on shedrow. It was 1986. At the time, he was a multimillionaire Maryland homebuilder and horse breeder who had bred and raced such cracks as 2-year-old champion fillies Smart Angle and Heavenly Cause. "All I saw were the brass nameplates on the halters, the shiny coats of the horses, and the Trustees Room," he says. One afternoon at Belmont Park, Ryan's wife, Linda, forced him to look beyond the long-stemmed glasses of champagne toward a groom who was holding one of their horses.
"He had no socks on his feet, no laces in his shoes, and there was pus on his eyes," Ryan recalls. "And he reeked of alcohol." All those years, Ryan hadn't really noticed. "We learn to block things out," he says. "I was guilty of not knowing the quality of life of the people who took care of the horses."
That afternoon changed Ryan's life. He became active in various backstretch programs and joined the committee overseeing The Jockey Club Foundation, a tax-exempt charitable arm of the club that had been set up to aid backstretch workers. "For example, someone with medical problems," Ryan says. In 1987 the fund had assets valued at nearly $4.8 million, of which $284,000—about 6%—was distributed to needy track employees. Imploring the committee to spend more and to fund programs that would meet other social needs on the backstretch, Ryan became an increasingly contentious presence on the committee and in The Jockey Club. For instance, to address the major problem of drug and alcohol abuse on the backstretch, Ryan strongly urged the committee to set up education and counseling programs for track employees around the country.
Committee chairman James Moseley, who believed it was more important for the fund to grow through long-term capital appreciation, waved Ryan away. "We're saving our money for a rainy day," Moseley said.
Said Ryan: "But it's pouring out there!"
Ryan's role as the gadfly of The Jockey Club ended abruptly in August 1988, after he asked the foundation to boost its donations to 10% of the fund's assets. That, says Ryan, was when the club's chairman, Ogden Mills Phipps, asked him to resign from his committee post. "The meetings have been too acrimonious," Phipps said. During a meeting of The Jockey Club at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga, N.Y., Moseley announced to the membership that Ryan had resigned from the committee, whereupon Ryan rose to his feet and said, "I didn't resign. I was removed.... I don't want to be a member of a club just to go to dinner. There are things that need to be done on the back-stretch." Ryan's final words, to a thumping silence, were: "I do have one vote, and it's with my feet. I'm leaving."
He left the museum and crossed Union Avenue to the parking lot of the Reading Room on the grounds of the Saratoga racecourse. He slipped into his car and broke down crying. "I felt so alone," he says.
Ryan was, he says, the first member of The Jockey Club to resign since the group was founded in 1894. Backstretch workers across the country thus gained their most vocal advocate. In 1989 Ryan donated more than $1 million of his own money to set up drug and alcohol counseling programs at tracks across the nation; each track receives $20,000 if it can match the sum. So far, such programs have been set up at 54 tracks, including the three of the New York Racing Association: Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga. "These backstretch people are the forgotten ones," Ryan says. "This is the sport of kings. Somehow it hasn't reached the people who take care of the horses. We have to provide a better way of life for them. In pensions, education and housing." Lately, Ryan has been working with Rouse and the owner of Laurel, Joe DeFrancis, to find the money to build those three dorms.
Just about anything would be better than the 12-by 12-foot room at Laurel in which Ben Stubbs lives, with its concrete floor and cinder-block walls, no toilet or running water, a rug that he sprinkles with a deodorizer, and a single fold-up bed. Stubbs's wife, Dorothy, lives with their teenage daughter and adult son in a rented house in Hagerstown, Md., 60 miles northwest of Laurel, and she drives down in their 1982 Buick Regal to visit Stubbs every other weekend. "This is like home but not home," he says of Laurel.
Stubbs eats alone at night in the stable kitchen 100 yards from his room, or grabs two Quarter Pounders and a large Coke at a nearby McDonald's, as he did after tending to Chas' Whim for almost two hours the night after the horse won the Congressional. "You search the racetrack over and over to find a groom like him," says Gill. "They don't come any better."