At Belmont, a Place to Keep the Workers’ Children Safe



Maria Flores and her husband, Marco Muñoz, finished work one recent afternoon and embarked on a short drive to pick up their son, Sebastian, at a nearby day care center in the Elmont section of Nassau County.

Along the way, the couple passed an exercise track and rows of barns where their co-workers, mostly Hispanic men and women working in a steady rain, were feeding, bathing and walking thoroughbred horses through thick clumps of mud.

Within minutes, the couple arrived to find Sebastian, 14 months old, sound asleep at Anna House, a day care center offering an educational curriculum and with a rather unusual address. It is located on the grounds of Belmont Park, the only racetrack in the country with a full-time, on-site day care service for the children of its backstretch employees, most of whom tend to the needs of horses in cramped and dimly lighted, muck-filled stalls.

The workers toil from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., earning an average salary of $13,000 to $20,000 a year.

“Thank God for this place, because we could not afford any other day care for Sebastian,” Ms. Flores, who is from Mexico, said through an interpreter. She and her husband, who is from Peru, are known in racing parlance as hot walkers — people who walk horses to cool them down after workouts.

“Even if we could afford a different place,” Ms. Flores said, “there is no day care open so early in the morning where we could drop off our son.”

Anna House, which opened in 2003 and is open every day of the year, has become a second home to 70 children between the ages of 6 weeks and 6 years. Tuition is a small percentage of each family’s income and averages about $50 per week, far less than at many other day care centers.

“My son loves it here,” said Enrique Garcia, an assistant trainer and exercise rider, as he walked a pony named Sunny J to a bucket for a drink of water at Belmont, which sits on the border of Queens and Nassau County.

Mr. Garcia and his wife, Shannon Pike, a stable forewoman, met on the backstretch at Saratoga in August 2006. Their son, Antonio Garcia Pike, was born two years later, and began going to Anna House when he was 15 months old.

“If other tracks around the country invested in this kind of day care center for their employees, it would improve the lives and work performances of the families they employ,” Ms. Pike said. “Without this kind of service, one parent would have to stay home and watch the children, which would cut a family’s income in half.”

The concept of Anna House was first discussed in 1990 at the home of Jerry Bailey, a jockey, and his wife, Suzee. Mr. Bailey was watching a football game with a friend, Michael Dubb, when their conversation turned to a troubling sight at Belmont Park: young children sleeping in cars while their parents worked.

“We knew that something had to be done,” said Mr. Dubb, a Long Island-based real estate developer, horse owner and philanthropist.

Mr. Dubb built the 10,000-square-foot day care center on an acre of land in Belmont Park provided by the New York Racing Association at what he said was “little to no cost.” He then donated the building to Belmont Child Care Association, a nonprofit organization established to operate the center, later named Anna House.

“Being in the construction business, I was familiar with the Hispanic population and how hard they worked while trying to assimilate into this country,” said Mr. Dubb, who built two extensions to Anna House last June. “We just had an obvious need at Belmont and we wanted to do something about it,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I could effect change with my own hammer and nails.”

When the project began, two other horse owners, Eugene and Laura Melnyk, pledged $1 million, and the center was named after their daughter.

Donna Chenkin, the executive director of the association, said the day care center now operated on a $900,000 yearly budget.

“Before we came along, these workers had no place to leave their children,” Ms. Chenkin said. “The only alternatives was to leave them in illegal or unlicensed day care, or at home watching television with older siblings, or to have them sit or sleep in cars while their parents worked. But now these children are safe and secure, and they are getting a bilingual education so when they reach kindergarten, they are fluent in English.” One of those children is Karla Laureano, a 3-year-old whose father, Juan Carlos Laureano, is a hot walker at the track. Her mother, Maria Guevara, works at Anna House as a teacher.

“This place is very important to all three of us, so we feel very fortunate,” Ms. Guevara said as she helped her daughter and other young children onto a bus that would take them on a field trip. “If not for Anna House, my daughter and I would probably be home every day. But now I’m earning money and she’s learning so much, and that makes all of our lives much, much better.”