Bryce Miller: In a racing first, Del Mar is feeding backstretch workers. It’s about community — and connection.

Maria Perez washes out buckets used to bathe the horses on the backstretch of Del Mar Racetrack.
Maria Perez washes out buckets used to bathe the horses on the backstretch of Del Mar Racetrack.
(Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

No other major track in America is known to match the investment by Del Mar, which feeds workers five days a week


Each day horses bolt from the starting gate at Del Mar, 61-year-old Maria Perez is there at 2:30 a.m., in the chill and dark, to clean stalls, brush horses and gather riding gear.

Perez represents the track’s unrelenting best bet, one of 1,000 seasonal workers on the quiet backstretch of the facility who routinely move with the precision of an ant colony. They provide the essential steam for the summer meet’s $550 million locomotive of wagering handle and race-day revenue.

For most, it’s a minimum-wage existence — as it is at tracks across the country. As daunting as surviving in Southern California on that amount of money sounds, Perez’s dedication underscores the way she and others flex extraordinary financial discipline to live a love affair.

“The more hard the job, the more happy I am,” Perez said.

A person is seen silhouetted on the backstretch of the Del Mar Racetrack on Aug. 10.
A person is seen silhouetted on the backstretch of the Del Mar Racetrack on Aug. 10.
(Meg McLaughlin/ The San Diego Union-Tribune)

That unshakable commitment is part of what makes Del Mar’s decision to feed dinner to workers this summer so warming.

Del Mar does not employ the backstretch workers. They’re paid by the trainers. The track essentially operates as a not-for-profit, handing off revenue above operating expenses to the state through rent to the 22nd District Agricultural Association. Money from food and beverage go to a racetrack authority group.

Other tracks in the country make large sums of money as publicly-traded companies, through real estate holdings or via casino subsidies.

To pay for the dinners, Del Mar had to find the money while still living up to its obligations to the state. The track and non-profit California Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Foundation will spend roughly $300,000 this summer on a program the San Diego Union-Tribune could not find at any major racetrack in the U.S.

The meals, which began as a four days a week and later expanded to a fifth day, have forged an emotional connection.

Shelve immigration debates and border bile. Sometimes, people from vastly varied backgrounds see each other in fresh and welcoming ways. Sometimes, differences spark kindness.

Though the money is critical to those raising families through that sweat and sleeve-rolling, it’s about more than simply staying afloat. It’s about one of life’s most valuable and profound currencies.

People work on the backstretch of the Del Mar Racetrack on Thursday.
(Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)


“The message is appreciation,” said Luis Martinez, 53, a groom for trainer Bob Hess who has been in the industry 16 years after growing up in Guatemala. “That’s everything.”

One night, rolled tacos. One night, Chinese. Every night, a connection grows lasting roots.

Track chaplain Eli Hernandez framed the impact.

“There’s not a price you can put on that,” he said. “It’s not just what’s on the plate. It’s what they’re saying outside of the plate. We see you. We appreciate you. Thank you.”

Omar Vergara, owner of Grupo Cayenne, right, chats with workers in during a break from passing out meals.
(Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Meals lead to community

Omar Vergara’s grandfather worked as a jockey at the old Agua Caliente track in Tijuana before falling off a horse, breaking his back and becoming paralyzed at 30. He remained involved in the sport and shared his passion for it, despite the pain.

Vergara, who began his company Grupo Cayenne as a food-truck business more than a decade and a half ago, remembers a moment in 2022 before the Del Mar program found its wings.

“A couple bought a cheeseburger and cut it in half,” said Vergara, whose company now owns the contract to serve the dinners. “I thought, ‘What’s going on?’ But that’s all they had and they were making the most of it. So being here is an honor. We put our heart into it.”

The line at the backstretch kitchen sometimes starts to form an hour before dinner service begins. This is not a place where workers trade notes on 401(k) plans or map out home landscaping options. This is somewhere where a dollar, once earned, is valued like oxygen.

To save $15 or so on a meal, potentially five times a week for nearly two months, seismically changes things. There is more money to share with families fighting to make ends meet in other cities and countries.

Vergara’s group, hopelessly overwhelmed by a line of 300 when the program began, now serves from 600 to 700 meals each day.

“They’ll knock on the back door (after the kitchen closes) and say, ‘I was working with a horse,’ ” he said. “We find food for them, too.”

What began as an unexpected track benefit has mushroomed into remarkably more. Instead of cooking in the cramped, track-provided barn spaces that serve as apartments or scrambling to pricey markets and restaurants, workers crowd the kitchen-area seating.

They eat. They talk. They find a community.

“It’s big, being together,” Martinez said. “It feels like family. Hey, I’m not a stranger. They’re not a stranger.”

Rudy Cruz, an assistant foreman for trainer Phil D'Amato, left, watches a race as others eat their meals.
(Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Rudy Cruz, who works with Maria Perez, is an assistant foreman for trainer Phil D’Amato. As he walked through the importance of the program, races played out on a TV positioned in front of a couch and some random chairs.

Cruz pointed to the line of diners waiting for bowls of pozole.

“Look at the faces,” he said. “It’s not just a free meal. They feel like a part of something with this.”

Cruz unfolded a race program, taking a break from the conversation as D’Amato’s horse Jack Sixpack prepared to run. He smiled as he patted his hand on his stomach.

“I’m a one pack,” he joked.

Once the race ended, Cruz continued to explain the far-reaching significance.

“Food is so expensive here if you go out (in the Del Mar area),” said Cruz, 53. “If the workers here don’t cook, they’re not going to survive. And I don’t have time to cook. The traffic is so bad, it might take two hours to go eat. This saves time. You can get a shower sooner and get to sleep.

“The next day’s comin’.”

No one complains about the tight quarters.

A backstretch worker collects his meal on Aug. 3.
(Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“I don’t mind the small room,” Cruz said. “At the end of the day, when you close your eyes, it doesn’t matter how small the room is. You just need a bed.”

Along the backstretch, blessings outrank complaints. Del Mar dinners rise to the top of the first list.

“Everyone is so happy,” said Hector Rangel, an assistant trainer for Luis Mendez. “It’s like family here. It’s special.”

D’Amato gauged the ripples.

“The workers back here work very hard,” he said. “It’s hard for them to get food at the grocery stores or restaurants. Plus, it’s very expensive. I think it’s great. Hats off to Del Mar.

“Hopefully, this is a program that can catch on across the country.”

Backstretch workers take a break on Aug. 10.
(Meg McLaughlin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Del Mar delivers ‘big deal’

The seasoned, sandpaper hands of Perez tell the story of the taxing work she has done, more or less uninterrupted, since 1980.

Hernandez, the chaplain, outlined stories of other Marias. Tough work. Tough decisions. He estimated only 15 percent of backstretch workers own medical insurance beyond the basics provided by the track.

Many days, Hernandez helps workers navigate social security, disability and Medicare claims. Three times a week, he shuttles people to a nearby grocery store. An attorney steps in for immigration documentation and other work-life tangles.

Del Mar has offered a fresh lifeline.

“At the Pacific Classic, it’s all about the glamour in the front, the polished boots,” Hernandez said, mentioning Del Mar’s $1 million showcase race. “Back here, it’s about getting the work done. Are these meals a big deal? It’s a very big deal.”