Day in the life of a groom on the Del Mar backstretch

NOT HORSEPLAY:Groom Raul Aguilar leads jockey Abel Cedillo and horse Two Thirty Five to the winner's circle after they won the Harry F. Brubaker Stakes at Del Mar on Wednesday. John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune/Tribune News Service

DEL MAR, Calif. – Raul Aguilar is beaming.

Seconds earlier, the groom was standing nervously in the dirt of the Del Mar racetrack, watching a video replay of Wednesday’s Harry F. Brubaker Stakes.

Seeing the race live, it appeared that trainer Richard Baltas’ horse Two Thirty Five barely got up at the wire first to beat Leading Score, trained by Bob Baffert.

The finish was agonizingly close, and then the replay all but proved that Two Thirty Five triumphed. When the word “Official” went onto the board, Aguilar clenched his fists in celebration and got a hug from assistant trainer Aimee Dollase.

As Aguilar took hold of Two Thirty Five to lead the 5-year-old gelding and jockey Abel Cedillo into the winner’s circle, the pride on the groom’s face was obvious and the words in his head understandable: “My horse won.”

Two Thirty Five has trainers and assistant trainers, a jockey, an exercise rider, a veterinarian, and a hot walker. All of them prepared the Kentucky-bred son of Stay Thirsty for the 18th race of his career on Wednesday.

But only Aguilar greeted the horse in the darkness at 4 a.m., using the light from his phone, wedged into the stall’s frame, to do the first of several wraps of Two Thirty Five’s legs in preparation for a race that would be run more than 12 hours later.

Aguilar arose at 3:30 a.m. and hardly stopped working until he got Two Thirty Five settled back into his stall after the race, about an hour before sunset.

The 35-year-old Guatemalan is one of nearly 1,000 people who live and work on the Del Mar backstretch for seven weeks each summer and another four weeks in the fall. They go almost completely unrecognized by fans, who only glimpse their work when the grooms don numbered bibs and lead their horses into the paddock before races.

To be sure, racing would not exist without them.

‘Whatever the horse needs’

The Del Mar backstretch is something out of the old West, a dusty, tight-knit town in which people look up when you walk past them and usually offer a friendly, “Good morning.” Occasionally, you hear somebody randomly belt out the line to a song in Spanish. The workers tell jokes and cajole each other often.

As the sun rises, people and horses are in constant motion. There are approximately 1,900 horses this summer on the backstretch, and most of them get out of their stalls every day for training, walks and baths. The army of men and women that does much of that work are the grooms and hot walkers.

“Every day is the same,” Aguilar said with a smile as he fluffed hay with a pitchfork in a stall. “Nothing changes. Whatever the horse needs, I do it.”

He’s not complaining.

“I love to work, and I love the horses,” Aguilar said.

Aguilar came to the United States from Guatemala in 1999, following his two older brothers, who also are grooms. Paolino Aguilar works in trainer Mark Glatt’s barn at Del Mar, while Luis Aguilar has a job at San Luis Rey Downs in Bonsall. Their father was a rancher strapped for money while trading milk and beef cattle.

Raul Aguilar estimated that among the backstretch workers, a large majority are Guatemalan. Many of the rest are from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador. They have similar stories of coming to America to escape poverty and corruption in their home countries.

“It was very bad, very dangerous in Guatemala,” Aguilar said.

Raul’s wife, Karen, is Mexican, and they have a 5-year-old daughter, Emily, who recently started elementary school.

“We had trouble having a baby, so when we did I promised God I would do everything I can to take care of her,” Aguilar said.

The family has an apartment in Inglewood, so Raul is separated from them during his time at Del Mar, other than nightly FaceTime visits. For the meets at Santa Anita, he makes nearly an hour commute to and from the track each day. Aguilar said he lives close to the new NFL stadium being built, so rents in the area are quickly rising.

The wages are modest, at best. Aguilar said he receives $15 per horse per day, and with six thoroughbreds in his care, that’s approximately $2,700 per month. Baltas said he pays the grooms a 1% bonus if their horse wins, so in the case of Two Thirty Five’s victory in the Brubaker, he got $533 from the winning check of $53,310.

‘He works hard’

On Wednesday morning, the groom awoke in his small, spartan room on the backstretch that he shares, rent-free, with fellow Guatemalan Carlos Donis, an outgoing 66-year-old hot walker who has been in the business for 47 years.

After downing a cup of coffee, Aguilar began a constant and efficient march toward the afternoon’s racing.

At about 5-feet-6 and built like a lightweight boxer – narrow waist, broad shoulders, big biceps – Aguilar almost never stops moving. Over his first seven hours, he’ll pause for rest only once. At 10:30 a.m., leaning against a wall between stalls, Aguilar guzzles a can of Coke and eats a beef torta freshly made by the backstretch’s on-site kitchen.

Six horses is a lot of responsibility. Most grooms have about four, but Baltas has given Aguilar extra because he’s earned it.

“He works hard,” Baltas said as the trainer watched Aguilar clean and dry Two Thirty Five’s hooves after he’d had his second bath of the day. “Most of the guys here are very hard workers. Being a professional groom at the racetrack for someone like me isn’t easy.”

Baltas laughed.

“I couldn’t last very long,” he said. “I did it when I was younger, and it’s a lot of work, physical exhaustion.”

Said Aguilar, “I like working for this boss because he expects a lot. He’s hard on us, but he also praises us when we do things well.”

Baltas’ crew takes obvious pride in the extra effort they put in. While some barns wrap each horse’s two front legs to protect them in the barn, Baltas’ horses get all four legs wrapped.

They receive a new wrap when they go out to work in the morning and another wrap when they return. There are separate wraps of gauze if a horse gets a treatment that is the equine equivalent of Ben-Gay. They also get ice wraps to soothe weary muscles.

Two Thirty Five had all of those treatments on his race day.

“They’re professional athletes, just like humans,” Baltas said. “I want to win, so we leave no stone unturned.”

Baltas proudly notes that his barn has not suffered a fatality this summer at Del Mar or in the recent Santa Anita meet that was scrutinized for 30 deaths.

“I learned from the best, from guys like Richard Mandella,” Baltas said. “I expect guys to do things the right way, the way I was taught.”

‘I talk to them’

Over the course of the day, Aguilar, with an air of confidence about him, moves systematically from one task to another. While 4-year-old gelding Kylemore is out on the track, Aguilar cleans the stall and hefts a 100-pound bale of hay with a pitchfork to add new straw.

When Kylemore returns, the hot walker leads him to the bath stalls, and Aguilar gives him a full soaping and spray. He uses a squeegee to remove the excess water, and then the hot walker takes him for a stroll of about 45 minutes. When they return, Kylemore gets another quick wash of his hooves to prepare them for wrapping when he gets back to the stall.

Once in the barn, Kylemore’s legs are wrapped with padding by Aguilar. Working as if he’s polishing a fine car, the groom strokes the horse’s coat to a shine with a rubber mitt. A large brush is used on the tail and mane, and Aguilar squirts some oil into his palms to rub on the tail to make it shine.

All six horses in Aguilar’s care get the same attention. For the day, Aguilar performs at least 60 leg wrappings for the various treatments.

The groom’s relationship with the horses is as different as their personalities.

One Bad Boy, a 3-year-old colt, is one of the stars of the Baltas barn. In June, he and jockey Flavien Prat captured the first leg of Canada’s Triple Crown in the Queen’s Plate Stakes at Woodbine. He has career earnings of $554,372 in only six starts.

The horse can also live up to his Bad Boy name, nipping frequently at anyone who comes near. Yet when Aguilar gets into the stall and moves around him, the colt calms down. Aguilar swears he has never been kicked in 20 years.

“I talk to them, and they can tell what I’m doing,” he said.

Aguilar’s eyes light up when he talks about another of his charges, 4-year-old filly Lemoona, who won the Possibly Perfect Stakes at Santa Anita in June before running sixth in Del Mar’s Yellow Ribbon Stakes.

“I like all of my horses, but she’s my favorite,” Aguilar said. “When she came here, everybody said she was an ugly filly. With me, she’s changed about 95%. She’s beautiful now.”

Grooms don’t have a horse in a race every day, so when they do it’s a big production.

Aguilar began preparing Two Thirty Five for his run more than an hour before the race. He wrapped his back legs in bright white tape and added three thin stripes of red tape to create the look of a baseball player’s socks.

The braiding of the mane is the groom’s version of an autograph. In fact, there are paid contests for which horse looks best in the paddock.

For Aguilar, the lucky number is 3. He put three braids in the hair on Two Thirty Five’s forehead, and then began to create three braids in the mane. When the first braid wasn’t perfect, Aguilar did it again. When he still wasn’t happy, he tried a third time before being satisfied.

The attention to detail was remarkable, considering Aguilar was in his 12th hour on the job.

All the fuss seemed worth it when Aguilar watched Two Thirty Five prevail at the wire. His horse looked spectacular in the winner’s circle.