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Thursday, October 23, 2014
Living on the Edge
A haven for 'backstretch babies'
Belmont Park preschool educating racetrack workers' children
Scott Brinton/Herald
Jazmin Torres, an early-childhood educator at Anna House, played a guessing game with Brandon Zavala and Skarllette Garcia on a recent Thursday. Located at Belmont Park, Anna House is the only preschool at a U.S. horse track.

Part two of an occasional series about the challenges that people face making ends meet in Nassau County.

By 8 a.m. on July 3, many, if not most, of the 3- to 5-year-olds in Jazmin Torres and Tina Weterrauter’s brightly lit classroom at Anna House had already been awake for three and a half hours. You would have thought they would be bleary-eyed. Not these 18 children. They were bursting with kinetic energy during free play.

Two galloped like horses around the classroom, neighing as they went. Three were building towering skyscrapers at the Lego table. A half-dozen had dressed up as princesses and were pretending to snap one another’s photos with make-believe cameras in the drama corner. Others were drawing with an electronic stylus on the Smart Board or with crayons and construction paper at tables spread around the room.

“The kids are just so fun. They’re loving. It’s amazing watching them grow,” Torres, 26, said later that day. Her job, she said, is “to mold them into world citizens so they are never made to feel ashamed because of where they came from.”

Without Anna House, a one-story, yellow-clapboard structure squeezed onto one acre at Belmont Park in Elmont, the 63 children who attend the preschool might otherwise spend their earliest days locked in cars or offices, as many children of backstretch workers once did.

Anna House serves the sons and daughters of Belmont’s grooms, walkers, exercise riders and assistant trainers. They are the lifeblood of the racetrack’s backstretch, the nonpublic section of the 430-acre park where million-dollar racehorses are housed in distinctive, green-and-white stables. Backstretch workers muck out the animals’ stalls, keep them fed and run them through their paces every day –– no exceptions.

Before Anna House opened in 2003, many backstretch employees left their children to their own devices at the track or at home while they worked. Most had no choice. They didn’t have enough money for babysitters or daycare –– and they needed to work to survive.

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