Trainers, jockeys, and horses tend to get the most attention at the Saratoga Race Course, but there’s an entire community of backstretch workers who help operate the field. 

From the time the first horses move into the training track in April, until the middle of the summer race meet, Saratoga’s backstretch population swells to nearly 2,500 people.

Most of them receive services and care from the Backstretch Employee Service Team. One of those receiving care was exercise rider Ismael Del Valle.

The 39-year-old native of Puerto Rico was visiting a free health clinic on the backstretch of Saratoga’s Oklahoma Training Track. A total of 21 days ago, he underwent open heart surgery at Albany Med.

“My arch of my heart, it had a problem. It was bleeding, it was ruptured,” Del Valle said.

The clinic is run by the Backstretch Employee Service Team, or B.E.S.T. The organization provides care to backstretch workers like Del Valle, who’s been an exercise rider for 20 years. 

“I feel when I get on a horse, I don’t know, it’s a really good sensation, it’s something incredible, you forget about the world,” Del Valle said.

“The backstretch workers are the backbone of the racing industry. They are the ones who are up every single day, seven days a week, caring for the horses that put the show on,” said Nancy Underwood, B.E.S.T. Saratoga Race Course program director.

B.E.S.T. was originally founded as an Alcoholics Anonymous support group in 1989 but has grown to offer clinic, dental, and vision exams, chiropractor visits, free supplies, help acquiring insurance, and numerous forms of counseling in both English and Spanish. 

“It could range from a mental health issue to an addiction issue to just needing help getting to the grocery store in Saratoga, and navigating the system here. We have people who will help with that,” Underwood said.

“They’re really good people, it’s a really good program,” Del Valle said.

While he’s feeling better, Del Valle says it’s quite possible his days in the irons are behind him, but he plans to continue his career on the backstretch. 

“In this atmosphere of horse racing, there’s a lot of opportunities,” Del Valle said.

With a new focus on his health, he says he knows B.E.S.T. will be there for him along the way.

“I’m really grateful and I thank God for the programs and everything,” Del Valle said.

B.E.S.T. receives most of its funding from the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, and the State Department of Health, but they do rely on donations.

They are hosting a fundraiser from 5 until 9 p.m. Thursday at the Taverna Nova restaurant in Saratoga.

To see our coverage of Saratoga's racing season, click here.