“All kinds of history is made in the Town of Hempstead,” said Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney, of Wantagh, referring to both Belmont Park in Elmont and Camp ANCHOR in Lido Beach. “But often, we don’t think about what kind.”
When Long Islanders think about the racetrack, many recall thrilling installments of the Belmont Stakes, featuring legendary racehorses. But behind the scenes, an army of backstretch workers — grooms, walkers, exercise riders and assistant trainers, who typically earn $16,500 to $20,000 a year — keep the track going.
Many of the backstretch workers have small children. The Belmont Child Care Association is a nonprofit organization dedicated to taking care of about 100 youngsters while their parents work, making sure they are school-ready and develop English language skills.
Sweeney recently brought these children together with members of Camp ANCHOR — Answering the Needs of Citizens with Handicaps through Organized Recreation — for some summer fun at Lido Beach. “Both sides are in need,” she said, “and it’s a good idea to cross-pollinate and connect them."
The Belmont Child Care Association was founded in 1998 to raise funds for a proposed preschool at Belmont Park, which would serve the children of backstretch workers. Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, a two-time winner of each of the Triple Crown races — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes — and Michael Dubb, the principal owner and founder of the Beechwood Organization, Long Island’s largest real-estate developer, hit upon the idea for a backstretch preschool during a dinner-party conversation with Bailey’s wife, Suzee, in 1990.
Eugene Melynyk, a Canadian billionaire and renowned thoroughbred owner, and his wife, Laura, pledged $1 million to the preschool, which was named for their daughter, Anna. Without Anna House — a yellow-clapboard structure squeezed onto one acre of Belmont Park — dozens of children who attend the preschool might otherwise spend their earliest days roaming the large and sometimes unsafe stables.“The need is certainly there and the program is growing,” said Joanne Adams, coordinator of Anna House. “Having Camp ANCHOR on board and giving these families the opportunity to come down to the beach is phenomenal.”
At Sweeney’s suggestion, families from the backstretch were welcomed to Camp ANCHOR — a summer camp in Lido Beach that is open to the town’s special-needs population for six weeks each year — on July 19. They kids from Belmont Park spent the day with other children and counselors by the ocean.
This won’t be the last time participants in both programs get together, Sweeney noted. “In return, the kids from Camp ANCHOR could visit the horses at Belmont,” the Seaford native explained. “I simply love horses and the impact that horses have on kids.
“This is a great and rewarding way to get the kids out on field trips and around horses,” Sweeney, an avid horseback rider, continued. “Both groups will be exposed to people they aren’t normally exposed to, and it gets them out of their comfort zones.”
Joe Lentini, coordinator of Camp ANCHOR, thanked Sweeney for proposing bringing the groups together. The children have a lot in common, he explained. “It brought back memories of 48 years ago, when Camp ANCHOR was first started, and our kids had so many walls and there was so much intolerance,” he said after meeting the children of the backstretch workers. “We want to do anything we can to help the kids of Anna House and give them opportunities.”
Scott Brinton contributed to this story.