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Yvonne Abraham

Backstretch belonging

They don't have time for the intricacies of debates over slots and casinos that are swirling around their track.

They're too busy calming horses, rubbing liniment on legs, sweeping out stables.

They are the backstretch workers at Suffolk Downs. Hidden behind the stable gate, the 400 men and women of this village rise at 4:30 a.m. and work into the night, many sleeping in dorm rooms barely bigger than their single beds. Or close to their horses, in tack rooms at the ends of stables.

The pay is no good. Hot-walking a horse for an hour to cool it down gets you five bucks. Riding one around the track before dawn will get you ten. Trainers make more, but none of the money comes easily.

They don't own much. A lot of them couldn't get by without the free checkups and canned beans Jim Greene and a small crew dispense from a social services trailer called the Eighth Pole.

Outside the backstretch, they might be considered poor. Here, there is no poor.

"One time I tried going home," says Maylene Conkey, 44, a cheery woman with a dark ponytail and a flower and heart tattooed on her left shoulder. "Three days later I wanted to come back.

"Some people go to prison so many times; it's just their way of life, and they want to get back there," she said. "This is my way of life."

All this attention on Suffolk Downs now, and still hardly anybody knows this place exists.

It's a world unto itself, and it's the whole world: 70 percent men, 30 percent women; 25 percent white, 15 percent African-American, 60 percent Latino. They are straight-laced and rebellious, sick and strapping, baby-faced and deeply lined.

The only rule that matters in their world is this: If you're good with horses, it doesn't matter where you came from or what you did. You're in.

There used to be more drinkers and druggers here, but for years Greene, a man who knows alcoholism, has been pulling them back from the brink, one by one.

Besides, there isn't a lot of time for partying any more, since the state troopers booted the illegal immigrants out a few years ago, leaving a smaller crew and more work for everybody.

That suits Tommy Molinaro just fine. Eighty now, his face a dense topography of wrinkles, he's been on backstretches for 61 years. He could qualify for elderly housing, but he'll take his dorm room any day -- or better, a tack room in a stable.

"I tried working inside in my early 20s, in a paint store," he says. "I didn't even wait for my first paycheck. You've been around horses all your life, you can't do anything else."

He does whatever jobs people find for him.

"I'd like to be back rubbing horses, but the babies, I can't," he says. "They're too quick for me."

He makes a point of telling people he got kicked in the head 40 years ago, as if that explains a lot of things.

"You can't sue anybody," he says. "You work with horses, you take the bitter with the sweet."

The backstretch has changed a lot since he first started working. "Years ago it used to be nothing but colored fellows," he recalls. "They were good people. There are a lot of Latinos here now, but a lot of them I get along with. I met a lot of nice people here."

Everyone has looked out for everyone else in this little world hidden behind the stable gate, uniquely close, self-contained. You don't see communities like this anymore.

Like a lot of old-timers, and there are still plenty of them here, Molinaro doesn't consider retirement.

Every summer he's here, and every winter he's at a track in Florida. The backstretch people, and the horses, are his home.

"I'll be here," he says, "till they put me in the dumpster over there and cover me with cement."

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com

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