ARCADIA, Calif. -- Backstretch workers who walk, groom and care for racehorses at Santa Anita urged state legislators on Thursday to keep the Southern California track open after the deaths of 29 horses since December.
An estimated 500 workers gathered after morning training hours at the track, toting handmade signs emphasizing their love of horses and the importance of being allowed to continue their livelihoods.
"Horses are our lives" read one sign. Another read "We were born into this and it is our life."
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said he is regularly approached by workers worried about their futures.
"A lot of jobs this industry has and we have to save them," he said before the rally. "I can always pick up and leave, but they can't. As an employer, I've felt more pressure worrying about them."
The workers expressed their support for new safety measures put in place since the string of deaths that has cast a pall over the historic track sitting at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains in Arcadia.
"We do not like to lose one single animal. We love them all," said Leandro Mora, a longtime assistant to trainer Doug O'Neill. "Those are our kids."
Tim Ritvo, chief operating officer of track owner The Stronach Group, stood aside listening to the series of workers who stepped to a podium to speak. They were cheered loudly by their colleagues.
Kathy Guillermo, senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said in a statement that backstretch workers' jobs are in jeopardy if more horses die.
"Safe horses mean safe jobs," she said. "If these workers don't already support continuing reform, they should get behind it right now."
The Stronach Group later released a statement in which it noted that backstretch workers have been "a willing partner" in implementing safety reforms during the meet.
"We look forward to working with the hundreds of backstretch workers at Santa Anita Park as we continue to move the industry forward and educate Californians on how impactful horse racing is to the state," track ownership said.
Racing at Santa Anita resumes Friday and continues until Sunday, the last day of the meet.
The circuit moves to Los Alamitos in Orange County from June 26-July 16. Del Mar near San Diego opens its major summer meet July 17.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sent letters to Gov. Gavin Newsom and the owners of Los Alamitos and Del Mar urging them to expand the enhanced safety review Newsom ordered at Santa Anita.
"The extra layer of review you established to examine each horse's medical records and racing history is a prudent step to ensure racehorse safety," Feinstein wrote. "I urge you to implement it at racetracks throughout California for the remainder of the year."
Alan Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, told the crowd, "Without the backstretch workers there would be no racing."
The workers, who are hired by trainers stabled at the track, typically rise at 4 a.m. and toil seven days a week as grooms, stable attendants, watchmen and exercise riders. About 80% of them live on the backstretch, where medical and dental services are available as well as help with drug and alcohol problems.
"It's emotional to see all the hard workers and their families out here to have a voice because they haven't had a voice," O'Neill said before the rally. "There's so much uncertainty, yet here we are loving on horses and no one reports on that."
Workers fear for their futures if the track would be forced to close as a result of the horse deaths.
"This job allows me to sustain my family," said Alberto Lopez Mendoza, a 35-year worker who said two of his children received college scholarships from a foundation dedicated to helping backstretch employees.
"I feel like the horses under my care are like my family. I take care of them like they are my family."
Rally organizer Oscar de la Torre said horse racing directly provides 77,000 jobs in California, including 3,000 at Santa Anita.
"We don't want welfare, we don't want unemployment," a worker in the crowd shouted. "We just want to keep our jobs at Santa Anita."