At 4:30 in the morning on a rainy Sunday in April, 18-year-old Merlin Cano and her dad arrive together at Churchill Downs to begin work. The sky is still dark and the grounds are quiet, except for the downpour and the sound of the horses and roosters who live in the stables.
To keep warm in the cool morning air, Cano wears her Iroquois High School hoodie. As a rare teenager working at the racetrack, she sticks out. She said it’s hard to get up for work on the weekends, hours earlier than she does on school days.
“You’re like uh, I don’t want to go, but then when you’re here and you start working the horses, then it just goes by faster,” Cano said.
Many of the workers on the backside of the track who tend horses are Guatemalan, like her. Cano emigrated from Santa Rosa, Guatemala when she was eleven. Many other backside workers are from the same region. They found their way to Churchill Downs largely by word of mouth, as one worker might refer a cousin or friend to get a job at the same stable. The workers form a community, where not only does everybody know everyone else, but they are also often related.
“The five of my brothers are exercise riders here in Churchill Downs, and my sister is a groom,” Cano said.
Cano is a walker. All morning long, she walks thoroughbreds in a circle around the stalls, for 15 minutes each, to warm them up, before an exercise rider takes the horse for a run around the track. Then Cano helps give each horse a shower, as they return hot from their run.
The workers’ diligence helps train racehorses to be winners. The Backside Learning Center — which serves workers’ families — borrowed that concept when it named its youth program Frontrunners. Sherry Stanley is the nonprofit’s director.
“Frontrunners are just the horses that are out in front,” Stanley said. “So our kids are like frontrunners because they’re outstanding, and they’re winning the race. They’re leaders.”
Cano’s second job is helping with the Frontrunners after-school program. The program offers adult education English classes for parents, while kids are broken up into different classrooms depending on their age to receive help with their homework. High schoolers like Cano can ask the staff, many who are native English speakers, for help with college applications too.
Cano greets families who come to the program at the door, stepping aside at times to help parents; she takes one mother aside to translate a form to order her daughter’s school pictures. Cano is also helping form a youth association among these kids, to plan group activities.
Another part of Cano’s job is simply to be a role model for kids like her. She understands the difficulty of being immersed in a new language and culture, and dealing with family separation.
Becoming A Frontrunner
When Cano moved to Louisville, she didn’t know any English, and said sometimes she struggled with feeling left out of conversations.
For years, her family had been separated while her father worked at Churchill Downs. Her dad traveled back and forth between Kentucky and Santa Rosa, so she saw him for part of the year. But it wasn’t until Cano got a green card and moved to Louisville that she met her older siblings.
She said she remembers feeling shy — and surprised — when she met her siblings in person.
“The pictures are different, like you see them differently, but, in person, I was just like, ‘Wow, so this is how they look like.’”
Cano spent her first year at Jefferson County Public Schools’ Newcomer Academy for English language learners. Today she’s a good student, but she says it’s been tough keeping up her grades while working. Until recently, she also worked at Walmart after her morning shift at the stable.
Cano said she’s thankful for her education, especially because her parents didn’t even go to elementary school.
“They didn’t go to school at all, they would just work,” Cano said. “Because back then, it was a whole different system.
Cano’s father, now 65, was drafted to fight in the Guatemalan Civil War. The war lasted 36 years and ravaged the country. Cano knows she has advantages her parents didn’t.
“Every time I talk to them, they’re like, ‘You’re so lucky that you got to go to school here, you learned a second language, and you have so many opportunities.’” Cano said. “They’re always telling me take advantage of that — and I’m trying to.”
Cano will graduate this spring, and plans to seek U.S. citizenship later this year. She says she thinks it will be easy now that Kentucky requires high school students to pass a test that draws from the questions on the citizenship exam in order to graduate. Cano said she has already passed that.
She is also weighing which local college to attend. Cano said she has so many options for her future, that she can’t decide between pursuing medicine, or dentistry, or veterinary science — or perhaps something else entirely.
But she hopes to continue working with horses at least part-time while she goes to college.
She’s proud to watch the horses she has worked with race. She said she sometimes finds her own heart racing while she watches them sprint toward the finish, inspiring her to scream out encouragement to the animals she feels she knows.
“I don’t know, sometimes you feel like you’re helping the horse by saying in your head, like ‘go, go, go, go,’” she said.
As Cano moves on to her next steps, the backside community will be cheering her on too.
The Next Louisville project is a collaboration between WFPL News and the Community Foundation of Louisville. For more work from the project, click here.