There are times when Niccolo Troiani and his girlfriend, Danni Griggs, feel as though they are foreigners in their native land as they work for accomplished trainer Robertino Diodoro.
They have looked after horses at Turf Paradise, Oaklawn Park, Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Saratoga Race Course and Delta Downs – their current home – in the last nine months alone. Wherever their 2005 Honda Accord takes them, Troiani and Griggs are surrounded by backstretch workers who often speak little English, may or may not have entered the United States legally and typically have significantly lower wage expectations for extremely long days.
No matter the conditions of the workplace, Troiani, a foreman, and Griggs, a groom, press on. They are united by their passion for horses and their love for each other.
“We love what we do,” Griggs said. “We want to wake up and make a difference for these horses every day.”
While the debate over immigration and its ramifications rages on, there is no questioning that Troiani and Griggs represent a rarity in racing. They are young white Americans willing to work tirelessly for relatively poor pay and make whatever sacrifices are necessary to be part of a game that could not do without a vast Hispanic workforce that works largely behind the scenes.
“I took high school Spanish for two years. I should have paid attention,” Griggs said. “There is a language barrier, at times, that is tough.”
Troiani and Griggs, both 28 and from the state of Washington, decided at early ages on a career in racing. They had quickly determined that college, even if it could lead to greater material rewards, was not for them. Troiani always knew he was bound for the track. His father, Rico, galloped and trained horses. Griggs briefly attended community college before she decided that none of her courses interested her.
They hope to have their own training operation someday. They understand that road will be far longer and more tortuous than the one already traveled.
“I'm trying to work my way up eventually,” Troiani said.
The good news for them is that each possesses a strong work ethic, something they believe many of their fellow citizens lack. Troiani said of the relative shortage of American workers, “A lot of people don't like working weekends and early hours.”
According to Griggs, most Americans do not have staying power after being given entry-level opportunities. “They don't realize that it's all day every day, 365 days a year,” Griggs said. “Horses have got to eat.”
Diodoro, born in Canada, noted that he was surprised when the opportunity to hire Troiani and Griggs came along. He said both are performing well.
He said Troiani immediately asserted himself and showed he belonged as a foreman.
“He's one of those guys who will stay at the barn 24-7, if needed, and that means a lot,” said Diodoro, who oversees approximately 140 horses at tracks from coast to coast.“It doesn't matter how busy we get, he never gets flustered. He always keeps his composure.”
Diodoro is impressed by the way Troiani interacts with grooms and hotwalkers, despite potential divides in language and culture. “The help gets along with him and respect him, and that's a big thing,” he said. “When you're a foreman, you've got to be respected. If they don't respect you, you're in trouble.”
Diodoro praised Griggs, who gained experience as an assistant at Emerald Downs, for her attention to detail and her competitiveness. “She takes a lot of pride in her horses. She wants to take care of the better horses,” he said. “If they don't win, she gets pretty upset. She isn't one of the ones who is just there for the paycheck. She wants to win the race. You've got to have those kinds of people on your team.”
Diodoro, 43, celebrated his 2,000th career victory during the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course. He is always looking for employees who share his insatiable desire to win. He believes the rigorous requirements of working in this sport keep most Americans from applying for jobs that are often readily available.
“How many Americans want to be away from their families for months and months and months? Not too many,” he said. “I've got guys who work for me and they have wives in Mexico. They talk to their wives 10 times a day, and haven't been home in two-and-a-half years. That is pretty hard for anyone to do, especially Americans. The track is a hard place for a family.”
The racetrack can be a hard place, period. Troiani and Griggs devote much of their limited income to housing rather than accept on-track accommodations that are usually free. They said they would not be allowed to live together and they fret about their cat, Puma, who is accustomed to indoor living and might be in danger if she was inadvertently allowed outdoors.
There is one reason, though, that overshadows everything.
“We work hard. We want a clean, quiet place to come home to,” Griggs said. “The backside is not nice living.” They said they found Churchill Downs housing to be infested with bed bugs and cockroaches.
Troiani and Griggs are doing everything possible to set aside whatever money they can for the future. They never lose sight of the day when they can train together. They think big.
“You've got to have dreams,” Troiani said.
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