“It’s pronounced val-et, not val-ay,” explained Ron Shelton, who’s worked as a valet for 45 years. “We don’t park cars.” Shelton is responsible for more mercurial creatures: He saddles thoroughbred horses for Churchill Downs Incorporated, working behind the scenes so that the company’s races, such as the Kentucky Derby this weekend, run smoothly. He makes sure his jockeys are carrying the right weights, that they’re wearing the right silks, that their goggles are clean. On race weeks he typically walks for miles, while risking injury from the horses in his care.
For all this, he makes about $109 a day and Shelton, a member of SEIU Local 541, is asking Churchill Downs for a raise. The union and the company are now locked in a contract dispute that could spill over to the derby on Saturday. Union members employed at the company’s Churchill Downs and Turfway Park race tracks in Kentucky have threatened “major disruptions” to the derby if the two sides can’t come to an agreement by race day. They’ve been working without a contract since November, and their demands include a pay raise that would take workers at both tracks up to $130 a day. Churchill Downs countered with a raise worth about half as much. The company also refused to increase pension contributions for valets and to codify existing staffing levels for the valets, a matter the union describes as a potential safety issue.
Valets said the company left them little choice but to protest. Their response “makes me feel non-respected and underappreciated for the job that we do,” Shelton said. “There’s a danger element to dealing with thoroughbreds. Some of them are quite flighty.” He’s been hurt multiple times, he said, and so have the other valets on his crew. “You just don’t jump in there and get in a closed space with a thousand-pound animal. He goes a little nuts, and it’s not pretty,” Shelton said. He believes he deserves more from Churchill Downs, and the company could give it, if it wanted: Despite the pandemic, it posted $1.054 billion in net revenue last year. CEO Bill Carstanjen made $10.5 million in 2020, according to the union, which estimates the annual median salary for a Churchill Downs worker to be around $26,000.
It’s difficult to make ends meet on that pay, said Shelton, not least because racing has changed over the years. “When I say the state of racing has declined, I don’t mean the quality,” he said. “But we don’t have the number of horses to deal with that we used to have. Gosh, it used to be four tracks would run 12 months out a year, five days a week. That is certainly not the norm anymore.” Shelton and valets like him travel frequently, moving from track to track in order to earn a living. “That’s what makes even the slightest raise so valuable to us, because we don’t we don’t work that many days anymore. It’s not our choice, but that’s just how it is,” he added.
In statements to the press, the union has said that its demands are worth a cumulative $27,000. That’s inaccurate, a spokesperson for Churchill Downs Incorporated told Intelligencer. “The last and best offer by Churchill Downs Racetrack, which was unanimously rejected by the Union, included: A pay increase for 2022 that is nearly 6% - double the typical cost of living increase. There is more than a 4% increase offered for 2023,” a spokesperson said via email. While they didn’t dispute the union’s pointing out that Churchill Downs brought in over $1 billion in 2020, she said that sum was offset by a net loss income of nearly $82 million. Churchill Downs also said is committed to current staffing levels for valets, “ however, we cannot guarantee a minimum number of valets, because that number is tied directly to the average number of horses entered into its races,” the spokesperson added.
That promise doesn’t translate to job security, said valet Josh Foster, who’s worked for Churchill Downs for three years. “If they call and tell two of us to stay home, I have no job,” said Foster. Because he’s one of the newer valets, he lacks the seniority that might otherwise protect him from staffing cuts.
With so much at stake, the Greater Louisville Central Labor Council said the valets could count on local labor support in the event they strike. That creates a possible conundrum for the state’s Democratic politicians. Governor Andy Beshear plans to attend the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. If there’s a strike, he might have to cross a picket line to do so. Even absent a strike, protests may make the reality behind the derby difficult for politicians to ignore. The derby, which generates massive wealth not just for Churchill Downs but for Louisville itself, hides inequality at its heart. The work valets perform can go unnoticed by the public, but without them, there’s no derby at all. “I know it’s tough for them to really see what goes on there, because everything is done behind the scenes,” said Foster, referring to fans of the race. But the results are obvious. “Every race there’s no delays from us that holds the races up or anything,” Foster added. “They can see the work that we put in.”
“We put out a lot of hard work here and we risk our physical bodies. We make this product that they sell to people for millions of dollars all over the world,” Shelton said “I don’t even want a whole slice of the pie, I’d like to have a half. Treat us like human beings, an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”