06/13/2002 11:00PM

Backstretch family gets a home


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Father's Day. That's a laugh. Keep your bad ties and your Brookstone gadgets and your "Die Hard" DVD trilogies. Just make sure Dad has the day off, no strings attached, and leave him alone when he dozes off in his chair. Problem is, that will never happen at the racetrack.

There is no professional sport more family unfriendly than horse racing. The season lasts 12 months. The working week is seven days. Each of those days begins before dawn.

Split shifts are common. Night racing further intrudes. Okay, so it's better than working in a coal mine or a meat plant. But let's not pretend.

The racetrack is not farm work. Grooms, hotwalkers, and the rest of the backstretch work force are nothing more than roadies in a long-running "Elvis Lives" concert tour.

And while horse racing tries to market itself as wholesome family entertainment, it is the families of the racetrack who benefit least.

Pressure to improve backstretch living conditions ebbs and flows, depending primarily upon media attention and guilt management. Racetrack operators never seem to do the right thing unless coerced.

Thank goodness, there are exceptions. The backstretch family days hosted by Monmouth Park and organized by Dan Perlsweig are a model for the sport. Emerald Downs, near Seattle, provides a small day-care facility in its stable area for the convenience of its work force.

Now Belmont Park has taken the concept to even greater heights.

Last week, on the day before the Belmont Stakes, the Anna House Child Care Center was unveiled to the public. Located not far from Gate 6 off Hempstead Turnpike, it is a 7,500-square-foot structure, creamy yellow trimmed in white and designed as if it were home sweet home.

There are five large classrooms arrayed around the Woody Stephens Atrium. Out back, the shady Lemon Drop Kid Playground awaits the installation of equipment, while the Marjorie Cordero Memorial Garden is already in full bloom.

Once state license requirements are satisfied and the interiors are complete, Anna House will be able to care for 80 children every day. The application process already has started. A scholarship fund of $1.8 million has been earmarked to aid families who need help with the tuition, which figures to run between $150 and $180 per week.

If you think of a track like Belmont as a giant factory with a steady labor population, a facility like Anna House makes perfect sense. American mothers and fathers have grown accustomed to dropping off kids at day care providers. Those who handle Thoroughbreds deserve nothing less. Their children require care at least as good as the horses.

Michael Dubb, a Long Island homebuilder and developer, has been the president of the Belmont Child Care Association since the movement started five years ago. His company designed Anna House and built the structure - donating all costs - in less than two months this spring, with crews working 24 hours a day.

Major benefactors include Jeanne Vance and Laddie Dance, Ellen and Joe Cornacchia, and Laura and Eugene Melnyk, whose million-dollar gift led the way. In gratitude, Anna House was named for their daughter.

"We knew that the kids of backstretch workers had to be taken out of bed early and were sleeping in cars during early morning hours," said Dubb, a racehorse owner himself. "Now they'll have a home."

And their parents will be better at their jobs because of it.

"We hope that Anna House will be an example for other major racetracks around the country," Dubb added. "It's so important, because these kids will have a good foundation for life.

Give Mr. Muniz an A+ for attitude

Hold a strong thought for Mervin Muniz. The Fair Grounds director of racing, and member in good standing of the Krewe of Endymion, underwent abdominal surgery this week in East Jefferson Hospital in New Orleans to remove a portion of his colon. Other malignancies were discovered in the process.

"I hear the food in this hospital isn't bad," Muniz said Friday. "Only they won't let me have any of it.

"I'll get out of here Monday and then start a little chemo," he added, making it sound like just another course at Commander's Palace. "They've made some great strides, but basically a lot of it's got to do with patient attitude. I've certainly got plenty of that."

Muniz is a rare bird, a throwback racetrack executive who has kept in step with modern times. Even though it is getting tougher, Mervin still tries to put people well ahead of the bottom line. He's got a hard road ahead, but there will be no lack of support.

"The other day my good friend Bobby Frankel called," Muniz said.

"That made me feel so good, as busy as he is. He'll never let you know he's really a nice guy."

Takes one to know one.