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At Belmont Park, betting on the future of workers’ children

Kids who attend Anna House at Belmont Park

Kids who attend Anna House at Belmont Park play with plastic gold crowns Monday as they celebrate the prospect of a Triple Crown winner. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Nestled in Belmont Park, a world away from the track, there’s a dream. And it’s not about getting a big payout if Justify wins the Triple Crown on Saturday.

It’s about betting on the future.

Inside a yellow one-story building is a day care center for the kids whose moms and dads care for the thoroughbreds — grooming, feeding and exercising them between their days of glory.

Anna House was established two decades ago when the workers — virtually all Hispanic immigrants barely making ends meet — brought their little ones to work.

“People visiting the barns saw babies in horse stalls in carriages, or in the backseat of a car or being watched by a 5-year-old,” said Libby Imperio, president of the Belmont Child Care Association.

It just seemed wrong to the owners, jockeys and trainers. A dozen or so came together to raise money to build the day care center, which would be named Anna House for the daughter of a major donor.

Today, 75 kids spend their day having fun while they learn. Their parents pay what they can of the $1,000-a-month tuition. The state and donations cover the rest.

If not for Anna House, many of the children — they and their parents are in the country legally— would be “10 steps behind,” Imperio said.

When the kids graduate into kindergarten, they’re ready. They know their numbers and letters and colors. They speak English.

On Monday morning, Michael Garcia was preoccupied with a plastic gold, bejeweled crown, a nod to a Triple Crown hopeful running in the Belmont Stakes. The spirited 5-year-old decided his plastic crown looked even better turned upside down on his head.

Gregory Benitez, also 5, took Michael’s lead, flipping over his headwear. Then, he started talking about all the colors he had learned.

Over in the infant room, it was nap time. Alexa Andrade, all of 11 months old, was being fed spoonfuls of yogurt before her nap.

In the young toddlers room, kids learned colors and coordination by putting blocks together. The preschool class has a corner just for story time.

Next door in the barns and at the track, a half-mile down the road, the excitement was building for Saturday’s big race. Armored vehicles hauled in cash for the betting windows, crews put up big tents for corporate parties and a parade of beer trucks delivered kegs and cases.

Juana Aguilar walks the horses around after races to cool them down. Miguel Garcia is a groomer. They’re married and they’re Michael’s parents. Their other two kids also go to day care.

“It’s a big support for me and my family,” Aguilar said, in Spanish.

After 20 years, about 1,000 children have come through Anna House. A few years ago, the foundation added an after-school program that includes tutoring and field trips to museums and movie theaters.

For Johnathan Estrada, who started when he was about 3, the investment is paying off.

Now 17, Johnathan is a junior at Elmont Memorial High School with aspirations to become a chef. His mother, raising Johnathan and brother Alexander alone, couldn’t have afforded day care. She grooms and walks the horses.

He remembers being dropped off every morning and learning his numbers and ABCs. And now he comes back to volunteer.

“It gave me a great start on my future,” he said.

CORRECTION: Anna House was incorrectly referred to as Anna’s House in a previous version of this story.

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