At Belmont Park, some 1,000 workers who care for the horses live not far from where a stable hand was fatally stabbed.
The slaying took place last week in the backstretch, an area lined with long rows of barns and employee dormitories. Eight days before, the track had been the nexus of the horse racing world as Justify won the Belmont Stakes to become the 13th Triple Crown winner.
Nassau County police are working to determine how the attacker made his way onto the 445-acre complex, which is ringed by a 6-foot-high iron fence and guarded around the clock by security officers.
The police department receives calls from Belmont’s backstretch, but not many, said spokesman Det. Vincent Garcia.
“Most of them are aided cases, someone kicked by a horse,” he said. “There’s a bar there and you occasionally get an assault every once in a while.”
Belmont’s operator, the New York Racing Association, declined to comment on security measures, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
Like Garcia, Joe Appelbaum of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association said Belmont doesn’t have much crime. His group represents owners and trainers.
Appelbaum, the association’s president, said he sees the slaying as an outlier and praised security measures at the racetrack.
“We need to learn from this incident,” he said. “We don’t want to be complacent.”
Maria Larin, 51, was cooling down a racehorse early last Sunday when she was stabbed several times in a barn, police said. The horse took off, which alerted Belmont security officers, who chased down a man on the grounds and held him for police. Larin was pronounced dead at a hospital, police said.
The man, José Franco-Martinez, 53, had dated Larin and once worked at the racetrack, police said. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. His lawyer, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County, declined to comment.
Nassau’s homicide chief, Det. Lt. Stephen Fitzpatrick, has described the stabbing as “a targeted incident.” Still, Larin’s death has rattled some of her co-workers.
“It’s scary,” said groomer Jose Castro, 43. “You don’t think somebody can come in and kill you.”
Enrique Garcia, 40, exercises the horses. “Even inside, it’s not safe anymore,” he said.
Humberto Chavez, 41, is Belmont’s chaplain and feels safe when he is on the grounds.
“It’s a high-end level of security,” said Chavez, who is employed by the nonprofit New York Racetrack Chaplaincy. “Patrols are everywhere.”
The killing has reverberated through the horse-racing community. Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, is reviewing security measures on its backstretch, said Vince Gabbert, vice president of the racecourse.
Keeneland has no security fence, Gabbert said.
“We want to be an open facility, not closed off,” he said. “We don’t want the workers to fear us or feel like it’s a police state.”
Round-the-clock armed security officers patrol Keeneland’s backstretch, which is also monitored by security cameras. The number of officers ranges from 50 for the peak racing season to 10 during slower times, Gabbert said.
During the peak racing season, from April to October, the park has about 300 workers. The number drops to about 100 during the offseason, he said.
Keeneland has very little trouble with its backstretch workers, Gabbert said. The racetrack works at keeping the peace by offering activities during off-hours, such as soccer tournaments, he said.
“Boredom is a bad thing,” he said.
Janice Gannon spent a decade working in backstretches, mostly in Canada, but has visited several horse racing parks in the United States for a book she wrote titled “Tails from the Track.”
Security varies from park to park but is generally tight, Gannon said. The reason, she added, has far more to do with protecting the valuable horses than the workers.
“You would be a fool to own these animals and not have security,” said Gannon, who lives in Ontario, Canada.
Some owners hire their own security officers to guard their horses overnight, she said.
During all her time in the backstretch, Gannon said she didn’t see much serious crime.
“The only problems I saw were boyfriend and girlfriend problems, and drugs,” said Gannon, 61, who worked as a groomer and an exercise rider.
When trouble happens, it often is handled by security and management, she said.
“I can’t even remember seeing any police on the backstretch,” she said.