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Valets at Churchill Downs protest over better wages as Derby week nears

Valets work 70 days out of the year and are responsible for keeping things flowing behind the scenes on race day.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Derby week quickly approaches in Louisville and some of horse racing’s most essential workers feel their pay and expired contracts do very little.

Valets work 70 days out of the year and are responsible for keeping things flowing behind the scenes on race day. They take care of saddling horses and making sure the jockeys have what they need before and after the race.

Churchill Downs Valets and their union SEIU Local 541 gathered outside of Churchill Downs Saturday to protest for better wages.

David Suetholtz, a lawyer representing the Racetrack Employees Union says Churchill is not negotiating.  

"This is the result, you walk away from the table. This is going to be the result," he said.

Ronnie Shelton has been a valet at the Downs for 35 years, following in his father’s footsteps. He is currently paid an hourly wage of $16 but he along with others is asking for $20 an hour and contributions to their retirement accounts.

Shelton said after years of working at the track and them refusing to have a conversation, he’s frustrated.

"I don't know I don't understand their feelings on it this is the last thing in the world we would want at this point in time. It's a cloud and it's over Churchill and it's over us," he said.

The day also marked Opening Night at Churchill Downs where many valets couldn’t attend the protest.

Shelton said they were rotating turns, coming out to protest so the jockeys and horses would be ready for the night.

"It's kinda hurtful, you put in all these years in the job. and you devote yourself to it," he said. 

Suetholtz said he hoped the conversation would continue between the Union and Churchill. 

Churchill Downs could not be reached for comment.

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