Horse racing handicapped

Immigration enforcement reins in barn hiring

Preakness Stakes

May 15, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

At Barn 27 at Laurel Park, trainer Hamilton Smith is down four grooms, and his reduced crew never seems able to stop for a breath.

There are 28 horses to be exercised, fed and cared for from 5:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. There are 28 stalls to be mucked out, too.

The work is always hard at the barns at Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course and Bowie Training Center, and the hours are always long for those whose job it is to care for, train and race thoroughbreds.

But the hours have gotten longer and the load heavier over the past five months, as it has become more difficult for legal workers to enter the U.S. The horse industry says the reason is that the government has begun stiffer enforcement of immigration laws. The Department of Labor says it is simply attempting to apply immigration laws uniformly.

So while thousands of seasonal Mexican and South American workers are stuck outside the country, Maryland horsemen and their counterparts around the United States struggle to keep up - or they cut back on the number of horses in their barns.

Trainer Scott Lake, who has strings of horses at Delaware Park; Philadelphia Park; Penn National in Grantville, Pa.; Laurel; Charles Town, W.Va.; and Gulfstream in Hallandale Beach, Fla., said the immigrant worker issue is difficult everywhere, "but more so in Maryland, where Maryland officials are extremely strict" about checking documents.

"I've been trying to cope by moving people up," said Lake's Maryland assistant trainer, Hugh McMahon. "I'm training hot walkers to be grooms, but it is so difficult. You can train hot walkers to do the physical work well enough, but they don't have the years of experience to know what they're looking at if something is wrong, and they don't have the rapport with the horses.

"What's frustrating me is not having the experts and not getting the very best."

Long, hard days

To cope at Laurel, Hamilton Smith's team operates almost like an assembly line. He has hired a few extra hot walkers who are capable of rubbing down the horses, and then a groom or assistant Rick Yourman comes along behind them checking legs.

"I get here at 3:30 a.m., and I'm not getting out of here until noon," said Yourman, as Smith headed toward the starting gate to help school yet another horse. "Then I come back two hours later to do the evening work. I'm done around 4 p.m., and then I go home and I'm in bed by 7 or 8 p.m. I've got a wife and two small children, a 14-month-old and a 7-year-old. We don't have much of a home life right now."

What used to be an easy return trip after going home for an extended Christmas holiday has become a nightmare of paperwork for Mexican workers, the trainers who employ them and the U.S. government, whose employees have to process the multiple requests for H-2B visas.

The visas allow workers to come to the United States for nine months of temporary work when employment of the immigrant workers will not adversely affect the job opportunities, wages and working conditions of American workers, according to the Department of Labor's Web site.

Last year, the Department of Labor received and processed the applications of 247,287 immigrant workers in the H-2B program, and officials said applications are ahead of that pace this year for jobs that include grooms, landscape laborers, house cleaners, forest workers and construction workers.

In Washington, Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, said horse racing is a complicated industry, moving as it does around the country, with trainers at one site easily able to ship horses out of state and cross country. From the outside, it looks like manual labor requiring little training, work that anyone can do, but just the opposite is true. And Congress must be convinced that Americans do not want and will not do the work.

"This is not a case of us not being willing to hire Americans," said Hickey, whose organization is working on a Federal Immigration Package for broad immigration reform.

Two bills introduced in Congress this year, now sitting in the House and Senate Judiciary committees, are designed to resolve immigration issues for farms, trainers, horse shows and many other industries that use foreign labor.

"We're no longer an agricultural, agrarian society, and there is less familiarity with animals," Hickey said. "Thoroughbreds are great, spirited athletes, and riding [and caring for] one is not a simple task."

Trainers said that taking jobs from American workers is not an issue.

"There is no one lined up at the gates looking to get in here to work," said Laurel Park's Smith.

Michael Glah, president of Internal Personnel Resources, who is working in Maryland and other states to help trainers file visa applications for their employees, said he can understand how unappealing the job can sound.

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