Racehorse owners at Pimlico lament shortage of Latino barn workers

Dearth of qualified help is making life difficult as owners clean their own barns

May 11, 2010|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

Michelle Sharp, who keeps some of her racehorses in Pimlico's barns, does not normally muck out her own stables.

These days, though, she is doing just that, as well as other menial but essential chores that go hand-in-hand with the occasional glories of turf racing. There's almost no one else to do it.

A dearth of Latino racetrack workers — grooms, exercise riders and other stable hands, the largely unseen but indispensable backbone of the $1 billion thoroughbred horse racing industry — is forcing a realignment of duties at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course and other tracks, and appears to be affecting the ability of some owners to compete effectively at the races.

"Without us, there wouldn't be anything here," said Jesús Guerrero García, a 33-year-old groom for a horse trainer who came to the U.S. three years ago from Michoacan, Mexico, and is working here legally. "We try to keep the horses healthy and clean. If not, they wouldn't be able to compete in any races, no matter how big or small."

But economic woes, a reduction in temporary visas and concerns raised by the simmering debate over immigration are combining to deprive racetracks of the labor they need to function. As a result, the culture that traditionally infused the backstretch at Pimlico, where dozens of Spanish-speaking immigrants lived and worked during the long racing season, is undergoing radical change.

The relatively few Latino grooms, "hot walkers" and exercise riders at Pimlico are much in demand, their skills in many cases developed on family farms in their native countries. The workers usually start about 5:30 or 6 a.m., and most of the heavy work — exercising the horses, cleaning out the stables — is over about four hours later. For their efforts, they can collect about $500 a week, with a bonus if the horse they are caring for comes in a winner.

Without a steady supply of labor, however, owners like Sharp — who runs Sunny Ridge Farm in Martinsburg, W.Va. — are pitching in more often. "When you have seven horses here looking at you that need care seven days a week, what are you going to do?" she asked. "It's a huge problem."

While undocumented workers have never been allowed to work officially at Maryland's racetracks, Sharp and other racehorse owners are chafing at crackdowns on immigrants that have sharply reduced the number of people applying legally for the hard, filthy and often dangerous job of tending to thoroughbred horses.

A big reason for the drop in numbers of such workers is a cap on a federal guest-worker program that had allowed thousands of Latinos to work legally, if temporarily, in this country. Another is the bankruptcy of Pimlico's parent company, which sharply curtailed the track's annual racing season and scattered workers to other states.

Janet Davidson, co-owner of D3 Racing in White Hall, was stabling 14 horses at Pimlico last week with help from just three pairs of hands — a female groom who is recovering from cancer, and two men, neither of them Latino. Even so, Davidson, whose colt Volcanic Ice won a Maiden Special Weight race during last year's Preakness week, won't be running any horses at Pimlico this year, largely because she needs more help with training and exercising the animals.

"I just won't be ready," she said, but will aim instead for the season at Colonial Downs in Virginia that begins later this month. "People on the backside work very, very hard. They are my support. They're important. It's a dirty job."

Immigrants — legal and undocumented — have long been a staple of the industry, including on many racetracks where officials turn a blind eye to their status. Americans, many breeders, owners and trainers say privately, don't want those jobs.

For years, U.S. law had allowed noncitizens to obtain so-called H-2B permits to fill part-time positions if American workers failed to take the jobs. Only 66,000 such visas are issued each year, good for up to 11 months. In 2005, Congress allowed workers who had received the visas during the three prior years to be given new visas regardless of the cap. In 2007, about 250,000 such visas were granted.

But the exemptions were then halted, and despite lobbying from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and other groups, lawmakers appear unlikely to raise the limits until comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality.

Applicants for track jobs must "provide documentation that they're here legally," said J. Michael Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, in an interview. "We've always taken that stance."

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