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Racing may face a labor shortage

By Tim Sullivan The Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE -- WANTED: Immediate openings for temporary, semi­-skilled labor willing and able to work long hours for modest pay with limited opportunity for advancement. Position requires caring for high-strung racehorses in all weather, often in tight quarters, amid strong smells. Experience preferred. Proof of citizenship a plus.

What, no applicants?

"The government finds it very hard to believe that em­ployers can't fill these jobs with U.S. workers," said L.J. D'Arri­go, an immigration attorney who represents trainer Todd Pletcher. "It's very difficult work. People show up on day one and they never come back. They don't want to shovel horse manure. They don't want to do the hard, heavy labor. ... Maybe they last a week, at most."

If good help is hard to find, it is harder still around America's racetracks and unlikely to get any easier anytime soon. Tight­ening immigration policy and the elimination of an exemption for returning workers who have held visas in the previous three years has led to a manpower prob­lem attorney Will Velie likens to a "slow-motion train wreck." Long reliant on foreign labor, pri­marily from Mex­ico, numerous racing executives view their current predicament as a set of unappealing alternatives: to seek replacement workers from a largely disinterested domestic labor pool, to hire undocumented foreigners in violation of the law or to allow their businesses to suffer for want of capable grooms, exercise riders and stable hands.

"We will always find a way to care for our horses," said Chauncey Morris, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association. "Are we at a danger zone yet? No. But do we have a labor shortage for folks that want to work with horses? Yeah."

In previous years, those numbers were augmented by returning worker exemptions that did not count against the 66,000 cap. But that exemption, expired on Sept. 30, has not been extended, and has created heightened demand for a scarcer supply of visas also sought for workers in landscaping and groundskeeping, forest and conservation, hotels and resorts, construction and other non-agricultural businesses dependent on seasonal help.

"Right now, there's 90,000 applications for the April visas, and there's only 33,000 of them," said Julio Rubio, immigration liaison for the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "It's like playing the lottery.

"Most of the big trainers rely on these visas every year. We're pretty worried right now, especially for the spring meets. We'll see what happens."

Louisville's Dale Romans, who won the 2012 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer, said he averaged 77 employees last year and that nearly two-thirds of them were hired with H-2B visas. According to the database maintained by MyVisaJobs.com, Romans was certified to hire 50 H-2B workers last June at an hourly wage of $10.85.

Chad Brown, who led North American trainers with $23.1 million in earnings in 2016, was also certified to hire 50 H-2B workers. Pletcher, who ranked second in earnings at $21.2 million, submitted separate applications for two New York tracks whose racing calendars do not conflict -- Belmont Park and Saratoga -- and was certified to hire 49 workers at both locations, presumably the same people.

"Many trainers don't understand the (Department of Labor) requirements and that they are required to file more than one application if they are participating in racing locations outside of normal commuting distance from each other," D'Arrigo said. "Most immigration attorneys counsel their clients about this, but many trainers use outside non-attorney visa services to file applications for them."

Many trainers appear to ignore the process altogether.

Six leading trainers -- Brown, Pletcher, Romans, Kiaran McLaughlin, Bill Mott and George Weaver -- were certified to hire a total of 308 H-2B workers in 2016 at an average hourly rate of $11.83. Curiously, though, the large stables maintained by such prominent trainers as Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert and Doug O'Neill have operated for years without benefit of the H-2B program. According to the MyVisaJobs.com database, Baffert and O'Neill's racing stables both submitted their most recent H-2B applications in 2006.

"It's California," Will Velie said. "Enforcement isn't there. You walk on the backside at Santa Anita and nobody's asking for your papers."

Telephone and email messages left for Baffert and O'Neill were not immediately returned. Mike Marten, staff services manager for the California Horse Racing Board, responded to an inquiry with a prepared statement.

"The CHRB attempts to ensure all applicants are lawfully in the state prior to licensure," it read, in part. "In addition to our various application requirements, CHRB licensing personnel will often request additional evidence of legal status for non-permanent residents (such as work visas, letters from their attorneys, documentation from immigration court, etc.). But we cannot stress enough, a CHRB license does not confer a right to work in this state -- it only allows a person access to a racetrack and the authorization to be employed by a trainer or owner in some specific capacity. . .

"Therefore, while the CHRB implores its licensees to operate in compliance with all state and federal labor and immigration requirements, the onus is ultimately on the employer (typically the trainer) to ensure that their individual employees are working lawfully in this state."

The extent to which individual trainers are compliant with the law is unclear, but the extent of their dependence on imported labor is plain. In separate interviews, two Kentucky racing executives placed the percentage of Latino workers at Churchill Downs at 80 percent or above.

"We can't operate without this labor force," Romans said. "There's such a hate-mongering about immigrant workforces, but there's a huge difference between illegal immigration and those here on visas doing work Americans don't want to do.

"We have to do everything we can to hire Americans for these jobs, and I'd be happy to hire them. It would make my life a whole lot easier. (But) to put in the hours and the physical labor we do -- it's early morning -- it's a labor of love."

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