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Life on the backstretch: Immigration battle depletes horse-racing labor

IN A LESS politically charged era, the bus would leave Mexico City at 4 p.m. on Wednesday and begin the long journey northward. By the following morning, the 44 passengers on board would disembark at the Laredo, Texas, border and be cleared through custom

Gerardo Pena considers himself lucky because he has his own room at Belmont Park, but he misses his family terribly.
Gerardo Pena considers himself lucky because he has his own room at Belmont Park, but he misses his family terribly.Read morePhotos: JESSICA GRIFFIN/Daily News

IN A LESS politically charged era, the bus would leave Mexico City at 4 p.m. on Wednesday and begin the long journey northward. By the following morning, the 44 passengers on board would disembark at the Laredo, Texas, border and be cleared through customs into the United States. There, they would board an American bus that would take them across Texas and up through the South to Virginia, where they would begin the crawl up I-95 to Delaware. The 62-hour trip would finally end on Saturday in the emerging dawn at Delaware Park, where the yawning travelers would be given the low-paying jobs that are the backbone of the $1 billion thoroughbred racing industry: the care and feeding of horses.

But the buses did not run this year to Delaware Park and elsewhere due to the expiration last fall of the Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act of 2005, which had enabled workers such as 35-year-old Ruth Luna Martinez to escape the unrelenting poverty of Mexico and secure seasonal employment in the United States. With two daughters to support and no husband to help her, Martinez earns just a few dollars each day selling clothing at an outdoor bazaar. Only that level of desperation could have impelled her to leave her children with her sister for close to a year and come to the United States to work at Delaware Park. While Martinez knows people who are so impoverished that they have spoken of crossing the border illegally, she says from Mexico through an interpreter that she knows of a woman who was raped and decapitated at the border and adds, "So it is better to wait and come legally."

The pitched battle over immigration has claimed not just individual casualties such as Martinez but threatened the stability of the horse-racing industry, which is mired in a worker shortage due to the decrease in the number of H-2B guest-worker visas issued by the Department of Homeland Security. While there has been a cap of 66,000 such visas issued each year since 1990, the SOSSB Act of 2005 provided an exemption to foreign laborers who had previous H-2B visa status. Some 250,000 visas were issued because of that in 2007, but the ceiling reverted to 66,000 when Congress did not act to extend the previous legislation. Hospitality, landscaping and tourism are just some of the seasonal industries that have been affected along with horse racing, where experts say the labor shortage numbers in the "tens of thousands." With an estimated 20 million undocumented workers in the United States, some reasonably speculate that is precisely how the shortfall is being addressed.

"Good, hard-working people who are trying to dutifully follow the law [to obtain H-2B visas] are being denied, while people who are overstaying their visas are being rewarded with jobs," said Will Velie, an attorney from Norman, Okla., who is president of Horseman Labor Solutions. "The horse-racing industry faces more than a chronic and urgent need [for workers]. I would say it is on the verge of collapse."

Big races are designed to show us a gilded depiction of horse racing. Viewers tuning in tomorrow for the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes will have the sport served to them on a silver tea tray as Big Brown contends for the Triple Crown at Belmont Park. Rich people in seersucker suits and sundresses will command the attention of the camera, yet, as Velie observed upon his visit to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby in May, "There are concentric worlds in horse racing that coexist in a state of unawareness of each other." For the old wealth ensconced in the private boxes and the carousing crowds jammed into the infield, the hot walkers and grooms who toil on the backstretch could be the occupants of a faraway planet.

Go onto the backstretch at Belmont and the other side of horse racing emerges. From before dawn until well into the evening, in hot, cold or inclement weather, the day is an unending series of chores that are essential to keep thoroughbreds in top form. Hot walkers cool out and water the horses once they finish their workouts on the track. Grooms brush and feed them, always on the lookout for some subtle injury that only a seasoned eye can catch. The jobs pay $400 or so a week – more if the horse you are working with happens to win. But the prevailing belief is that even if the jobs paid twice that or more, the horse-racing industry would still be unable to lure American workers to take them.

The hours are long.

The work is filthy.

And there is always the possibility of catching an errant hoof in the head from a spooked horse.

Oh, yes, one other point: While there has been an effort on the part of some tracks to improve housing, chances are you will occupy a cramped room with a cot and a single light bulb overhead.

"You have to work every day, because the horses need attention every day," said Gerardo Pena, who lives in a cinderblock room on the Belmont Park backstretch while his wife and two children are back in Mexico. Pena works from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. as a watchman, takes an hour off, and then picks up work as a groom or hot walker. While he says he has permanent residence, he adds that he can appreciate the day-to-day struggle of his countrymen, who would be only too happy to take jobs that are of no interest to Americans.

How do we know that this is the case? Very simply, you can walk onto the backstretch of any race track in the United States and get a job - and that includes Philadelphia Park, a year-round operation that does not draw workers from the H-2B program. Delaware Park runs "help wanted" ads regularly but, according to Michael T. Glah, the president of International Personnel Resources, "We have still not heard from a single person." IPR operated the buses out of Mexico City to Delaware Park and elsewhere, but did not do it this year because the track was not approved for its H-2B visas. "But even when they did, there were always openings," said Glah, adding that he once approached a West Chester homeless shelter with the idea of getting referrals to Delaware Park.

"We explained to them the arrangement: You get free housing, free health and so on," said Glah, whose company hooks up foreign workers with seasonal businesses. "But it is contingent upon one thing: 'Do you want to get up and work? If you do, it would seem that these jobs would be better than living in a homeless shelter.' "

And that is not an isolated example. A similar story is told by Remi Bellocq, the chief executive officer of the National Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association. "We were at a gas station near Monmouth Park once and we saw a guy with a sign that said: 'Will Work For Food,' " said Bellocq. "So we told him, 'Come on with us and help us cool out horses.' And he said, 'Oh no, I would never work in a barn.' "

Bellocq added that Americans who do take positions invariably leave "the first cold day for an even lower-paying job at the mall," which has caused the industry to "rely on foreign workers from an agrarian society who are used to working outdoors."

While the job qualifications to work on the backstretch would appear to boil down simply to a willingness to do it, there is a learning curve to handling these large and occasionally temperamental animals. The National HBPA has spearheaded an educational effort called the Groom Elite Program, which is free to Americans and intended to instruct newcomers in the basics of horse care. But that will not be of any immediate help to Victor Perez, the assistant to trainer Steve Klesaris at Delaware Park. With 55 horses in the barn, Perez said, "We are desperately in need of six more workers," and that they are "squeezing by with green help." Perez said the worker shortage has led to a situation "where we have already had help stolen from us."

Perez shook his head. "No American wants these jobs, but these people are thankful to have them," said Perez, a U.S. citizen. "And they are not here to play around. From sunup to sundown, they work."

Circumstances in Mexico and other parts of Latin America are so economically dire that no fence could ever be high enough to protect the border. "You can deny someone a visa, but they are going to come anyway," said Pena, who has cousins back in Mexico who are earning $15 a day. While there is an incentive to enter the country legally, if only because capture and deportation would suspend any chance at legal entry for 10 years, the scarcity of a living wage in Mexico was enough to send one young man scurrying across the border into Arizona. He later found his way to the Delaware Park backstretch.

Why did he come?

The young man replied through an interpreter, "No money."

Has he made any here?

"A little," the 24-year-old said. "At the end of the meet, I will go back home."

And do what?

"Go to work on our small family farm," he said. "We grow coffee and beans and have some cattle. And I will use the money I made here to take care of my parents."

All seem to say the same thing: They send a portion of their pay back home, if not to help parents then to support a wife and children. "I send everything back home," said 39-year-old Victor Bravo Nolasco, who crossed the border illegally from Tijuana at age 15 and has since been granted permanent residence. Employed by trainer Graham Motion, he says working in America has enabled himself and others to build houses in Mexico. Groom Benjamin Zarco, 43, also crossed the border illegally in 1987, unable to live on the $10 a day he was earning in Mexico. "I came with two friends and we crossed on foot from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.," said Zarco, who is now in the country legally working for trainer Michael Matz. Zarco also sends part of his pay back to Mexico to his wife and three children and one day hopes to work his own farm there.

"An overwhelming percentage of people we have worked with want to build what is called 'primitive capital,' which is to say a bankroll that will allow them to open up a small business in Mexico," Glah said. "For 'primitive capital' to be earned, you come here and live with your three brothers for 5 years, the four of you work your [butts] off, and then you go back to Mexico with $50,000 in cash and open up a shop of some kind. By doing this, we are allowing American businesses to get the help that no one else will do and the Mexican people to build an infrastructure."

But it is never easy leaving home and it is even harder being away. Pena has not seen his wife and children since midwinter and will not see them again until December. Standing in his cluttered room - he laughed and said, "I am lucky. I have a single" - he admitted there are days when he misses them terribly. Nick Caras, the recreation director for the New York Racing Association, says that loneliness is a big issue among the backstretch community. While Caras has implemented activities and outings for the 900 or so employees who live on the sprawling backstretch at Belmont Park, it is not always enough to keep them from feeling uprooted, isolated and confused. "Filling out paperwork is foreign to them," said Caras, adding that NYRA plans to at some point build an "Olympic village" to better accommodate the backstretch employees. Housing is still Spartan, but the track does have a state-of-the-art child-care center. Said Donna Bell Chenkin, executive director of Belmont Child Care Associates Inc.: "Children used to sleep in cars or play in barns while their parents were working." Said Jim Gallagher, executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association: "We owe it to them to improve conditions."

The men and women who work on the backstretch seldom leave it in the little free time they have. For Pena, the outside world is too expensive, cutting into the money he can send back to Mexico. He eats in the track kitchen and keeps snacks in his room. But when he does go out, he always feels just a little out of place. People look at him strangely, and he cannot help but feel self-conscious. Because no matter how deeply he scrubs, or how thoroughly he washes his clothes, he always carries the smell of horse.

The telephone rings every day in the Mexico City office of IPR. Emily Ford, the client services director, can hear the desperation in the voices on the other end of the line. They ask, "What am I going to do? How am I going to feed my family?" Men have crumbled into tears. Ford says that 50,000 or more workers are unable to get out of Mexico. That includes 3,400 people for whom IRP has processed H-2B visas - and Eva Luna Martinez, 40, and Adalberto Perez Castro, 33. All have worked at Delaware Park in previous years.

"I did not go last year because we had a baby, but now I cannot get back in and am out of work," said Castro, adding that he would not consider crossing illegally. "I had hoped to earn enough to open a stable one day in Mexico."

Eva Luna Martinez added, "All I can do is keep believing in God."

For the horse-racing industry and other small businesses that rely on seasonal work, the solution appears to hinge on the adoption of comprehensive immigration reform. Congress has indicated that it has no interest in opening up the subject prior to the presidential election, and even then immigration would seem to be a backburner issue behind the war and the economy. Glah thinks there will be something done by 2010. But as Glah said, "No one is going to be shutting their doors while something gets done," which is another way of saying that the logjam just invites the use of illegal help. Glah added that 66,000 H-2B visas are hardly sufficient enough for Southeastern Pennsylvania alone, but believes it is "a good steppingstone toward understanding that citizenship is something to be earned in this country."

No one is better acquainted with how charged the immigration issue is than Glah, who concedes the H-2B program promotes the appearance of a portable underclass. But he also said that the same critics who argue that the jobs would be more attractive if they paid more should ask themselves: "Are you wearing union-produced clothing? If not, why are you singling out someone who relies on seasonal help?" Gallagher said that immigration has become "the third rail of politics" and is hopeful that progress on the issue will be made by the incoming administration.

"I feel sorry for these people," he said. "If someone wants to come here, work their [butts] off and build a better life for his children, this is something we should be encouraging."

He pauses and thinks of his own ancestors, who years before had the same desire. He wonders what would have happened if they had to endure the hardships facing the people who have come here from Latin America. But he knows what would have happened: None of them would have ever come to the United States. *