Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Terrorists on the Backstretch?

Six New York-based trainers have sued the Department of Homeland Security over its refusal to grant seasonal work visas to backstretch workers. The lawsuit, filed October 7th in Federal Court in Brooklyn, in the court district that includes Belmont and Aqueduct race tracks, claims that the government's refusal to renew the temporary visas means that it will rapidly become impossible for trainers to find enough workers to take care of the horses currently in their barns, much less care for any new arrivals.

The story is mis-reported here in the Daily News. Contrary to what the News says, the lawsuit was not filed by the NY Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association (disclosure: I'm a member of the NYTHA Board of Directors), but rather by six individual trainers. The lead plaintiff is Kiaran McLaughlin, and the other five who've joined in the lawsuit are Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Mike Hushion, John Kimmel and Bruce Brown (more disclosure: Bruce trains horses for my partnership group, Castle Village Farm). But NYTHA has discussed the issue and is certainly supporting the trainers' position.

For years, hot walkers and grooms from Mexico and other Latin American countries have been routinely approved for so-called H-2B visas. Those visas permit foreign workers to be employed in the US for temporary periods (usually a year or less, but sometimes as long as three years) if (1) the prospective employer can show that there are no US workers able and willing to do the work, and (2) the work is temporary in nature, which includes seasonal work, a one-time or intermittent need for extra workers, or a peak-load need for a defined period.

Nothwithstanding that racetrack work has become virtually year-round, Latino backstretch help has, until the last year, continued to be employed under these temporary visas. Most workers regularly went home to Mexico or elsewhere, reapplied for a new visa, and then came back to the track again.

But recently, la migra, aka the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Department of Homeland Security, has decided that backstretch workers are not so temporary after all, and are therefore ineligible for the "temporary" H-2B visas. When visa approvals slowed down last year, trainers initially thought that it was just a case of bureaucratic ineptitude, possibly with a bit of terrorism phobia mixed in. But apparently the new government position represents a permanent policy shift. And, with no other readily available option for securing help, the trainers felt they had no option but to go to court.

Why won't a few of the millions of unemployed US citizens and legal residents take the jobs at the track? The pay is a bit above minimum wage, starting at around $300 a week. Not much, but then, as long as you don't have a family with you, you can get free housing in the run-down dorms on the backstretch. (Any day now, once the slot machine money starts rolling in, NYRA will build clean, modern high-rise dorms at Belmont and Saratoga, along the lines that Frank Stronach has built at Gulfstream and Palm Meadows. Meanwhile, even in the New York real estate market, the backstretch dorms aren't exactly luxury apartments.) And, in New York, anyway, you get free medical care, through the BEST Backstretch charity organization (yet more disclosure, I'm also a Director of BEST).

Of course, you have to get up around 4 am or so and be at the barn by 4:30. This is not fun in mid-February, in the cold and the dark. And, if your trainer is well-organized, you might get one day off a week; in return, you sometimes work late on a race day.

And, most important, you have to know what you're doing around a horse. Trainers don't, in general, make enough money to bear the cost of training neophytes. They want workers who know not to stand on the off side of a horse, who know how to pick hooves, put bandages on and tack up the horse. They want hot walkers who can hold onto the shank and keep a 1,200-pound animal under control, and then remember to rake the shedrow so the barn will impress the owners. A lot of it is dull, repetitive work, and there's not much of a career path; few grooms and hotwalkers move on to be assistant trainers or trainers in their own right.

So, more and more, trainers at most US tracks have come to depend on a steady flow of Mexican and other Latino workers, many of whom have grown up with horses, know what they're doing, and will work for long hours and low pay to improve the lot of their families back home. With the change in position by la migra, that employment pipeline is being closed, and the future of racing in New York, which appeared bright for the last few days after the announcement that the Aqueduct racino would open within weeks, is once more under a cloud.

I don't know nearly enough immigration law to have an opinion on the trainers' likelihood of success in the lawsuit, but it does seem to me a tough sell. The track jobs need year-round workers, but if US residents can't or won't do the work, who will? And trainers and horse owners, many of whom are losing money already, just aren't in a position to provide a drastic wage increase.

More on the economics of training and owning in upcoming posts.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Not Ready for Prime Time?

The powers that be at the New York Racing Association, not to mention nouveau uber-owner Mike Repole, have risen up to protest the Breeders Cup's decision to hold its 2012 edition at Santa Anita. Last Saturday, NYRA returned to the glory days of old with a "Super Saturday" card that included six graded stakes, five of them Grade 1s and the 6th, the Grade 2 Kelso, featuring Repole's local hero, Uncle Mo. Repole, who also had Stay Thirsty running in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, celebrated in the Belmont Room with 50 or 60 of his closest friends.

Compared to the average Saturday at Belmont, the results were more than satisfactory. Attendance, on a day when rain threatened all afternoon and finally arrived late in the day, was a solid, if not overwhelming, 10,481. And all-sources handle was a very healthy $16.7 million.

On the same day, Santa Anita, running its own Breeders Cup preview card, had four Grade 1 stakes in an 11-race card, featuring Bob Baffert's Game On Dude and the filly Blind Luck. On a sunny day in Southern California, Attendance was 16,013, and total handle was $11.7 million.

Santa Anita also bested the Belmont numbers in field size. On the East Coast, only 80 horses ran in the 11 races, an average field of 7.3; for the six graded stakes, the field size was a puny 5.8. On the West Coast, Santa Anita averaged 9.4 horses per race, even with an average of only 7.5 starters in the four stakes races.

A closer look at the figures for handle suggests that the "talent-centric" focus of NYRA -- attract the best horses and they will come, might have trumped the "track-centric" approach of Santa Anita. The latter is surely a more pleasant place to watch the races; even on a sunny day, Belmont is a too-big, rambling plant, with a track that's so big it's hard to see the runners on the backstretch, even with binoculars. And, because Belmont's main track is a mile and a half, hardly any races start in front of the grandstand. Everything up to a mile and an eighth on the main track starts on the backstretch.

But the money certainly flowed for the big races. Each of the five Grade 1 stakes at Belmont took in at least $1.6 million in handle on the various bets keyed to that race. And the Jockey Club Gold Cup drew $2.6 million, including $670,000 for the all-stakes Pick 4. In Santa Anita, in contrast, the per-race handle on the four Grade 1 stakes ranged from $1.1 million to $1.3 million.

But Super Saturday also showed why Belmont may not quite be in shape to deserve the Breeders Cup. As on many big days, the weather was atrocious. Not as bad, perhaps, as the rain-drenched Breeders Cup at Monmouth in 2007, but certainly not a fun day to be out in the fresh air. Field size was reduced by a number of scratches due to weather and track conditions, especially in the stakes races. Belmont, where the grandstand faces north, into the winter wind, has neither heating nor air conditioning. Back in a different era, plans were made to make at least some of the grandstand more weather-friendly, but those plans fell victim to NYRA's then-impending bankruptcy and to reported cronyism or worse in the awarding of contracts. As a result, Belmont is far less fan-friendly than Santa Anita, where one can usually count on the weather to be good, or even Churchill, whose mammoth plant has lots of room inside if the weather turns chilly or wet.

And, despite a relatively recent makeover that walled off the furthest reaches of the grandstand side and slapped some fresh paint around, much of Belmont still reminds one of a bus station in a Rust Belt city. NYRA has done what it could with the money it has, replacing outmoded television screens with up-to-date flat screens, and installing an absolutely terrific infield tote board cum video display. But that's just not enough.

What does Belmont need to qualify as a deserving host for future Breeders Cups? Not much. Start by tearing up the track and replacing it with a mile-and-an-eighth oval, like Churchill and Aqueduct, so more races will start and finish in front of the grandstand. Then tear down the existing grandstand and replace it with something that works for "crowds" of 10,000 in spring and fall but that's expandable for the Belmont Stakes and the Breeders Cup -- and make sure the new plant is weatherized. Oh, and add lights, as Churchill has done, so that, eventually, racing can join the rest of professional sports and stage its championships in the evening, when they might draw a decent television audience.

So, Mike Repole, if you want to see the Cup back at Belmont, all it would take is a few hundred million, give or take a few hundred million. Otherwise, NYRA's pitch for future BCs is reduced to "it's our turn."