Ahead of Kentucky Derby, worker shortage looms for trainers

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Trump administration’s immigration squeeze and the hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic threaten to leave the horse racing industry short of workers, racing officials warn as they prepare for a reconfigured Kentucky Derby.

The racing world’s premier event, rescheduled to take place Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, hasn’t been severely hampered by the looming labor shortage so far. But trainers and advocates say President Donald Trump’s executive order extending the federal government’s March suspension of certain types of work visas has added to an air of uncertainty in a business that relies heavily on an immigrant workforce.

“It’s such a moving target that can change so rapidly,” trainer Dale Romans said. “I don’t plan on continuing my business, much less have growth, if I can’t plan on a labor force consistently year after year.”

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Romans, the second-winningest trainer in Churchill’s history, put the problem bluntly. When people can’t get into the country and nobody else steps forward to take the crucial jobs of feeding and caring for horses, he said, “There’s nobody out there to do the work.”

The number of available workers is difficult to determine, as is the impact of the coronavirus. Many trainers in the racing industry rely on the H-2B visa program to supply immigrant workers legally, but many jobs go to undocumented workers as the demand for visas often outpaces the established cap of 66,000. The visa ban through the end of the year and the pandemic have made crossing the border more challenging, and arrests for illegal crossings on the Mexican border have dipped well below last year’s levels.

The work is every day, year-round with no allowances for bad weather or a pandemic. In the busy days leading up to the Derby, workers in the backside area of Churchill Downs wake up in the early morning to start preparing horses for upcoming races. Generally tasked with caring for four or five horses each, workers clean and water stalls, walk horses after tough workouts, and make sure they are healthy and fed.

Conditions and low pay in the industry worry advocates such as Evy Pena, communications directer of the Center for Migrant Rights. In the past two years, two training centers were ordered to pay migrant workers tens of thousands of dollars for lost wages and poor living conditions.

These risks are elevated now, Pena said, and trainers and racetracks should be doing more to protect workers.

Pena argues that H-2B visa workers have less legal protection than their American counterparts. They risk losing their jobs, immigration status and possibly the opportunity of being hired again under the program if they complain.

The horse industry also has a stake in workers being hired again. A steady stream of migrant workers are rehired year after year. Trainers and owners have come to view them as dependable workers, and some say American workers who are hired often quit after a few days or weeks.

Low pay is part of the problem, contends Elisabeth Jensen, the executive vice president of the Kentucky Equine Education Project, an organization that supports the state’s horse industry.

“We’re also working with our employers to help them understand that it’s not like it was 20 years ago,” she said. “They’re competing with the Amazons and the other people who are able to offer more financially.”

Take a backside worker at Churchill Downs as an example. A worker hired under the H-2B visa program makes roughly $11.50 an hour on average, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Labor. Amazon employees make $15 per hour. Both pay higher than Kentucky minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour.

For Romans, the typical rhythm of a working day at the track or the stables makes it difficult to change working times to fit the demands of American workers.

“A horse has got to eat three times a day. They have to train during certain hours of the day because the races are during the afternoon,” Romans said. “So it’s basically impossible to change when they don’t have to be there, to make it more comfortable.”

A worker shortage can have a ripple effect throughout the industry. The number of workers often determines the number of horses a trainer can take on. To accommodate the number of horses with a limited supply of workers, trainers have to work with fewer horses. The sale and breeding of horses is affected, as well as the number of horses that end up on the racetrack.

This month, the U.S. Department of State issued new guidance that allows more foreign workers to enter the U.S., but with the season nearly up, it’s unlikely to change things this year, said Elizabeth Conley Buckley, an immigration attorney based in Lexington.

“This exemption to the executive order is not going to help them because they never got visas,” she said. “So they have been dealing with any kind of staff they can put together from college students to day workers, whatever they can find.”

Racing industry applications for work visas are outnumbered by applicants in hospitality, construction and landscaping industries. This is why Buckley would like to see grooms and stable attendants reclassified as agricultural workers.

“My clients were all successful this year, but across the board, it was pretty terrible,” she said . “Major horse trainers were not able to get H-2B visas at all.”

But even if such changes were made, the coronavirus pandemic also has limited travel between countries where many workers come from. For instance, a large proportion of workers employed by Buckley’s clients come from Guatemala, and the country has not opened up and continues to struggle with the pandemic.

Laurie Mays, a project manager at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, is in charge of developing a local workforce for the horse industry. She’s optimistic about bringing more American workers into the industry but insists that the need for migrant workers would still exist when that day comes.

“There’s still not enough people, even if you get all of the local talent to be engaged in the industry, our industry is very labor-intensive, and it takes a lot of manpower to happen,” Mays said. “The horses don’t take holidays; they don’t care what the weather is outside.”

Breeders’ Cup Preps reach crescendo with Fall Stars Weekend at Keeneland

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To the horse racing world, Keeneland is Disneyland. Everything about the Keeneland experience tells you that you are in a special place where the world revolves around thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Take Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, for example. Although it’s in a relatively small marketplace, it can handle 747 jets, because wealthy owners attending the horse sales often arrive in a jumbo jet with a large entourage. When you leave the airport, you are at the intersection of Man o’War Boulevard and Versailles Road. You’re literally across the street from Gate 1 of Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland, by the way, is adjacent to the legendary Calumet Farm. Venturing out onto various side streets, you will almost stumble upon some of the most famous breeding facilities in the world. In the paddocks of these farms, the vision of mares and their foals frolicking is commonplace, looking like a scene from a movie.

Keeneland is unique, as its elegance and its racing exist side by side with its primary purpose: being a place where millions of dollars change hands on a regular basis in the sales pavilion. A countless number of legendary horses had their careers begin with their purchase in that pavilion. Unlike venues in places like New York and California, where racing is conducted virtually year-round, racing at Keeneland is held for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall.

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The fall meeting is situated perfectly to provide final prep races for many of the horses who are pointed to a performance in the Breeders’ Cup. In a span of 3 days, from October 7th to 9th, Fall Stars Weekend will feature 9 different “Win and You’re In” races in nine different Breeders’ Cup divisions. Normally, these would be very attractive races with large purses, but when you add in the fact that the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Keeneland this year, they are even more attractive. These races offer the prospect of having a horse get a final prep at Keeneland, stay stabled in the Lexington area, and then compete in the Breeders’ Cup, all in a four-week span. For those based at Keeneland, it means they will just have a brief walk through the magnificent stable area to get to the location where they will be racing.

History of The Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland

The first Breeders’ Cup held at Keeneland was the 2015 edition, and the decision to hold the event there was controversial. Many in the racing world felt that the facility was too small, as it could not hold the large crowds of Churchill Downs and Santa Anita. Brilliant management at Keeneland led to the attendance in the main building being limited, with satellite locations on the grounds handling the overflow of a total crowd of about 40,000. It was a comfortable event to attend, helped in no small part by the fact that the star of the show was the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. American Pharoah lived up to his billing, turning in a dominant performance to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the final race of his career. The event returned to Keeneland in 2020, but attendance was limited due to the pandemic. Once again, however, the star of the show delivered, as Kentucky Derby winner Authentic capped off his career with a win in the Classic.

Fall Stars Weekend will be featured in two telecasts, to be shown at 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday on CNBC. Each day will feature two live races, along with highlights of some of the other “Win and You’re In” races from the weekend.

RELATED: Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

Saturday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

On Saturday, the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity will be shown live. The winner will gain entrance to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The likely favorite will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte, who was a dominant winner of the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Pletcher has another interesting prospect in Lost Ark, who is 2-for-2 lifetime, including a runaway win in the Sapling Stakes at Monmouth in his last start. Bob Baffert will be shipping in two juveniles for a possible start in the Breeders’ Futurity. Most notable of these is Carmel Road, who captured a maiden race at Del Mar by 8 ½ lengths in his last start. The other possible Baffert starter is National Treasure, who captured a 6 ½ furlong Maiden race at Del Mar in a fast time in his only career start. Another youngster pointed to this race is Frosted Departure, from the barn of Ken McPeek. This one captured an allowance race at Churchill Downs by 9 ¼ lengths last time out.

The other live race on Saturday’s telecast is the Coolmore Turf Mile, which is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. This is always a contentious race, and some veteran campaigners who haven’t lost a step highlight this year’s field. One of those vets is the Bill Mott-trained Casa Creed, who won the Fourstardave Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. Major turf races at this time of year frequently feature Chad Brown trainees, and this race is no exception. His top two probables here are Emaraaty, who won the Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga in his last start, and Masen, who won the Poker Stakes at Belmont earlier this year. Paulo Lobo will return with In Love, who won this race last year.  Finally, how about a horse who has been 1st or 2nd in 10 of 12 lifetime starts at 1 mile on turf? That’s trainer Michael McCarthy’s veteran Smooth Like Strait. This one is a wide-open affair with some worthy contenders, to be sure.

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Sunday storylines at Fall Stars Weekend

The first live race on Sunday’s telecast from Keeneland will be the Bourbon Stakes, for 2-year-olds on the turf. It is a “Win and You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Some key trainers dominate the storylines in this race. Mark Casse has won the Bourbon Stakes in 4 of its last 7 runnings, and he will run Boppy O, the winner of the With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga in his last start. McPeek is another 4-time winner of the Bourbon. He won last year with Tiz The Bomb, who then went on to finish 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His 2 probables for the race are Rarified Flair (2nd in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile last out) and B Minor (won a Maiden race on dirt at Churchill Downs in his last start). It also should be noted that North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins, Steve Asmussen, will have two probable entries in Red Route One and Gigante. Red Route One won a Maiden race at Kentucky Downs in his last, while Gigante was the winner of the Kitten’s Joy Stakes at Colonial Downs in his last appearance. Finally, there is Brendan Walsh, who seems to always be a factor in Kentucky, and especially in turf races. He presents Reckoning Force, who won that $500,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile in his last out.

The show-topper on Sunday is the venerable Juddmonte Spinster Stakes. Back in 1984, Princess Rooney posted a win in the Spinster as her final prep before winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Other notables who have won this race in their final prep before winning the Distaff include Bayakoa, Paseana, Inside Information and Blue Prize.

This year’s Juddmonte Spinster features a matchup between two of the top females of the past couple of years in Letruska and Malathaat. Letruska won the Spinster last year on her way to an Eclipse Award as top older female dirt horse. This year, she has posted 2 wins and a third in 4 starts. Malathaat won the 2021 Kentucky Oaks and was 3rd in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. She enters this race off a win in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

This weekend presents the final North American “Win and You’re In” opportunities for the Breeders’ Cup. In New York, California, and Kentucky, 14 horses will gain entry into the “Big Dance” of Thoroughbred Racing. Most of us will be getting a case of “Breeders’ Cup Fever” this weekend, as the reality of those races on the first weekend of November draws ever so much closer.

Alpinista overcomes heavy ground to win l’Arc de Triomphe

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PARIS – Alpinista made light work of the rain and heavy ground to narrowly win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

Jockey Luke Morris attacked heading into the last furlong and the 5-year-old mare just held off a late charge from Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon on Vadeni and last year’s 80-1 winner Torquator Tasso, ridden by veteran Italian jockey Frankie Dettori.

“I had a beautiful draw in stall six and after being perfectly placed, there was a second when I thought we were getting drawn into it too early,” Morris said. “But once she had taken charge, I was able to sit on her from 100 meters out.”

Morris felt the conditions would have made it harder for Alpinista to attack the way she did.

“I was concerned when all that rain came but the race went very smoothly,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how it could have in a 20-runner Arc. It was incredible.”

Alpinista was among the pre-race favorites.

“If it hadn’t been my horse, I would have thought it was going to win every inch of the way, but when it’s your own of course it’s a nightmare,” Alpinista trainer Mark Prescott said. “I didn’t think all that rain would help, but she’s never traveled better and has come on with each race.”

It was not yet clear if Alpinista will next race at the Breeders’ Cup or the Japan Cup next month.