Ahead of Kentucky Derby, worker shortage looms for trainers

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FILE - In this April 19, 2017 file photo, groom Cesar Abrego gives a bath to one of the horses being trained by Dale Romans following his morning workout at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. Abrego came from Guatemala on an H-2B visa. The Trump administrations 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. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

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.”

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 Peña, 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, Peña said, and trainers and racetracks should be doing more to protect workers.