Trainers Feeling Immigration Pinch

Last year, Delaware Park-based Tim Ritchey, trainer of Preakness and Belmont Stakes-winning Afleet Alex, was offered 15 horses to train, but he turned them away. Why?

“There was no way we could have taken those extra 15 horses because we didn’t have the grooms,” said Ritchey’s wife, Janet, who said that a continued shortage of staff means they’re unable to bring to the track two 2-year-olds currently cooling their heels at an outside training center.

“When I get more workers, I can get more horses. And when I get more horses, I can employ more American workers, like the exercise riders, hotwalkers, vets,” she said, describing as “very small” an available pool of American stable staff. The seasonal H-2B work visa program, however, could be a “perfect solution” to the problem, she said. But political and bureaucratic hurdles–the online application site crashed early this year, for example, causing chaos–the H-2B program “has become ridiculous,” she added. “It’s so frustrating.”

The Ritcheys are far from alone when it comes to decrying a broken immigration system. Nor are trainers only hurting through its impact on staff levels–just ask Chad Brown, recently fined $1.6 million in back wages, liquidated damages, and civil penalties after agreeing to “willful violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the labor provisions of the H-2B non-immigrant visa program.”
According to Will Velie, an Oklahoma-based immigration attorney with a number of clients in the racing industry, there are two factors weighing on the industry right now that make it hard for trainers to find and retain documented and competent backstretch workers. A low unemployment rate is one.

Another is increased immigration enforcement under the current administration, which has had “a very noticeable effect on the number of people who will actually go out and be available to work,” Velie said. “The story I get at every track I go to is, people used to go barn to barn asking if there was any work available, and there’s just nobody anymore.”


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