A fine fit: Horsemen and thoroughbreds

DEL MAR, Calif. -- The fidgety thoroughbreds stick out their tongues and flap their lips as Pedro Esquibias squirts tubes of goopy medicine into their mouths.

"It tastes really bad," he says, wiping horse drool on his long-sleeved sweatshirt after Position A, a 3-year-old colt, gets a dose.

Esquibias administers the medication each morning at 4:30 a.m. and again about six hours later, day after day. Days off come only once every couple of weeks in his role as stable foreman on the 35-person crew that works for trainer Richard Mandella and cares for 33 horses during a six-week stint at the Del Mar racetrack.

All but a few of the workers have names like Jose, Pedro, Felipe and Margarita. The assistant trainer shouts instructions in Spanish. Latin tunes emanate from the overhead speakers.

From Del Mar to Delaware and Kentucky to western Washington, racetrack backstretches are populated by workers from Mexico and Central and South American countries. The jobs range from the hotwalkers who lead horses around in a monotonous circle to the more experienced exercise riders who take the thoroughbreds for a spin on the track.

The people who work the horses are invisible to the pale-skinned crowds who come through the gates in palm tree-print shirts, white linen suits, high-heeled silver sandals and strands of pearls for the races. From the shade of the clubhouse bar, where patrons can order a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne for $49 -- even a bottle of Heineken at $8.50 is more than a hotwalker's hourly wage -- their work is rarely seen, or appreciated.

On the surface, the prevalence of Hispanic workers at the racetrack seems as obvious as it would at any construction site or hotel, which often are fueled by immigrants willing to work cheap. But trainers insist the employment situation at the track is more complicated than simply finding people who will work for little more than minimum wage.

"They do have a sense about them with animals, no question. They're natural," says Mandella, who counts among his Hispanic workers several who have been with him for decades. "It's the way they're raised. They're not afraid to get their hands dirty, not afraid of hard work."

Even during a period of high unemployment, local workers are hard to come by. Many Americans can earn more collecting unemployment than they can working long hours of manual labor in a barn. And trainers say the few who do fill out an application have little concept of how to work with animals, a trait that is long in demand but short in supply.

The challenge at the track is that trainers can't grab just anyone off the street and stick him in a stall with a 1,200-pound animal likely to throw a temper tantrum. Even though trainers hire people holding temporary visas for unskilled workers, caring for horses isn't something that can be taught in an afternoon, says Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group.

"Working in a hotel, you could probably learn what you have to do in a day," he says. "But in this case, you're talking about elite athletes in training. Some [horses] are lovely and gentle, and some are not. Worst-case scenario is that they would get loose and run somewhere on the backstretch and hurt themselves, or another horse or another person."

Within the United States, the art of horsemanship is dying. Small, rural towns are drying up. Many middle-class families are finding it more difficult to keep horses due to the skyrocketing price of grain and hay. And the nation's cattle ranchers have swapped their steeds for ATVs. As a result, thoroughbred trainers say they're unable to find people from the States who have experience with horses to work at the tracks.

Howard Belvoir, a veteran trainer in Auburn, Wash., near Seattle, says he used to be able to hire local teenagers or college students looking for a temporary job, but that was in the 1960s.

"If you have a ranch job, or something like that, you knew horses. Nowadays, there's no more farms and no more places like that to work at," he says. "People used to have horses in their backyard. Now you can't afford to feed them. Hay is too high. People just don't have horses like they used to."

As a result, Belvoir has tapped into the temporary worker visa program to hire grooms from Mexico.

"Most of them can't speak English, but they learn. They want to please," Belvoir says. "I have nothing but praise for them."

Nations such as Mexico and Guatemala have managed to hang on to their vaquero, or cowboy, culture. Workers from those Spanish-speaking nations are more likely to come to the track with at least some exposure to horses and a rural way of life.

"In Mexican culture, the charro -- the Mexican cowboy -- is the standard Mexican folk hero. And he's a horseman," says William Beezley, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Arizona in Tucson who has written several books on Mexican culture. He also credits the ongoing popularity of the charreada -- part rodeo, part fancy riding -- that is prevalent throughout Mexico.

Margaret W. Pascual is an immigration attorney helping trainers import Mexican and Central American workers who have lived on ranches and grew up around horses. Many are the cousins, uncles and brothers of current workers.

"This is what they love to do," she says. "If you try to take someone from an office building and put them on a track, the fit is not good."

Marisa Ugarte moved in the other direction, from a racetrack in Mexico to an office building in San Diego, where she runs a social service agency. The daughter of banking executives in Mexico City, Ugarte used to train horses there and in Tijuana. Now in her 60s, her eyes well up with tears when she talks about the final days of her favorite racehorse, Viking Star, and the connection she had with what she calls her four-legged babies.

"I think it's in the blood. It's a spirit thing. There's a spirit in the horse and there's a spirit in us," she says. "It's a whole culture of really understanding nature, the nature of a ranch, the nature of an animal."

According to Mandella, that culture also means a Hispanic immigrant worker sees the high-ceilinged, white-walled stable divided into stalls and ringed by a trail of manicured shavings and dirt from a different perspective.

"They say, 'This is a nice building,'" Mandella says. "Where an American looks at it and says, 'Hey, it's a crummy old barn …' You've got to be here ready to go at 5 o'clock. You don't just come stumbling in at 10 after, thinking about wanting to work. When I come in, there's a group of horses ready for me to start training. So an American looks at this job and says, 'There's horse crap, urine. They're going to try and bite me and kick me.' They think, 'I've got to be there every day?'"

On average, hotwalkers make about $250 a week; a groom caring for four horses can make $450. Exercise riders and assistant trainers earn considerably more, depending on their workload and experience. Some trainers also give workers a cut of the purse, or winnings.

If they're with someone such as Mandella, who has trained six Kentucky Derby contenders, six Breeders Cup winners and one champion (in 2004) of the $6 million Dubai Cup -- the world's richest horse race -- their cut can total several thousands of dollars.

Housing is meager but generally free, and select tracks and trainers offer free or low-cost health care, pensions, English classes and other benefits.

In California, where 12 percent of the workforce is unemployed, trainers say their help-wanted ads either go unanswered or produce applicants who spend one week in the barn and never come back.

"Those people are lazy," Esquibias says, standing in front of the barn as a big bulldozer pushes soiled straw into a pile. "Lazy people come to work, they're going to say it's tough. If you like to work, nothing's tough."

All Esquibias says he needs is a good shower, some food and maybe a couple shots of whiskey, and he's off to bed before 10 p.m. He sleeps on a single mattress on a rollaway bed in a small concrete room behind the barns just big enough for two beds, some boxes, a mini-fridge and a sink.

Although the crew is only at Del Mar for the track's six-week summer racing season, Esquibias says the housing there is similar to his regular quarters at Hollywood Park in Inglewood -- except at Hollywood Park, he gets the room to himself. He escapes to his three-story house near Guadalajara for a few weeks each year if he can get the time off.

For the most part, caring for horses has been his routine for the past 20 years -- half his life. He grew up on a ranch, riding horses from a young age.

He became a U.S. citizen four years ago, and is proud of the fact he knows there are nine Supreme Court justices. He apologizes for what he says is poor English while he keeps up a constant conversation at the same time. His brother pleaded with Esquibias to take a job alongside him at a cheese factory, where he'd have regular days off, but he can't see a life away from the horses.

Thoroughbred racing runs on the hard work and sweat of people such as Esquibias and the grooms he overseas. One of those is 57-year-old Felipe Pulido, who has been with Mandella since the mid 1970s, when he left his family's farm in Mexico. The trainer says Pulido has turned down various chances to work as a foreman or even an assistant trainer.

"I like the horses," Pulido says as he brushes Winter Canyon, a 2-year-old colt who stands calmly while the groom works his way around with short strokes from his head to his tail.

From 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., Pulido cares for four horses, taking their temperatures, bathing them, brushing them, putting on saddles and bridles, shoveling "doody" -- as he calls it -- and carting out wheelbarrows full of dirty straw into a pile outside the barn.

He whispers into Winter Canyon's big pointed ears as he lowers the horse's head into a bridle. Grooms such as Pulido are a trainer's first eyes and ears into any troubles a horse might be having. Is it eating normally? Is it nervous? Too lethargic?

"They are like the nurses in a hospital," Mandella says. "They sense things as quick as anybody."

Mandella's barn runs like an assembly line. Hotwalkers lead the horses around the stable on a ring of shavings and soil kept as "even as a pool table" -- as one worker describes it -- and say, "Hold back," in unison whenever one needs to stop to let a groom or a trainer cross the path. Everyone follows a schedule of sets -- groups of horses training at the same time -- written on a dry-erase board near the stable office.

Most of his crew has been with him for several years. The newest groom came from Mexico about six months ago. Mandella has jumped through the hoops necessary to bring workers in on temporary visas from Mexico or Central America, and doesn't relish the idea of having to do it again.

He's been supportive of programs in the United States to train workers to become grooms and hotwalkers, which is an initiative the racing industry has been trying to foster, even through the use of prison inmates who might need a job when they're released. Yet trainers say those programs haven't done much to attract new, homegrown talent.

Critics of hiring immigrant labor say the solution is to increase the pay. While it's unknown exactly what type of margins horse trainers operate under, Mandella says many trainers are already struggling just to cover costs.

"Two months ago, we had 62 or 63 horses, and the feed bill was $63,000," he says. "It's that expensive."

Mandella charges the owners of the horses he trains $100 a day and still loses money unless the horse wins big purses, and he's a veteran, accomplished trainer with horses that belong to billionaires. Nationwide, winnings had been on a steady upward trend, reaching $1.18 billion in 2007; but they dipped slightly to about $1.17 billion last year, according to statistics on TheJockeyClub.com.

The key to attracting and keeping workers, whether they're Hispanic or not, is to give them a shot at promotion, Mandella says. His own assistant trainer, Angel Vega -- who rode horses on his grandfather's farm in Mexico as a young boy -- started as a groom for Mandella in 1982. He worked his way up the ranks, and is now, at age 47, contemplating becoming a full-time trainer himself.

Lack of promotion has been a shortcoming in the industry that Mandella feels partially explains the changing demographics of the backstretch. When he started training in the 1970s, most of the workers were African-American.

"They probably were never promoted -- enough of them, anyhow -- to see there was a chance to be something; and consequently, they just kind of disappeared out of the game," he says.

Promotion helps retention, which could at least cut back on the number of new employees trainers have to hire, says C. Reid McLellan, executive director of the nationwide Groom Elite program which he runs from his home near Lexington, Ky., the heart of horse country. Groom Elite teaches grooms the science behind caring for racehorses, including lessons in anatomy and disease prevention.

And there's ample evidence that Hispanic workers are taking advantage of the program. In a typical class of 20 grooms, about 15 take instructional materials in Spanish, McLellan says.

"If something comes along, such as a job in a chicken farm that pays them twice as much a week, they're going to leave," he says. "But if they can move up … he winds up getting advanced up to where he's taking care of some of these big-money winners. That can end up to be a pretty nice little bonus for a groom at the end of the year."

Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit and can be reached at paula.lavigne@espn.com. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines."