DEL MAR, Calif. -- In 2008, racetrack employers applied for about 3,000 temporary visas to hire stable attendants from foreign countries, according to the Department of Labor. In 2006, before the economy soured, they were asking for 4,000, as well as another 155 for exercise riders and trainers.
Visa applications cost several hundreds of dollars each, and there's never a guarantee that the government will approve them. In 2007 and 2008, immigration attorney Margaret W. Pascual requested 150 visas each year on behalf of about 50 trainers, and the government didn't approve a single one.
Although the government data doesn't specify where employers are looking for their help, immigration attorneys who work for trainers say most are hiring workers from Mexico and Central America. To get the Department of Labor's approval for the visas, employers have to prove they couldn't hire Americans for the same job.
Making that case is a hurdle Julio Rubio, the Hispanic services coordinator for the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, faces every year as he tries to get workers into Kentucky and several other states.
"When we applied to the Maryland Department of Labor, we needed 50 guys. We got 46 responses from Americans interested in the job. As soon as we told them what the job entitled them to do, out of 46, only seven remained. Out of those seven, only two agreed to work," he says.
Even in San Diego County, where one in 10 people is unemployed and men standing on street corners are holding up signs asking for food, money and jobs, trainers at Del Mar say they can't find enough workers.
Of course, some trainers try to get around that problem by hiring illegal immigrants. Depending whom you ask, illegal immigrants make up 50 to 80 percent of the workers in the barns nationwide. But because of the number of federal, state and local agencies that govern racing, officials say it's hard -- and risky -- for horse trainers to sneak undocumented workers onto their payroll, especially when many of those workers need special licenses to be back in the barn area.
At Del Mar, many trainers remember the day in August 1985 when U.S. Border Patrol officers raided the backstretch and arrested 100 illegal aliens. At the time, immigration officials estimated one-third to one-half of the 3,000 workers at Del Mar were illegal.
The current economic downtown has given some trainers breathing room in two ways. Owners hit by the recession have found it too expensive to own horses, which means fewer horses and less demand for workers. At the same time, the nation's overall demand for foreign workers -- from house cleaners to landscapers -- has declined, which means that Pascual, the immigration attorney, might actually get the 100 temporary worker visas she's requesting this year.
But when the economy rebounds, and trainers want to bring more horses to the track, it's likely the squeeze will be back on to hire workers, says Pascual and other racing industry supporters.
The worker shortage creates a trickle-down effect that reverberates in the club house. Jay Hickey, the American Horse Council president, spells it out: Having fewer workers means trainers take on fewer horses. Having fewer horses means smaller racing fields. Smaller racing fields mean less wagering and less money for everyone involved.
"People like to bet on races with 10 horses more than races with five horses. The odds are better, and they can win more money," he says.
Worker shortages also make horses more prone to harm, says C. Reid McLellan, executive director of the national Groom Elite training program. He says he heard of a trainer at a track in Oklahoma last year who had one groom for 26 horses.
"With that little help, there's a horse injury that's going to get overlooked," he says.
Nationally, McLellan says the industry probably has about 60 percent of the help it needs.
At the racetrack in Del Mar, trainer Byron Hendricks is frustrated. Hendricks is a 30-year track veteran who develops young horses. He has had such a hard time finding hot-walkers, grooms and, especially, exercise riders that he has had to downsize his barn from 45 to 25 horses.
"It's just no fun to do this anymore," he says. Training someone to groom or hot-walk can take several months, and a good exercise rider needs years of experience, he says.
"Call me for sure, OK?" he shouts out to Milo, a Hispanic exercise rider in his 50s Hendricks is trying to persuade to come back and work for him.
"Yeah, yeah, mañana," Milo shouts back as he rides toward the track.
Paula Lavigne is a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit and can be reached at email@example.com. Her work appears on "Outside the Lines."