American racetrack backstretches are largely kept going by grooms, hot walkers, and exercise riders from Latin American countries. Many of them are in the United States under the provisions of the U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ H-2B visa program, which reads, in part:

“The employer must establish that its need for the prospective worker’s services or labor is temporary, regardless of whether the underlying job can be described as permanent or temporary. The employer’s need is considered temporary if it is a one-time occurrence, a seasonal need, a peak-load need, or an intermittent need. The employer must demonstrate that there are not sufficient U. S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work.”

The period of time defined as temporary is normally no longer than a year with an absolute maximum of three years.

Recently, Belmont Park’s request for H-2B visas for almost 100 foreign backstretch workers was denied. The rationale was that the workers do not meet the definition of temporary employees because, after the New York racing season is over, they will move with their employers to Florida for winter racing. Thus the arrangement is not “a one-time occurrence.”

In response, six Thoroughbred trainers filed suit in federal court. The crux of their argument is that there is a dearth of American citizens who are willing to do backstretch work. Help-wanted ads, for instance, are not productive.

The issue of guest workers is, of course, certainly not confined to the horse-racing industry. Businesses like lodging, restaurants, and lawn services often depend on foreign help.

The official unemployment rate in the United States is 9.1 percent, but is much higher if part-timers and the people who have given up looking for work are counted. Yet some businesses can’t find enough workers. About three million positions in information technology and engineering are vacant for want of qualified applicants. High-tech employers complain that the federal government does not allow enough H-1B visas so that foreigners can be admitted to fill the jobs. At the other end of the spectrum, many low-skill jobs go begging because people purportedly can’t or won’t do such hard work, especially for meager pay.

These are societal problems having to do with inadequate education and training, a broken immigration system, and arguably an overgenerous period for drawing unemployment benefits.

That’s not much consolation to racehorse trainers who can’t attract enough Americans to backstretch work and who aren’t permitted to hire an ample number of people from elsewhere to compensate. But it is a fact of life and an ongoing challenge to doing business in a country where the subject of immigration reform is too controversial for elected federal representatives to address in a meaningful way.

Copyright © 2011 Horse Racing Business

Originally published in the Blood-Horse. Used with permission.


  1. Courtney D Jacob says

    With the two year old race and 96% failure rate TBs have little future in the second market other than slaughter. Americans continue to turn a blind eye to the slaughter issue with horses. It is a tragedy. As someone who takes these animals from the pens I’ve seen it first hand and it is horrible. We no longer support racing.