Three weeks into the Canterbury Park season, Bob Johnson could tell the numbers were not going to add up. The South Dakota quarter horse trainer already was working to the point of exhaustion, running his busy 24-horse stable with only his wife, Shilo, and three employees to help out.
Johnson originally planned to bring 20 more horses to the Shakopee track. When he couldn’t find any additional workers, he decided to increase his stable by just 10 — and earlier this week, he was considering sending some horses back to his ranch. Like dozens of trainers at Canterbury Park, and hundreds around the nation, Johnson is feeling the effects of a labor shortage that has escalated into a full-blown crisis.
The help-wanted ads he placed in two states generated only one response and no hires. When Johnson sought visas to bring in temporary workers from Mexico, he had no better luck, coming up empty after spending $8,800 to apply. That left him no choice but to slash his stable from the 72 horses he brought to Canterbury last year, when he was the track’s second-leading quarter horse trainer.
“I’ve turned clients away, and I’m about to turn some more away, because we can’t find enough help,” said Johnson, 59. “I’m considering quitting, because I can’t operate this way any more. If this doesn’t get fixed, the industry will collapse.”
In recent years, trainers have found it increasingly difficult to fully staff their racetrack operations. Fewer and fewer Americans are interested in a job that requires rising before dawn, pitching manure and handling high-strung horses.
Most racing stables and farms now depend on the labor of workers from Mexico and other countries. But that pool of employees was reduced last year when a federal rule change cut the number of H-2B visas, which many trainers use to bring in help for the racing season.
Francisco Bravo, who has raced at Canterbury since the track opened in 1985, recalled how groups of high school students used to show up every summer looking for work in the barns. Now, that is a hazy memory. Over the past four years, only one person answered his help-wanted ads.
“The politicians think there’s a workforce waiting to come here if we pay them enough money,” Bravo said. “But the American worker is not looking for manual labor. They don’t want these jobs.”
With fewer visas available, immigration attorney Will Velie said trainers have two choices: downsize their businesses, or break the law by hiring undocumented workers. The solution advocated by horsemen — allowing more non-citizens to work legally in the U.S. — has been complicated by the contentious national debate surrounding immigration.
Horse racing has joined other industries in lobbying the federal government to raise the number of H-2B visas from the current cap of 66,000 per year. While they wait for a resolution, trainers such as Johnson, Bravo and Valorie Lund fear the labor shortage could sink their sport.
“If we can’t get enough help, horse racing will die,” Lund said. “The people who stomp their feet and say, ‘You’re hurting the American worker,’ show me the American worker we’re hurting, and we’ll offer them the jobs first. They don’t want to do this work. There is no good argument against legally bringing in more people who do want to do it.”
Grooms stretched thin
Trainer Bernell Rhone started the Canterbury Park season on a hot streak, winning his first five races. He actually was feeling lucky well before then. Last fall, Rhone thought it would be wise to apply early for the 10 H-2B visas he needed for the Canterbury meet — a hunch that paid off when he got them on the last day before the cap was reached on Jan. 10.
The 54 horses in Rhone’s barn are cared for by a staff of 12 workers from Mexico and three Americans. That has allowed him to maintain the standard ratio of one groom for every five or six horses. In many Canterbury stables, Rhone said, grooms are handling 10 or 12 horses each; two weeks ago, he loaned a couple of his workers to Johnson to help out on a busy race day.
“There are some trainers who won’t come to Canterbury at all, because it’s always been tough to get enough help here,” said Rhone, who has used the H-2B program for 15 years. “This year, it’s much worse. There are a lot of people who are stretched very thin.”
A variety of non-agricultural industries, including landscaping, hospitality and seafood processing, use the H-2B visa to fill seasonal jobs. Only 33,000 are issued in each half of the fiscal year. Under previous law, workers who have held an H-2B visa in the past three years were not counted against that quota; when that provision was allowed to expire last fall, it sharply reduced the number of workers the program brought to the U.S.
American employers submitted more than 90,000 applications in the first week of the filing period. Many trainers got fewer workers than they needed, and some, like Johnson, were shut out altogether.
“I had five grooms lined up,” Johnson said. “It was $8,800 out of my pocket to start the H-2B process, and I got nothing. And you don’t get your money back.”
Jesus Escalante Martinez said there was concern on the other side of the border, too. A 20-year veteran of the Rhone stable, his P-1 visa — reserved for professional athletes — assured he could work at Canterbury as an exercise rider this season. But his son Alejandro is among many co-workers who needed an H-2B visa, and they had some anxious moments while waiting for their documents to be approved.
“A lot of people had to stay in Mexico, because they couldn’t get an H-2B,” Martinez said. “Some of our guys, they were really worried, and a lot of them got here late. But Bernell, he got lucky. We all feel lucky to have jobs here.”
Hiring H-2B workers is costly and complicated. Employers must first prove to the U.S. Department of Labor that they cannot find qualified Americans to do the work, which has never been an obstacle for Rhone. This year, he said, no one responded to the ad he was required to run in the Twin Cities for seven days.
With advertising, attorneys’ fees and other expenses, Rhone estimated the visas cost him about $1,500 per employee each year. He considers it a good investment in an era with few alternatives.
“Last fall, I decided, ‘I’m not going to get left out,’ ” he said. “Some trainers think it doesn’t affect them, until they get to the next track and they can’t find help. And then, it’s too late.”
It’s not all about money
On a cool morning at Canterbury Park, Alejandro (Alex) Michel spoke soothingly to one of Lund’s horses as he brushed its coat to a high shine. A speaker outside the stall played mariachi music — the unofficial soundtrack of the stable area — while other grooms in Lund’s four-man crew cleaned stalls and tidied the barn aisles.
The group started its day at about 4 a.m. The grooms work throughout the morning, then return later in the day to feed the horses and prepare those entered in races. Most are single and live in the dormitories above the barns, making it easy to get to their seven-days-a-week job.
The Minnesota Racing Commission could not supply statistics on how many of Canterbury’s stable workers are non-U.S. citizens. But Michel noted it’s not hard to figure out that most are Mexican.
“Go in the barns,” he said. “How many white people you see cleaning stalls? White people, they don’t want to do that job. The Mexicans, they do. It’s a good job.”
Grooms at Canterbury typically make between $500 and $750 per week. Many trainers have heard the argument that higher pay would attract more Americans, but they insist that isn’t true.
Bravo employs about 28 people at his Canterbury stable and Oklahoma farm. Only two are Americans; the rest hold work visas or are permanent U.S. residents. When he has interviewed Americans for jobs, he said, money isn’t their main concern. Rather, it’s the early-morning start time, the odd hours and the nature of the work.
“It’s a dying art, dealing with livestock,” Bravo said. “And a lot of people just don’t want to work. You tell somebody they will be subject to drug testing, and they don’t call back. It’s changed a lot.”
The labor shortage has led trainers in some states to turn to undocumented workers. But increased enforcement of immigration law, and the angry rhetoric boiling around the topic, has diminished their ranks as well.
Trainers and grooms said there are few undocumented workers at Canterbury Park. The track has a reputation for tough enforcement of immigration law — earned in part by raids conducted during its early years — and Minnesota’s licensing requirements for track workers are considered strict. Applicants are fingerprinted and must undergo criminal background checks. Trainers must sign an affidavit certifying their employees can legally work in the U.S., and Rhone said the fines for violating the law are high enough to be an effective deterrent.
According to Rhone, workers with no documents are more common in California and the Chicago area — and Lund has seen entire barns empty out during immigration sweeps at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. While she said all her workers are documented, she knows others who are fearful of being deported. So does Michel, who said he faced anti-immigrant sentiment in Phoenix even though he is in the country legally.
Caring for horses is an admired profession in his country, and Michel wondered “who will do the work” if Mexicans can’t get employment visas.
“I’ve worked here all my life,” he said. “I am legal. I’m paying my taxes. I am not a criminal.
“I have a lot of friends picking apples in Washington. When Donald Trump became president, a lot of Mexicans kind of panicked. Too many people went back to Mexico, and the apples don’t go to the stores. And some American people, they start to see. We need Mexicans working here.”
Trainers aren’t optimistic
Johnson, who has been in racing for 40 years, is considering two options: running only enough horses for him and his wife to handle, or running none and staying on his ranch in South Dakota. He isn’t the only trainer to downsize because of the labor shortage. At 48 horses, Bravo’s stable is smaller than it could be, and he laments how the dearth of workers is affecting the craft of horsemanship.
When he started, Bravo said, newcomers had to spend two years walking horses after workouts before they could get a job as a groom. “Now, if you’re breathing and willing, we give you a box of brushes,” he said. “And you become a groom right away, because we need you.
“I’ve built a nice business, but I don’t have anybody to pass it down to. And now, it’s so hard to survive in the horse business that I’m glad it’s going to die when I quit.”
Like most trainers, Bravo is pessimistic that immigration laws will be changed to authorize more guest workers. A federal spending bill passed in May allows the H-2B cap to be raised, but no additional visas have been granted.
The horse industry is part of the H-2B Workforce Coalition, a group lobbying on behalf of several industries that rely on international labor. The Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents track workers around the country, has encouraged horsemen to sign petitions, contact their elected representatives and use social media to raise awareness with the hashtag #saveH2B.
Bipartisan bills have been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to reinstate the returning-worker exemption, which would provide some relief. Velie, the immigration attorney, is concerned that President Trump’s hard-line views on immigration will stifle any progress. He argues that if nothing is done, American jobs will be lost.
“All the studies show that the jobs [H-2B workers] fill are job multipliers,” said Velie, who specializes in racetrack labor. “Without these foundational jobs, the better jobs go away. If you don’t have enough grooms, the trainers have to turn away horses; then, you’re not going to have the exercise riders and the horseshoers and the assistant trainers and the feed suppliers.
“Trainers are in survival mode right now. Without a workable visa program, it’s going to challenge their ability to stay in business.”
After getting lucky once, Rhone isn’t taking any chances. By mid-May, he already had applied for the H-2B visas he needs for the winter season at Tampa Bay Downs, even though he won’t start racing there until November.
Rhone’s crew is worried about what the future holds, and so is he. The only thing they know for certain is that he, and his horses, will continue to depend on workers from across the southern border.
“Sometimes, I tease them and say, ‘Next year, the wall will be built,’ ” Rhone said. “And one of my guys said, ‘Yeah, maybe. But on the [American] side, there’s going to be a sign. Help wanted.’ ”