Trainers decided Thursday to boycott racing at the Del Mar Race Track, a move that is expected to cancel racing this weekend and threatens the remainder of the meet.
The horsemen said that there is a shortage of skilled workers to care for the horses. They said hundreds of undocumented aliens who work as stable hands, exercise riders and hot-walkers have left the track this week because of the threat of a raid by immigration authorities.
Joseph Harper, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club general manager, said Thursday that only 10 entries have been received for Saturday races.
Harper said the entry deadline for Saturday races was extended to 9 a.m. today to attempt to fill the lucrative weekend racing card that have brought in daily betting of $5 million during this season's meet. On a typical weekend day the track draws more than 25,000 people.
Horse trainers, members of the California Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn., voted Thursday morning not to enter their horses in weekend racing. Horse owners and the news media were excluded from the session, but Bob Frankel, president of the HBPA, said there was a consensus among members to withhold entries from the Del Mar card.
Harper told members of a California Race Track Leasing Commission subcommittee that the remainder of the thoroughbred season racing schedule at Del Mar is in jeopardy. A spokesman for the trainers said there would still be a shortage of workers Monday, and the trainers won't enter the horses without workers to care for them.
Each canceled day of racing means a loss of about $220,000 to the state and $11,000 to the City of Del Mar.
If the purpose of the boycott was in part to bring pressure on immigration authorities, there was no evidence Thursday that the tactic would succeed.
John Belluardo, spokesman for the regional director of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that the horse trainers' threatened boycott did not change plans for a major raid on illegal aliens at the race track. INS officials obtained a search order for the track Tuesday, which they plan to execute in the next week.
An estimated one-third to one-half of the 3,000 workers on Del Mar's backstretch are illegal aliens, the largest concentration of undocumented workers in San Diego County, immigration authorities say.
They said they began pressing the trainers two years ago, suggesting that trainers might apply for special permission to hire illegal aliens.
Harper said that a full card of horses had been entered in today's races, ensuring that there would be at least one more day of racing in the 42-day 1985 season. The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, a nonprofit group that runs the Del Mar Race Track season, also receives about $220,000 a day for each day of operation.
Attendance and betting have been running about 11% above last year, but Harper said that if the remainder of the season is canceled because of a standoff between the horsemen and the INS, "everyone will lose." If the racing season ends with today's schedule, Del Mar Race Track will lose 16 days of racing--38% of its season. The meet ends Sept. 11.
Trainers say that nearly 800 of the estimated 1,200 to 1,500 undocumented workers have left the track. The horsemen claim that they cannot find trained replacements for the workers.
Harper said he had learned only recently that the trainers had been warned by the INS more than two years ago to "clean up their act" and secure grooms, hot-walkers and other stable help who were U.S. citizens or aliens with work permits.
In talking to horsemen, Harper said, he learned that "they are a mixed group" with a wide difference of opinions about whether they can operate with temporary help.
Some trainers think that they "cannot operate with untrained temporary help" while others "don't seem to be affected" by the exodus of skilled, undocumented track workers, he said.
"Many (of the horsemen) feel that by not entering their horses they can change things," Harper said.
If the races are canceled, it will be the first time a California track has been shut down for reasons other than weather or labor disputes, according to Leonard Foote, secretary of the California Horse Racing Board.
But, Foote said, the state regulatory agency which serves as a watchdog over racing operations is powerless to do anything to influence the situation at Del Mar.
INS and racing officials broke off a four-hour meeting Wednesday without solving the problem. Both sides said the other refused to bend enough.
John Fulton, a spokesman for the horsemen's association, said many trainers have been unable to train their horses without the needed work force, "and you can't run them if they are not in proper shape."
Fulton said that the situation "has been going on for several days, and we can get away with it for a few days, but now we have to admit that we can't handle the job without our workers."
About 350 people have applied for jobs at the temporary hiring hall set up at the track but, Fulton said, "only about 10% of them have any experience, and most of them are schoolkids with a couple of weeks of vacation left." Some applied and were hired "just to get a license and then they never show up, because it (the license) is a free ticket to the races."
Fulton is not optimistic that the INS will back off from its vow to stage a massive alien roundup at the track and that racing will resume at Del Mar.
"We're just hoping that they will come to believe us when we say we need these people and will negotiate some solutions with us. I don't know what the solution is. But maybe, now that people realize that there is a definite problem, we can find a solution to it."
Herman Baca, a local Chicano rights activist, charged that the INS officials were staging "a propaganda raid" on undocumented workers at the Del Mar track to publicize the need for federal legislation (the Simpson-Rodino bill) making it illegal to employ undocumented workers.
"I'm taking bets that the INS will pull a showcase raid at Del Mar just for the propaganda of it. Why, after they have known about the situation for two years, are they just getting around to doing this now?" Baca asked.
The hiring of illegal aliens is common at tracks throughout the state, not just at Del Mar, say immigration authorities.
It is not illegal to hire undocumented workers. But several trainers have been fined for helping to protect illegal workers from immigration authorities. Darrell Vienna was fined and put on probation a couple years ago for employing illegal aliens at San Luis Rey Downs, a training center in Bonsall.
"I think that was the start of what's happening at Del Mar," Vienna said Thursday. "I should have fought that last charge, but I was told that it would cost $50,000, so I just paid the fine which was either $1,000 or $2,000.
"If the HBPA (a national organization) had fought for us last time, what's happened recently might never have occurred."
Vienna made his comments at Arlington Park, where he'll start Drumalis Sunday in the Budweiser-Arlington Million. Eddie Gregson, another California trainer, will run Tsunami Slew in the Million.
"There's no work force available without the people we've been using," Gregson said. "You just can't find Americans, at least in Southern California, who want to work as grooms and hot-walkers. They don't want to do those jobs just like you seldom see Americans working in kitchens in restaurants."
Vienna said that illegal aliens make up "80%, or at least as much as 70%," of the groom and hot-walker work force at Del Mar.
Both Vienna and Gregson seemed disappointed that Del Mar had not sought a court restraining order that might have prevented the raid on the Del Mar backstretch.
Times staff writers Bill Christine and Kenneth F. Bunting contributed to this report.