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Race Board Would Enforce Change : Peace Seeks Improved Housing at Horse Tracks

Times Staff Writer

Late last summer, at the height of the thoroughbred racing season, federal immigration authorities swept through the barns that line the Del Mar Race Track backstretch, arresting scores of undocumented Mexican grooms and exercise riders and causing 600 other illegal workers to flee.

As usual, the television and newspaper reporters and photographers were there, capturing graphic details of the Immigration and Naturalization Service raid.

Like many people, Assemblyman Steve Peace (D-Chula Vista) saw the footage. What attracted his attention, though, was neither the dramatic arrests nor the horse trainers’ bitter protests. Instead, Peace was moved when he saw the “squalid” living conditions predominant on the track backstretch.

“I was amazed that in the horse racing industry--a community that is really an organ of state government--such housing conditions would be allowed to occur,” Peace said. “These people were living in tiny, windowless closets with no sanitation. It was appalling.”

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Now the South Bay lawmaker is pushing a plan he hopes will change all that. Under legislation sponsored by Peace, the California horse racing industry would be required to bring up to state standards housing provided to employees at race tracks.

Enforcing the standards would be the California Horse Racing Board, which licenses tracks and oversees the industry and would be empowered to assess fines for violations. The board would be required to adopt regulations to govern backstretch living quarters in accordance with standards set by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

The bill goes before the Assembly’s Government Relations Committee for its first hearing next week.

Spokesmen for the Horse Racing Board said the regulations could prompt improvements at facilities by giving teeth to their efforts to maintain healthful living conditions at tracks.

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“We have no quarrel whatsoever with Assemblyman Peace’s bill,” said Leonard Foote, secretary of the California Horse Racing Board in Sacramento. “In fact, it gives us exactly the kind of enforcement authority we’ve been seeking. The bill would make our stick a lot stronger.”

The legislation is needed, Foote said, because existing law exempts race tracks from state regulations governing employee housing. Those regulations include everything from minimum square footage to requirements related to ventilation, heating, fire protection and sanitation.

Because of the unusual conditions found at race tracks--the normally taboo presence of farmyard animals within 50 feet of living quarters, for example--the facilities have not been bound by the state standards, Foote said.

Instead, track housing has been covered by a set of guidelines established by the California Horse Racing Board. Board investigators are sent to tracks during race meets to inspect the stable area and check for compliance with the guidelines.

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“The problem is, we don’t officially have authority to enforce guidelines,” Foote said. “Because of our licensing power, we can use the implied threat of refusing to issue a license if there’s a major problem. But in reality we rely on their good intentions and voluntary compliance.”

Usually, Foote said, they do. Still, he conceded, California’s 14 race tracks are old--the last one was built in 1952--and many of them, particularly those at the often financially strapped county fairs, are in need of face lifts.

“If this bill passes, it would be a declaration from the Legislature and the (Deukmejian) Administration that they want some strong enforcement in the area of housing standards at race tracks,” Foote said. “Secondly, it would give us the authority to do that job.”

Industry sources, meanwhile, had mixed reactions to Peace’s proposal.

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“My concern is that you can go too far on something like this because housing is something provided as a gratuity,” said Don Johnson, executive director of the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Assn., which represents trainers. “It’s a convenience to the workers. Some of them take care of the facilities, others don’t and create their own problems.”

Johnson also wondered who would bear the costs of upgrading facilities to comply with the standards and added that he thought the existing system of enforcement seems to work quite well.

“I think the Racing Board does make an effort on a regular basis to keep the backstretch in good shape, and we insist that they do,” Johnson said. “If there are dilapidated buildings, they should be rebuilt. I think most of the tracks are in pretty good shape now.”

But Joseph Harper, general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which operates the Del Mar track under a long-term lease from the state, endorsed some sort of housing standards for the industry. Harper urged, however, that assistance in funding improvements come from the state, which receives $140 million annually in revenue from the industry.

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“There’s probably not a track in the country that couldn’t do something to renovate its backstretch,” Harper said. “But looking at the tracks alone to pick up the tab is not too realistic. Without help, the smaller fair meets just couldn’t do it.”

Harper also defended backstretch housing as “not as bad as its image.”

“Back in the old days, you had a groom just sleeping on a pile of straw so he could be near the horses,” Harper said. “It has evolved from that, but I think it’s still easy to look at a race track without an understanding of the operation and say, ‘Gee, this place is deplorable.’ ”

At Del Mar, which houses more workers--about 1,000--than any other track because of the high number of horses that run each season and the high rent costs in the area, more than $2 million has been spent on housing-related construction in the past five years, Harper said. Dormitory-style facilities, with rooms complete with sinks, have been built, and 13 new barns contain modern living quarters.

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“I would say we’ve completed roughly one-third of the stable area so far,” Harper said. “Gradually we’re replacing the older barns with newer, more modern facilities.”

For Peace, though, the pace hasn’t been fast enough. The assemblyman believes some major improvements are necessary and says he is willing to commit state money to achieve them.

“It’s reprehensible that these people, illegal or not, have been forced to live in these conditions,” said Peace, who said he was “totally unaware” of the living arrangements until last year’s raids. “The state gets a cut of the (track’s) take, so we’ve got to live up to our responsibility and do something about this situation.”


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