DEL MAR — Trainers at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club spent Thursday afternoon asking for sympathy after keeping their horses off Saturday's race card because of an impending raid by the Immigration and Naturalization Service on undocumented aliens working at the track.
"I can't tell you how much I wish we could be able to run," trainer Hector Palma said. "But if we don't have the help, we can't send our horses out.
"These workers need to learn bandaging, conditioning and a lot of other things. You're talking about one year before you can be a groom. I could lose my license if a horse is given the wrong medication. You can't run the horses if you can't train them correctly."
The trainers, most operating Thursday with their stables at about half strength, hope that the INS will concede the need for the workers and reach an agreement that allows the undocumented aliens to continue working.
"We must have these people back to continue," Palma said. "It's like anything else. You can't hire people off the streets to handle thoroughbred horses."
Ron McAnally, who trained all-time money-winner John Henry, said there were "a couple of people hired this morning (Thursday) that almost got killed," working on the backstretch.
Richard Mandella said that withdrawing horses was the only way that trainers could begin to get their point across to immigration officials.
"We had to make a stand," he said. "We've been harassed and pushed around by immigration. They're tired of talking to us. Something has to be done."
The trainers agreed that the INS should issue work permits to the undocumented aliens and allow them to return to work.
"I came here to work as a hotwalker in the stables from Mexico in 1958," Palma said. "I had to get a permit from immigration and get it signed by the trainers so I could work here. I don't know why, but they stopped allowing that years ago."
Mandella said: "The government must help us by issuing work permits. That's what they do on the farms. Otherwise, you'd be paying $2 for a head of lettuce. We'd love to start a procedure of hiring more Americans, but most won't do the work. And you just can't start hiring people from Bullock's."
Said Jack Fulton: "My people have been with me for many years, and none of them are underpaid."
Eddie Truman said: "I have a girl working for me that has a master's degree. She and all of the people get paid the same. Everyone who works for me gets more than minimum wage.
"Also, it is the track, not the trainers, (that) provides housing for these people. They get free room if they want it. But they're not required to live here."
Fausto Munoz, a foreman for the Robert Borick stables, upheld the trainers' contentions, saying that all stable workers were paid "pretty well."
"Once you get experience here, it's just like anything else," Munoz said. "They pay you all right."
Munoz, a legal worker, said most of his co-workers have headed north to look for jobs or have gone back to Mexico.
"They're scared of this thing," he said.