DEL MAR — Racing resumed Sunday at the Del Mar Race Track amid rosy reassurances of a new cooperation between trainers and immigration officials on the question of illegal aliens working at the track.
The crowd count and the betting were slightly off from previous Sundays, and one track official said the quality of the horses entered was not up to usual standards.
But officials insisted the trainers were already working with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to ensure that all people hired as grooms, hot-walkers and exercise riders are legal.
"Try to make it upbeat. That's what we want to say--cooperative things," Ed Pyeatt of the Border Patrol admonished a reporter. "We've (been through) the aggravation and the irritation and the rhetoric. It doesn't accomplish anything."
A week of increasingly vitriolic verbal volleying between the INS and the trainers culminated in an early morning raid Friday, during which the Border Patrol arrested 123 allegedly illegal aliens.
The following day, the track canceled racing. Claiming that the INS had scared off or rounded up most of their stable help, the trainers had failed to enter enough horses to make racing worthwhile.
But racing resumed Sunday with only slightly less than a full complement of horses. Track spokesman Dan Smith counted 81 horses that had been entered--only slightly below the norm, he said.
The crowd count was 22,929--compared to 27,669 and 29,795 the two previous Sundays, Smith said. The betting handle was $4.18 million, compared to $4.9 the previous Sunday. Smith added, "The quality of the (racing) card was not what it usually is on the weekend. It was down a little."
How much had been accomplished by the INS actions over the past week remained unclear.
Pyeatt said the INS achieved much of its aim, one way or another: 123 illegal aliens had been arrested, perhaps several hundred had fled and the trainers had agreed to try to hire legal workers in the future.
"We would like to think that maybe as a result of the combination of those things, they know that we are serious about enforcing immigration laws," Pyeatt said. He said of the trainers, "We think they're genuine. We'd like to believe that."
Officials of the trainers' group, the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn., could not be reached Sunday. But Izzy Vega, the track chaplain who has been in contact with the trainers and workers throughout the week, said he believed the percentage of illegal aliens at the track would certainly drop.
"Immigration made their point . . . ," Vega said. "I think it's positive. It's going to change the composition of the backside."
Joseph Harper, general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said he could not say to what extent the events of the past week would affect the makeup of the approximately 2,000 people working on the backstretch.
"I think it's certainly focused a lot of attention on a problem that many people in this industry I think were unaware of the seriousness of," Harper said. "The positive side of this is that we can get some long-term solutions to the undocumented aliens."
Pyeatt said about half of the men arrested Friday had opted to return voluntarily to Mexico. The remaining half requested deportation hearings. Half of those had posted bond and been released from detention pending hearing, he said.
The HPBA has agreed to operate a hiring hall on the track grounds to hire U.S. citizens and legal residents for jobs as hot-walkers and grooms. The group has also agreed to apply for legal status for any illegal workers it bailed out after the raid.
Vega said the INS is widely believed to have undercover agents on the backstretch, watching for the return of illegal aliens. He said an agent also appears to be stationed in the hiring hall, although Pyeatt said he did not know if either report was true.
Pyeatt said the Border Patrol would be checking in regularly.
"The cooperative modes over the past few days are the right way to do it," Pyeatt said. "We think they're acting in good faith."