DEL MAR — The California Horse Racing Board has launched an investigation of events that led to the cancellation of racing at Del Mar Race Track for one day during last month's standoff between horse trainers and immigration authorities intent on ridding the track of illegal alien workers.
Meeting Friday at the track, the board, which licenses race track employees and oversees racing in the state, also ordered comprehensive audits of the administrative, pension and welfare funds of the state's racing associations.
"We don't know that there's anything wrong. Nobody's making that accusation," said Leonard Foote, executive officer of the seven-member board. "They have not had an audit for several years, and it's time for an audit."
Investigators will try to determine whether trainers acted in concert when they withdrew horses from the race card scheduled for Aug. 24, Foote said. If so, they may have violated board regulations that require a 15-day written notice of any action that may result in suspending races, he said.
Board investigators would file complaints with Del Mar's Board of Stewards against trainers suspected of violating the rules, Foote said. Those found guilty would be subject to a fine, suspension or loss of their racing licenses.
Authorities could determine, however, that withdrawing the entries did not violate state regulations if the trainers acted independently or were forced by circumstances to drop off the race card. The racing board ordered its staff to report on the investigation at the board meeting Oct. 31 in Arcadia.
The 15-day notice requirement is designed to give the board an opportunity to intervene in disputes and to prevent the interruption of racing, according to Joseph Harper, general manager of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.
"We're trying to protect the interest of the public and the interest of the state," he said. "I didn't ask for the investigation. But I think it was fairly obvious from the onset, once racing stopped for any reason--whether it be power failure, a strike, a boycott, a lack of horses or whatever you have--that the racing board was going to get involved and involved very heavily."
Harper would not say whether he believes the trainers' action was concerted.
Spokesmen for the California Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn., which represents thoroughbred trainers at Del Mar and other tracks, told reporters Aug. 22 that Del Mar trainers had voted not to enter horses in races the following weekend.
The next day, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents raided the track's backstretch, where grooms, exercise riders and hot-walkers are housed, seizing 123 illegal aliens. Hundreds of illegal workers reportedly had already fled the track, following a week of warning from the INS that a raid was imminent.
Del Mar canceled racing Aug. 24, but races resumed the next day after trainers and immigration authorities agreed to cooperate on a program to replace illegal aliens with legal workers or to secure legal status for the aliens.
Officials of the trainers association could not be reached Saturday for comment.
The racing board's order requiring financial audits of the thoroughbred trainers association and of other trainers groups in the state was unrelated to the immigration imbroglio at Del Mar, Foote said. At Del Mar, however, the board insisted on a broader inquiry into the management of the trainers association, he said.
"We're looking at . . . if the monies the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn. has received are being expended pursuant to the purposes for which they're intended," Foote said.
The association receives about $3 million per year from bets placed at Del Mar, according to Foote. The money pays for the operations of the association and provides pension and welfare benefits for the trainers' employees.
Although the illegal status of many backstretch workers complicates the task of assuring that they receive pension and welfare benefits, Foote said the audits are not designed to determine whether illegal workers are being exploited. Federal and state labor officials said last week that they would investigate whether the trainers' employees had been paid proper wages and overtime.
Other trainers' groups facing audits by the board include the Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Racing Assn. and the Western Standardbred Assn., which represents trainers engaged in harness racing, Foote said.