It took three weeks, but Michael Covallubias of El Sereno said that the time he invested in a free horse-handling class at Santa Anita race track paid off the minute he landed a job as a hot-walker for trainer Gary Lewis.
"It's great and a lot of fun," Covallubias said. "I had my own horses in my backyard, but these horses are a lot different. They're really peppery and like to run from you."
Covallubias is one of about 260 people who have enrolled in the class since it began in mid-September at the Santa Anita track. The class, which is taught by former jockey Tony Dominguez and his brother, Vernon, was started by the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn. in an effort to ease a critical shortage of experienced and documented "backstretch" workers at Southern California race tracks.
Before the class started, Dominguez said, "trainers were hiring anyone that came up to the gate" for the jobs that pay about the state minimum wage of $3.50 an hour for a four- to five-hour shift.
"They didn't know anything at all about horses. There is so much difference between a Thoroughbred and a horse on a ranch. . . . The workers they're getting now are much, much better," Dominguez said.
"By the time he left, there was nothing he didn't know," Dominguez said of Covallubias, who has be on the job at the track at 5:30 a.m. During his five-hour shift as a hot-walker, Covallubias cares for four horses, cooling them down after workouts and races and taking care of miscellaneous stable chores.
Another student who graduated into a job is Art Husen, 38, who works mornings at the track and then goes to his job as a telephone operator at Pacific Bell. Husen says he has to get up at 3:30 a.m. to get to the track on time.
'It's Great Experience'
"It's still taking me time to adjust to it," Husen said. "I'm getting the hang of it. It's worth it . . . just to be able to work with the horses. It's great experience and it's a challenge."
The shortage of backstretch workers came about last year when the U.S Immigration and Naturalization Service staged a series of raids at Southern California tracks, seizing more than 400 illegal aliens and frightening hundreds of others away.
On Jan. 13, in a compromise with trainers who maintain that they cannot find Americans willing to take the jobs, the INS announced that 363 temporary work permits will be issued to illegal aliens for positions as grooms and exercise riders at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar.
But trainers say there are many other backstretch jobs, such as those of the hot-walkers, that must be filled. They say the horse-handling class will help create a pool of at least semi-experienced workers.
'To Create a Work Force'
"Primarily the class was established to create a work force of legal citizens and documented workers," said Doug Atkins, secretary-treasurer of the horsemen's group. "We're trying to bring in outside workers and give them some very basic horse-handling experience."
Bob McAnally, assistant secretary-treasurer of the horsemen's group, said a similar class was not started at Del Mar because the season was about to end when the INS raid took place there on Aug. 23.
"They used the buddy system and family system and got anyone that would pitch in and help to keep the racing going.
"But Santa Anita was going to have horses up until April. We had to replace illegals or individuals without documentation with American citizens or legally documented workers," McAnally said.
Lauded by INS
The INS, which has been monitoring Santa Anita since the track was raided on Oct. 22, lauded the horsemen's group for setting up the class.
"They're educating permanent residents in the care of horses in order to have a pool of legal workers to choose from," said Gerald Donelly, the assistant director of investigations for the INS. "They've acted in response to our actions and are showing us they are trying to correct the problem of illegal aliens working there with us."
The class is geared to people who have little or no experience with horses.
"The closest most of these people have been to a horse is on television," said Dominguez, adding that the class attracts people from all walks to life, ranging from cocktail waitresses and preachers to students and housewives.
Laid Off as Custodian
"I didn't know anything about horses before this class and now I know a lot," said Alberto Reyes, 42, of La Puente, who was laid off from his job as a custodian at Continental Canning Co. in the City of Industry about four months ago.
"I'd like to be a walker. I have a family to support. . . . My family is helping me out, they help pay for gas and say, 'Keep it up.' "