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California and the West

Horse Racing Leaders Vow to Fix Problems

Capitol: They testify at a joint legislative hearing that examines conditions for workers in stable areas. State probe is underway.


SACRAMENTO — Called to testify before state legislators, horse racing industry leaders pledged Thursday to help fix persistent labor and housing problems in the stables of California's racetracks.

Meanwhile, state labor officials told the 13 Assembly members attending the joint hearing that they had started investigating and uncovering labor abuses in the industry more than a decade ago, but were called off the probe by their top brass.

"We were directed that we should not proceed with the broad investigation into the industry . . . but only respond to complaints," said Roger Miller, now senior deputy labor commissioner--adding, however, that "traditionally people in this industry were undocumented and would not file complaints."

But since The Times reported last month that there were widespread problems on the backstretch, the labor commissioner has launched a new investigation and several legislators are focusing attention on the long neglected areas.

Thursday's four-hour joint informational hearing of three committees was called by Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), chairman of the Governmental Organization Committee, and addressed many aspects of life in the stables.

Wesson and Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), chairman of the Labor and Employment Committee, said they would consider introducing legislation to help improve the standard of living for the low-wage, mostly immigrant work force.

At the hearing, health inspectors told of unsanitary bathrooms and substandard tack rooms at Santa Anita. And union organizers hoping to represent the employees expressed their concerns about the industry running a "19th century labor relations system," where the workers' welfare is left to the employer.

Industry insiders denied that there were widespread wage violations, but acknowledged other problems with record keeping and backstretch housing. They said they are working to remedy them, and cited such amenities as a new dormitory at Bay Meadows in San Mateo and two medical clinics.

"Our [horse] owners want to be able to go to the backside, bring their friends, bring their family, and go there with pride," said John Van de Kamp, the former state attorney general and now president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. "And that has not been the case."

He said he was hopeful that the purchase of Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields by Magna International would bring dramatic improvements. There was little discussion of the conditions at the state's nine fairgrounds, Los Alamitos Racetrack in Cypress and the San Luis Rey Downs training facility in San Diego County.

Some pointed out that members of one crucial industry group didn't show up Thursday: the workers in question.

"I find it pretty odd that while this hearing is about the backstretch, no one here is representing" the workers, said Ed Donnelly, a racetrack chaplain. Union officials said they tried all week to get employees to come to Sacramento and testify but knew it was unlikely.

The grooms and hot-walkers who comprise the work force are mostly immigrants--some illegal. They inhabit an isolated world that is largely inaccessible to union organizers and other outsiders.

"These workers work in an invisible place. We don't see them," said San Francisco attorney Patty Gates, who is representing two backstretch workers in wage disputes.

Much of the testimony was spent explaining the exemptions the industry has from labor and housing laws. Steinberg said he was particularly concerned with an exclusion that the industry has long enjoyed from state housing standards, which has allowed the employees' habitations to escape regulatory oversight.

Steinberg also wondered if something was fundamentally wrong with the structure of the industry, where workers are hired by hundreds of individual trainers, and are not employees of the tracks or the wealthy horse owners.

"Is there a structural problem here?" he said. "Is there enough money from the owners to pay the trainers to pay the workers?"

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