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In champions' shadows

The deaths of two grooms in Thermal went unnoticed by many. Unlike racetracks, where labor laws protect hands, horse shows are mostly unregulated.

March 11, 2007|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

Thermal, Calif. — For the last six weeks, this desolate desert hideaway known for its date trees and triple-digit summers has been awash with Hollywood celebrities, Olympic-caliber athletes and software executives in town for one of the country's premier equestrian events.

Along with pampered show horses, some worth millions, this cousin of the sport of kings relies on hundreds of stable hands, many of them Mexican immigrants who work up to 16-hour days in the harsh desert climate and some who sleep among the horses in trailers or stables.

At this year's series of shows, which ends today, two stable hands suffocated while sleeping in a dusty horse trailer Feb. 23, succumbing to fumes from a gasoline generator powering a space heater they had to ward off the chill of 40-degree nights.

The deaths of Jorge Rodriguez-Ramirez, 47, and Armando Sanchez-Gallardo, 21, highlighted the vast divide between the worlds of those toiling in the stables and the wealthy owners and riders who depend on their labor. Unlike racetracks, where workers are protected by new labor, health and welfare laws, horse shows remain mostly unregulated.

"I know the grooms work their butts off, but to be honest, I don't even know where they go at night," said longtime rider Jenna Campbell, 28, of Moorpark, who employs caretakers for her horse, Oceanus, but had not heard of the grooms' deaths at the show series, presented by Horse Shows in the Sun Inc.

While the deaths are still under investigation, Riverside County Sheriff's Department officials consider them to be accidental. Neither the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health nor state labor officials are investigating the deaths or workplace conditions, because the two were not on the job when they died.

"It was terrible," said a nephew of one of the men, who discovered the bodies and also requested anonymity. "My uncle shouldn't have died that way."

Officials with the U.S. Equestrian Federation, which governs the sport, and Horse Shows in the Sun called the deaths tragic -- but disavowed any responsibility.

The topic of the welfare of stable hands at shows has never been an issue, according to Horse Shows spokesman John Eickman.

"We truly do see it as an isolated accident. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens all around the country when people go in and fire up a combustion-type heater without prior ventilation," he said.

In the week following the deaths, the topics of conversation among riders, fans and owners were about the challenging jumping courses and two injured horses that had to be euthanized. Few had heard of the grooms' deaths.

Many grooms said they had space at night in shared motel rooms or recreational vehicles but said that dozens sleep in stalls and horse trailers.

The workers generally hail from small Mexican farm towns such as Calvillo in Aguascalientes, Ejutla in Jalisco and throughout the state of Zacatecas.

In a cash business, they said, they are often paid a flat rate of $100 to $150 a day. Even for those in the country legally, there is no promise of overtime pay or compensation if they are injured, they said. For those here illegally, there is no safety net.

The horse show circuit runs from February to November, and the immigrant laborers follow the shows across the state and often, across the country.

Javier Gamdara, 40, a stable hand based in Seattle, said he has been in the business for more than 12 years and had seen Rodriguez-Ramirez, a father of three young children, and Sanchez-Gallardo on the circuit for the last year or two.

As he walked a horse named Skyline from the bathing area back to the stable, he lamented that no one paid attention to the two men's lack of lodging.

"Their situation is not uncommon, but the older man was from my hometown. I should have brought him and the other to the tack room" -- a small, private space in the barn where supplies are kept, Gamdara said in Spanish. "They could have slept there. I would have let them."

Another groom, who asked to be identified only as Tony, said the deaths angered him. "We don't care about TV. We just want a bed, food and hot water," he said in Spanish. "These are just basic things that humans need."

Unless an employer provides lodging, it's hard to find or afford, especially if you don't have a car, he said. Near Thermal, many hotels along Interstate 10 charge more than $150 a night for a room.

Still, not all of the grooms objected to the conditions.

Jose Rodriguez, 39, a former bull rider and rodeo performer from Ejutla, works as a head groom. "I've been doing this for more than 10 years, and I never once had a motel room until recently," he said. "But back at home this work means I have a home, 300 acres and a happy wife and family."

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