BALTIMORE -- Michelle Sharp, who keeps some of her racehorses in Pimlico's barns, does not normally muck out her own stables.
These days, though, she is doing just that, as well as other menial but essential chores that go hand-in-hand with the occasional glories of turf racing. There's almost no one else to do it.
A dearth of Latino racetrack workers -- grooms, exercise riders and other stable hands, the largely unseen but indispensable backbone of the $1 billion thoroughbred horse racing industry -- is forcing a realignment of duties at Baltimore's Pimlico Race Course and other tracks, and appears to be affecting the ability of some owners to compete effectively at the races.
"Without us, there wouldn't be anything here," said Jesus Guerrero Garcia, a 33-year-old groom for a horse trainer who came to the United States three years ago from Michoacan, Mexico, and is working here legally. "We try to keep the horses healthy and clean. If not, they wouldn't be able to compete in any races, no matter how big or small."
But economic woes, a reduction in temporary visas and concerns raised by the simmering debate over immigration are combining to deprive racetracks of the labor they need to function. As a result, the culture that traditionally infused the backstretch at Pimlico, where dozens of Spanish-speaking immigrants lived and worked during the long racing season, is undergoing radical change.
The relatively few Latino grooms, "hot walkers" and exercise riders at Pimlico are much in demand, their skills in many cases developed on family farms in their native countries. The workers usually start at about 5:30 or 6 a.m., and most of the heavy work -- exercising the horses, cleaning out the stables -- is over about four hours later. For their efforts, they can collect about $500 a week, with a bonus if the horse they are caring for comes in a winner.
Without a steady supply of labor, however, owners like Sharp -- who runs Sunny Ridge Farm in Martinsburg, W.Va. -- are pitching in more often. "When you have seven horses here looking at you that need care seven days a week, what are you going to do?" she asked. "It's a huge problem."
While undocumented workers have never been allowed to work officially on Maryland's racetracks, Sharp and other racehorse owners are chafing at crackdowns on immigrants that have sharply reduced the number of people applying legally for the hard, filthy and often dangerous job of tending to thoroughbred horses.
A big reason for the drop in numbers of such workers is a cap on a federal guest-worker program that had allowed thousands of Latinos to work legally, if temporarily, in this country. Another is the bankruptcy of Pimlico's parent company, which sharply curtailed the track's annual racing season and scattered workers to other states.
Janet Davidson, co-owner of D3 Racing in White Hall, was stabling 14 horses at Pimlico last week with help from just three pairs of hands -- a female groom who is recovering from cancer, and two men, neither of them Latino. Even so, Davidson, whose colt Volcanic Ice won a Maiden Special Weight race during last year's Preakness week, won't be running any horses at Pimlico this year, largely because she needs more help with training and exercising the animals.
"I just won't be ready," she said, but will aim instead for the season at Colonial Downs in Virginia that begins later this month. "People on the backside work very, very hard. They are my support. They're important. It's a dirty job."
Immigrants -- legal and undocumented -- have long been a staple of the industry, including on many racetracks where officials turn a blind eye to their status. Americans, many breeders, owners and trainers say privately, don't want those jobs.
For years, U.S. law had allowed non-citizens to obtain so-called H-2B permits to fill part-time positions if American workers failed to take the jobs. Only 66,000 such visas are issued each year, good for up to 11 months. In 2005, Congress allowed workers who had received the visas during the three prior years to be given new visas regardless of the cap. In 2007, about 250,000 such visas were granted.
But the exemptions were then halted, and despite lobbying from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and other groups, lawmakers appear unlikely to raise the limits until comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality.
Applicants for track jobs must "provide documentation that they're here legally," said J. Michael Hopkins, executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, in an interview. "We've always taken that stance."
Juan Becerra Ocegera, a 64-year-old groom who works for the trainer Ferris Allen, said Monday that he came to the U.S. illegally in 1980 from his native Romero de Guzman, Michoacan, and worked at racetracks all over the country before finally establishing legal residency in 1997. During the years in between, he said, he often resorted to "playing a lot of tricks" so that he could work, including telling officials that he was not Mexican but from Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.
"I went home three or four times, running back and forth across the border at night," he said in Spanish. "I don't have to do that any more."
Maintenance employees at the Maryland tracks are under the same strictures that apply to backstretch workers.
"You don't get to work here without a visa," said Francisco Aguilar, 23, from Chiapas, Mexico, a maintenance worker who spends most of the year at the Laurel track but who helps out at Pimlico for the month of May in preparation for the Preakness. "The security people check your papers."
As he spoke, he was applying a coat of white paint to a staircase with a help of a colleague, also from Chiapas. "In the stables, most of the guys are Hispanic, maybe 90 percent," said Aguilar, who is working legally. But last year, he noted, the company that owns the tracks "threw 20 guys out of Laurel after their visas ran out."
Many horse owners, however, need the help and don't check whether workers have the proper documentation, Aguilar said.
The lone track worker helping Sharp at Pimlico last week was Miles Heinen, 43, from Ocala, Fla., who is licensed as a trainer, groom and exercise rider and who travels with Sharp on the racing circuit. His skills as a blacksmith had him shoeing horses the other day for at least two other owners -- a task that he described as "a combination of geometry, physics and common sense."
Heinen, casually wiping the blood that dripped from his hand after he had pierced a finger with a nail, addressed the issue of immigrant labor.
"Look, I understand about wanting to protect jobs, and laws are laws," Heinen said. "But by the same token the Hispanics in this business, they really have been a saving grace to the industry, because Americans don't want to work, to show up every day. With horses, you've got to take care of them every day."
Sharp, who has entered three horses in races on Black-Eyed Susan Day at Pimlico, said the best groom she has ever hired is a 23-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico named Ramon who worked for her earlier this year at Tampa Bay Downs. Ramon, she said, came into the country through Texas just more than a year ago, having never worked with horses.
"There was never a day that he didn't show up at 4:30 in the morning, and he was terrific with the horses," she said. But Ramon could not accompany her to Pimlico because of the restrictions, she said, so he went instead to Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport, N.J.
A local worker she hired shortly after arriving in Baltimore, to whom she promised $500 a week, worked for a few hours the first day, left, and didn't come back.
Sharp said she intends to help Ramon work legally in this country. "He's already called me here," she said. "He's worried about his horses."