LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Fearing the loss of jobs at Churchill Downs and other Kentucky racetracks, horse racing industry officials are asking Congress to reinstate a temporary worker program.

The U.S. sets aside 66,000 seasonal visas for nonfarm positions, but doesn’t count other people towards that cap if they had been granted visas in recent years. Thoroughbred trainers are among those who rely on the exempted workers as exercise riders, grooms and other staff.

Congress faces a Friday deadline to pass a measure that will keep funding the federal government into next year. The resolution under consideration doesn’t include the exempt-worker provision.

If the resolution isn’t amended, the racing industry would be competing with hotels, landscapers and other industries for a set number of seasonal visas allowing workers to stay 10 months before returning home for two months.

“We need an immigrant workforce to do jobs that Americans are really not wanting to do right now,” said Dale Romans, a Louisville-based trainer. “…When we’re dependent on that workforce and we’re used to having it and they just take it all away – it’s almost impossible to operate our businesses.”

Romans said some of his employees spend part of the year in the U.S. through the H-2B visa initiative, which requires employers to show they can’t find enough American workers before looking abroad.  

“I just cannot find American people that want to do the work on the racetrack that’s as labor intensive and time-consuming as the work is,” he said.

The Kentucky division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and its national organization have raised awareness over the visa program in recent days. "It could be a nightmare," said Eric Hamelback, the national HBPA's chief executive officer. "It could have some serious effects on our labor force."

Alex Waldrop, president and CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, estimated that thousands of workers in the thoroughbred industry are considered exempt. He said the 66,000 visas available are "inadequate."

The returning-worker exemption wasn’t renewed in a temporary spending plan Congress approved in late September, but Waldrop said it had little effect on racing’s workforce because many trainers already had employees in place for the year.

But the timing of the resolution now on Capitol Hill has horse industry groups worried. If passed by Dec. 9, it would be effective until March – a period, Waldrop said, when many workers are hired for the 2017 racing season.

“We’d rather not face that,” he said. “We’d rather have some certainty that we have the ability to bring these workers here through the H2-B program.”

The NTRA, which represents owners, racetracks and others, asked its members to contact elected officials in Congress on Monday in an effort to get the returning-worker exemption put back in the resolution. That followed a similar push over the weekend by the Maryland-based Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association.

Both groups targeted Kentucky Republicans Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on social media, using the hashtag #SaveH2B, and by phone.

Retired jockey Rosie Napravnik tweeted at Rogers on Monday, “Please include returning worker exemption to H-2B program! Jobs are at stake!”

A spokeswoman for Rogers did not immediately respond to a phone message from WDRB News, but McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said in an email that “negotiations on the continuing resolution are ongoing and no announcements to make at this time.”

Meanwhile, the horse industry is bracing for Congressional action. If the returning-worker rule isn’t reinstated, trainers could be forced to cut their staffs, resulting in barns with fewer horses, said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.

Maline said the visa program is a way to find workers and attempt to limit the number of people working in the racing industry illegally.

"The horsemen from the Latin community – they know the position and they love that type of work,” he said. “So without those employees, many of the trainers would have to downsize. They just wouldn’t have the type of individuals to take care of the horses.”

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