Even on Derby week, immigration is still top of mind for Dale Romans

Even on Derby week, immigration is still top of mind for Dale Romans

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) – Derby trainer Dale Romans is happy with his horse’s post-position draw, as Attachment Rate will break from 13 Saturday. But even with the big race this weekend, Romans said he will meet with his immigration lawyer to talk about limitations on immigrant workers and what it could mean for Kentucky’s signature industry.

Romans, Churchill Downs second-leading trainer, said it could have a major impact on his business at the end of the year.

“I’ve been fighting for immigration reform for a long time,” Romans said.

That’s because Romans maintains he’s fighting for his livelihood. Romans said about 90% of the Churchill Downs backside is an immigrant workforce from Mexico and Guatemala on a 10-month cycle.

“They are like brothers, sisters, cousins,” Romans said, “it’s almost like a family rotation.”

According to trainer Dale Romans, the men and women who tend to the thoroughbreds are excellent workers. Many live in track dorms and are willing to do a hard job most Americans don't want.
According to trainer Dale Romans, the men and women who tend to the thoroughbreds are excellent workers. Many live in track dorms and are willing to do a hard job most Americans don't want. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

According to trainer Dale Romans, the men and women who tend to the thoroughbreds are excellent workers. Many live in track dorms and are willing to do a hard job most Americans don’t want. Romans is worried about President Trump’s tightening of immigration policies and temporary work visas.

“The problem is anybody in an industry this dependent on that, the federal government has a moving target at all times on their immigration policy.”

Although, workers who care for animals were given an exemption until the end of the year, Romans and KEEP, the Kentucky Equine Education Project, worry that without enough temporary visas they won’t be able to attract enough workers, even though some are paid more than double Kentucky’s minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Romans said he pays about $14 an hour.

The big issues -- the odd hours and travel to states like Florida and New York, plus plenty of competing businesses that aren’t as labor-intensive.

Thoroughbred racing is Kentucky's signature industry and one that trainer Dale Romans says will be impacted by limitations on the immigrant workers who are an important part of horse racing.
Thoroughbred racing is Kentucky's signature industry and one that trainer Dale Romans says will be impacted by limitations on the immigrant workers who are an important part of horse racing. (Source: WAVE 3 News)
Dale Romans said about 90% of the Churchill Downs backside is an immigrant workforce from Mexico and Guatemala on a 10-month cycle.
Dale Romans said about 90% of the Churchill Downs backside is an immigrant workforce from Mexico and Guatemala on a 10-month cycle. (Source: WAVE 3 News)

“What we are lucky to have here in America,” Romans said, “is so many better jobs that people can get these days and it’s become very difficult to get someone that wants to work the hours and there’s an amount of danger and skill involved working around racehorses.”

“The demand for them is greater and greater because we are competing with landscaping, hospitality, and other kinds of seasonal business,” said Elisabeth Jensen, KEEP executive vice president.

Romans fears if policies don’t change, some in the industry will start using illegal immigrants. Jensen said Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been working with the agency on the issue. As for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Robert Steurer, his communications director said, “Senator McConnell knows that American agriculture, as well as the horse industry, can’t fully function without legal guest workers.”

Romans encourages Kentuckians concerned about the horse industry to contact their lawmakers.

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