471: Jury out

Nov 20, 2001 9:48 AM

Assembly bill 471 becomes law in California on Jan. 1, 2002. On that date, home wagering will be legal, as will the opportunity for backstretch personnel to unionize at race tracks in the Golden State. One of the provisions in the labor portion of the bill reads that if the majority of workers in a trainer’s barn votes against union representation, the trainer will not be required to engage in collective bargaining.

But the jury is still out on both issues. The only sure thing is that if unions are voted in, owners will incur more expenses. At least that’s the opinion of two Southern California-based trainers with successful public stables.

“That’s all the owners need,” said Paul Aguirre, a 46-year-old native of Burbank and a graduate of UCLA. “The expenses always fall back on them. Unionization will affect the little trainers most, and I’d hate to see that, because they’re the backbone of the industry. The bigger trainers are just going to pass the cost to the owners. It’s a bad deal.”

But will backstretch employees affirm unionization?

“I’d say it’s 50-50 right now,” Aguirre said. “There’s literature against the unions and the workers realize it’s not going to be a tremendous boon to them, that there’s going to be negatives involved, too. The voting will take place barn-to-barn, but overall, I think we’ll hold our ground and not have too many barns in the union.”

Caesar Dominguez, who has been training thoroughbreds for 13 years, expects his employees to maintain the status quo.

“My boys are pretty happy with the way things are now,” the 52-year-old El Paso native said. “But you can’t tell until the union members actually come in and approach them. They’re going to promise them the world. That’s the only thing that bothers me, because you know they’re going to lie to them. They’ll tell them they’re going to do this and do that, and nine out of 10 times, they don’t. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

Dominguez, like Aguirre, agrees that any costs trainers are subjected to from unionization will be passed on to the owners, of which Dominguez is one.

“I own about 60 percent of my horses,” he said. “Employees are going to want more money and the union is going to promise them more money, but it’s like anything else: We can only afford to pay so much. Right now, I’m paying my boys $7 an hour. Of course, a union can’t come in and say it’s going to pay $10, because it’s just not going to do it. Our employees are like farmers or people working in the fields. They get paid so much per hour and that’s it. It’s not like they’re brain surgeons.

“My boys get $7 an hour, they get their stakes (bonuses when one of their horses wins), they get their day off, and anything more than 40 hours, they get double pay, so they’ve got it pretty good as it is. In my mind, I say that the union will not come in.”

Presently, Dominguez estimates the “day money,” money trainers are paid per horse per day, to be $70 to $80 on average. That would seem generous on the surface, but from that sum, trainers are responsible for all labor costs, including workman’s comp, insurance, equipment, feed, exercise riders, grooms, hot walkers, etc.

“If the unions come in,” Dominguez says, “that’s going to jump to between $80 and $100.”

THE HOMESTRETCH: The retirement of reigning Horse of the Year Tiznow came as no surprise after speaking with trainer Jay Robbins last week. At that time, Robbins had ruled out running in the Clark, and saw no purpose in Tiznow making his grass debut in the Hollywood Turf Cup. That left only the option to resume racing as a 5-year-old in 2002. But when part-owner Michael Cooper got a sweet stud offer for Tiznow while touring Kentucky for the best deal, Tiznow’s racing day’s were over . . . Oft-suspended jockey Pat Valenzuela, currently absent from riding for more than a year for his latest substance abuse violation, recently met with Hollywood Park stewards, seeking permission to ride again. The stewards heard him out, and have referred the matter to the California Horse Racing Board, which will render a decision on whether he can resume his career. The 39-year-old Valenzuela, who won the Kentucky Derby aboard Sunday Silence in 1989, was suspended by Santa Anita stewards on Feb. 11, 2000, for “engaging in the use of a dangerous drug ”” amphetamine,” with the recommendation to the CHRB that Valenzuela “not be eligible for relicensing prior to Feb. 1, 2001.” . . . Doug O’Neill hardly had time to catch his breath last Thursday at Hollywood Park. The 33-year-old trainer saddled six horses ”” five of them 2-year-old fillies ”” on the eight-race card. He had entered seven, but one was scratched. . . Baseball isn’t the only sport that would benefit from contraction. With California’s Hollywood Park racetrack having just 51 starters ”” an average of 6.3 per race ”” on last Wednesday’s eight-race program, horse racing should follow suit.