We are approaching the completion of a full year of debate, concern and apprehension over the future of racing in the United States sparked by the fatalities at Santa Anita in the early part of 2019. A common trope among industry insiders to deflect public skepticism is that “we love our horses.” As with any generality, there are elements of truth in that sentiment but, as with any generality, it is not universally true.
Recent developments from New York will cause outside observers to question that commitment when top level figures in the sport do not even treat humans with respect and dignity — let alone meet legal obligations. The state’s Department of Labor has announced that it recovered almost $1 million in “stolen wages, damages and penalties” from, among others, trainers Chad Brown, Kiaran McLaughlin, Linda Rice and Jimmy Jerkens.
Among the allegations against Brown is that he violated federal and state laws by “knowingly” charging workers from other countries who need special visas $1,500 in cash per worker. It is not Brown’s first brush with wage or immigration violations. It was announced during the summer that the United States had reached a settlement in which he agreed to pay $1.6 million in lost wages, penalties and immigration violations.
Brown, of course, is one of the top trainers in the United States. He has won almost $30 million in purses this year alone, and led the nation the past two years with purse winnings of $27.5 million and $26.2 million. In the same summer he was assessed that $1.5 million by the United States, he was nonetheless able to scrape together enough coin to pay $1.5 million for a premier property in Saratoga that borders the track. He could walk to work if he decides to live there.
Below is where stable hands live while at Saratoga. They can also walk to work since they live in the stable area.
In fairness to the New York Racing Association, they have done a great job in recent years to upgrade the dormitory facilities such as the one depicted above.
Just to be clear: the almost $90 million in purses that Brown’s horses have earned in the past three years is not what is used to pay his employees. That is the amount that his owners and Brown get over their expenses. Brown’s owners pay a daily rate that goes to the employees, so they also are benefitting from Brown’s cheating or — to use New York’s language — stealing from the workers.
The New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association has released a statement in which they assert that “no small business is perfectly run” and are subject to an array of “confusing” rules and a “challenging timekeeping environment.” It is an organization that represents trainers and owners in New York.
Their argument is ludicrous. Chad Brown is not a “small businessman” in any sense of the word. On a sunny day in August, I stood at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track and counted 16 of Brown’s horses coming out for a workout. That’s 16 exercise riders on horses in what are typically multiple sets during morning training. I would be willing to wager that the vast majority of New York’s trainers do not have 16 horses, let alone have the money to pay that number of exercise riders for a multiple sets.
If someone with hundreds of million dollars in revenue cannot keep track of his employees, he or she is not going to survive for long. As much as his competitors may hope otherwise, Brown is not going anywhere soon — unless it is to the winner’s circle. Brown may simply view law violations as a cost of business after you get caught.
And it is those competitors – many of whom are legitimately running small businesses, who are going out of business because they cannot compete with the behemoths such as Brown and the other “super-trainers.” One of those super-trainers is Steve Asmussen. He has been found liable for his third violation of cheating his workers, even though he has been running second to Brown in purse earnings in recent years, having won purses totaling over $70 million in the last three years.
If NYTHA is truly concerned about the small trainers, they should welcome the crackdown on the cheats and frauds in the business.
Just as important, however, is that it is yet another black eye for a sport that desperately needs positive attention. Much has been made of NHL hockey star Erik Johnson’s paying the medical bills to save one of his horses who recently broke down at Del Mar. His efforts are, of course, commendable, but the fact that the racing media views it as noteworthy means that it is not typical.
What would be even more newsworthy would be if Chad Brown’s or Steve Asmussen’s owners publicly denounced either for not treating their human employees in accordance with the law, and with respect and dignity. We are speaking of businessmen who have made enough money that they can spend millions on horses that either Brown or Asmussen would agree to train. Regrettably, they may not be interested in paying more on their daily rate to ensure fair treatment of those who care for the horses.
But, at least for now, can we stop pretending that powerful figures in racing love their horses when they do not have the same attitude for our fellow humans?