British Columbia

Racehorse owners, trainers left scrambling after surprise raid at Hastings racecourse

Trainers and horse owners at Hastings Racecourse say they're shocked at a Monday raid by border officials that ended with about two dozen foreign workers being led away in handcuffs.

'Frankly we just can't find enough workers ... It's a tough job,' says horse owner

'The raid was a total shock, given that we are near the end of the season,' said Gary Johnson, vice president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of B.C. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images))

Trainers and horse owners at Hastings Racecourse say they're shocked over a Monday raid by border officials that ended with about two dozen foreign workers being led away in handcuffs.

"The raid was a total shock, given that we are near the end of the season," said Gary Johnson, vice president of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association of B.C. who has 35 years experience in racing.

Darren MacDonald, the general manager of the racecourse, confirmed the arrests in a statement to the media on Monday, saying the workers were supervised by the owners and trainers of horses stabled at the racecourse — owners who are not affiliated with the Great Canadian Gaming Corporation which operates the racecourse.

He says the workers were in a section of the course called the backstretch where animals are stabled in small rooms, and

Mud encrusted Enrique Alonzo Gonzalez, pulls on the reins after riding Finally Kruisin to a fourth place finish at Hastings Racecourse in 2012. (The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck)

Race season ends in October, but until then, the foreign workers who were arrested are needed to do important, difficult work, according to track regulars.

'It's a tough job'

Johnson said more than 150 people are seasonal workers at the track and about 25 of them are foreign workers from different countries. Migrant workers have long been employed to help trainers groom and care for racehorses. The work is often hot, dusty and challenging.

The shifts start at 4 a.m. and often doesn't end until midnight. Groomers feed, brush and care for the racehorses. Then they walk the horses to the track and work to cool the athletic animals down by walking them after a workout, a process called "hot walking."

Johnson said that the hard-working grooms are crucial to the track and do a grueling job that few other people want.

"Frankly, we just can't find enough workers ... It's a tough job. Incredibly tough," said the longtime horse owner.

He would like to know why the track was raiding is such a dramatic way, and why now?

"Why would you have somebody raid that location and take them away in handcuffs?. This doesn't make sense to me. This is Canada. I see the pictures on television all the time of the ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids and throwing people in cages, and I don't want Canada to become that," he said.

The Canada Border Services Agency's only comment came in an email from communications officer Luke Reimer.

"It would be inappropriate to provide any further details as the investigation is ongoing. Further, the CBSA is bound by the parameters of the Privacy Act. A specific individual's file with the CBSA is protected by these parameters. In investigative cases, information does not become public unless charges are laid and only at that time."

Track workers and horse owners also need to be licensed and approved to work on site. It's a strict process for trainers, but it's unclear if the workers arrested Monday were approved by the Gaming Policy Enforcement branch procedure.

CBC has reached out to provincial officials to find out more details about how the workers who faced arrested were licensed.

All the tacking, untacking and brushing of horses is the unglamorous part of racing, but important work that is often done by low-paid, hard-working grooms. (Hastings Racecourse/Facebook)

About the Author

Yvette Brend is a Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@cbc.ca or on Twitter or Instagram @ybrend

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