12/14/2006 12:00AM

Visa laws cause barn help shortage

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - A strict enforcement of the United States visa laws has resulted in a shortage of backstretch help at New York Racing Association tracks.

Trainers with horses with based at Aqueduct and Belmont Park are working short-staffed and forcing their remaining employees to take on additional work. Many backstretch workers who aren't U.S. citizens are working under seasonal visas that limit the amount of time they can work in the States to 10 months per year. The problem with the system, as trainers see it, is that the workers have all been forced to leave at the same time.

According to NYRA officials, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has removed a minimum of 10 workers from the backstretch in the last two months. Horsemen believe that the number is greater.

Todd Pletcher, who has 37 horses at Belmont Park, said he is down to five hotwalkers when normally he has 10 or 12. Mike Hushion, another Belmont Park-based trainer, said he is down three grooms and two hotwalkers, and added, "there's nobody walking around to take their place."

"The visa program is great but it's seasonal and a lot of them leave at the same time," Pletcher said. "It'd be better if it was more cyclical."

Gary Contessa, a trainer who has horses at both Aqueduct and Belmont, said the lack of help is a serious problem. Both he and the New York Thoroughbred Horseman's Association are working with law firms specializing in immigration law to work on the issue.

"There is a real lack of help," Contessa said. "I have put up a lot of money with two different law firms and we're working on getting them all working visas or extending their work visas. It's a big issue."

Half Ours isn't lost in the fog

Half Ours had not been on the racetrack in 19 months. Even when he returned to the races on Thursday at Aqueduct, he could hardly be seen.

But rest assured, Half Ours made a successful return, winning a second-level allowance race by a neck over City Attraction. It was Half Ours's third win in as many starts, but it was his first race since he won the Three Chimneys Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day 2005.

Aqueduct was enveloped in fog during the running of Thursday's race and there were only a few moments when the race could be seen. The finish wasn't one of them.

According to jockey John Velazquez, Half Ours was in front by the third jump out of the gate. He rated off another speed horse and began to open up in the stretch. Velazquez said he could hardly see during the race, and when he looked behind at the sixteenth pole another horse was coming at him. Velazquez hit Half Ours, but he didn't immediately respond.

"I hit him, he dug in, but he kind of slowed down," Velazquez said. "I said, 'No, buddy, you're supposed to go when I hit you,' " Velazquez said. "Now he sees the [photo finish] lights at the finish line, I said, 'Don't prop now.' I'm shaking the whip at him to keep him going."

Half Ours ran six furlongs in 1:10.96 and returned $3.80 as the favorite.

Half Ours was making his first start since being purchased for $6.1 million by Aaron Jones at the Keeneland November breeding stock sale. The horse went through the auction ring to dissolve a partnership between Jones and Barry Schwartz, who bought the colt for $625,000.

"He seems like he's all there," Velazquez said. "Obviously, race by race I think he'll get better. It's been a long time. It seems like he got a good blow out of the race. The talent is there. Hopefully he stays healthy."

Jara and Romero make a deal

Jockey Fernando Jara paid agent Randy Romero $15,000 to be released from his contract with him, and will be represented by Gatewood Bell when the Gulfstream Park meet opens on Jan. 3.

Romero will serve as Jara's agent through Sunday, Jara's last day in New York. Jara, who turns 19 on Sunday, will head home to Panama for the holidays and return to riding at Gulfstream.

Romero said the $15,000 represents the same figure he paid agent Jose Riviera to buy Jara's contract last February. With Romero as his agent, Jara earned $8.6 million in purse money, the bulk coming from victories in the Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Invasor and the Belmont Stakes aboard Jazil. Both of those horses are trained by Kiaran McLaughlin.

"I was riding for Kiaran before I had Randy," Jara said. "I think he helped me with guys like Billy Mott."

Romero said he would head back home to Kentucky and search for a new rider while working on his autobiography with a writer from Connecticut.

"We left on good terms," Romero said. "I was lucky to have him. He won some races for me I never won. It was a blast, and I had a lot of fun."