Labor dispute at Belmont threatens to scratch I'll Have Another's Triple Crown bid

Exercise rider Jonny Garcia guides I'll Have Another during a morning workout at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., June 5, 2012. I'll Have Another is trying to win the Triple Crown in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

(AP) NEW YORK - A mediator was trying to settle a labor dispute at Belmont Park that threatens to scratch I'll Have Another's chance of winning thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown in more than 30 years.

An official with the union representing maintenance and starting gate workers at the New York racetrack said the mediator was meeting Tuesday morning with the New York Racing Association and union leaders.

About 150 union members at NYRA's Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga tracks have been working without a contract since February 2011, a year after the previous contract was given a one-year extension. The workers last month authorized a strike to begin Friday, a day before the running of the Belmont Stakes, the final jewel in the Triple Crown. I'll Have Another is trying become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

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Vincent McElroen, financial secretary for Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, denied that the union waited until the week before the Belmont Stakes to threaten a labor action.

"We've been trying to get a deal for two years now," he said from the union local's headquarters in Queens. "The workers are just completely frustrated. No one's looking to disrupt the Belmont Stakes."

The racing organization — recently touched by scandals, government investigations and last month's firing of its president and the state's takeover of its board — called the union's strike threat "very troubling" because it could disrupt a race expected to draw about 100,000 to the track, plus a worldwide television audience in the millions.

"It is extremely self-serving for Local 3 to use the attention and excitement of a Triple Crown attempt to further its own agenda," NYRA said in a statement issued Monday night.

Of the 150 workers IBEW represents, about 80 work at Belmont, including pari-mutuel clerks not involved in the dispute, McElroen said. Those who are involved include the starting gate workers, who get the horses into their assigned positions just prior to post time.

The major sticking points have been overtime and the structure of the tracks' work week. NYRA runs races Wednesday through Sunday, but the contract covers a Monday-through-Friday week, which means union workers earn built-in overtime on weekends. NYRA is seeking to immediately take away overtime for working Saturdays and Sundays, a move the union says will cut some workers' pay by 30 percent.

McElroen says the union is willing to agree to some changes but wants them implemented over a period of time to lessen the impact on workers' finances.

"They want what they want and they want it now," he said of NYRA.

Last month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo took power away from NYRA, creating a temporary board to run racing for the next three years. The move came 18 days after NYRA fired its top executive, Charles Hayward, and its chief counsel as the state investigates why $8.5 million in winnings wasn't paid to bettors.

A message left at Cuomo's office wasn't immediately returned.

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