Benjamin Hannan didn't think they were actually going to do it. In the three months he'd worked on the gate crew at Portland Meadows racetrack, he had heard people joking about "painting"--a bizarre hazing ritual for employees who lead their first winning horse to the starting chutes--but he thought they were probably teasing. Then again, none of his horses had ever won.
That changed on a rainy January day, when Hannan, 20, watched the mare he'd been tending pull ahead to victory. After the race his co-workers didn't do anything different. The next day, nothing unusual happened. He came to work the following day thinking the "painting" was a hoax.
According to Hannan, three track employees rushed him in an open field that afternoon and pinned him in the mud. As he struggled, several other employees yanked his pants down and poured a heated mixture of shoe polish (on hand for shining jockeys' boots) and rubbing alcohol over his naked buttocks and genitalia.
"Imagine mixing together the hottest Ben-Gay, Gold Bond powder and red-hot peppers, then putting that on your skin," Hannan says. "It's like pouring toxins on your nuts, it hurts so bad."
While his fellow crew members continued coating him with the mixture, he says, other track employees strolled by. Hannan says he ended up in the hospital that evening with burns from his stomach to his knees and a hand seriously injured in the scuffle.
Rattled by the experience, Hannan says he quit his job soon after. Earlier this month, he filed a civil suit in federal court against MEC Oregon Racing, the corporation that runs Portland Meadows, seeking at least $225,000 in damages related to the initiation ritual.
"We have no doubt that the employer was aware that this conduct occurred," says Hannan's attorney, Patty Rissberger. "It's unfortunate when hazing makes its way into the workplace, particularly when the employer condones it."
In the suit, Hannan claims he approached a supervisor with concerns about the hazing practice before he had suffered its indignities, but was told there was nothing the supervisor could do to stop it.
In addition to the hazing, Hannan says he was subjected to other physical abuse by one of his supervisors, known as Gloyd, who regularly whipped him with a leather strap. Other common "pranks" at Portland Meadows included tripping employees and trying to set them on fire, according to Hannan.
"Portland Meadows is the most twisted place I've ever worked," Hannan says. "You just don't do that to people."
MEC Oregon Racing has not officially responded to the allegations and did not reply to WW's request for a comment. Rissberger says it's her understanding the company is conducting an internal investigation of the episode.