Ousted Guild manager writes checks behind locked doors

Nov 22, 2005 2:19 AM

It was clear that dark doings in the mess involving leadership of the Jockeys’ Guild, which represents many if not most U.S. riders, would turn into a circus, but no one could have predicted that it would make Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey’s Big Top look like a Sunday school social. The three-ring show turned into chaos last week.

Four years ago Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron talked the jocks into hiring an economics professor from Pepperdine College named L. Wayne Gertmenian to run their Guild, after kicking out the decent and intelligent John Giovanni.

Gertmenian was a question mark from the very start. He claimed he was chief détente negotiator in Moscow for the chairman of the National Security Council, and an emissary to Teheran for the Secretary of Commerce during the Nixon and Ford administrations, and a special assistant to the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, but no one in Washington could remember him in those jobs and the House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations could not verify them. It would seem easy, a simple matter of asking those key officials, but apparently the subcommittee staff ran aground trying.

During Gertmenian’s regime the Guild dropped catastrophic insurance coverage on the jocks, and when one of them, Wayne Birzer, got smashed up beyond repair, he was told to keep things quiet while Gertmenian put pressure on the tracks to get them to pay for the jocks’ coverage.

The tracks and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and the California Horse Racing Commission began questioning where all the money being paid to the Guild was going. There were no answers, and the jocks began wondering themselves.

Ed Whitfield, the Kentucky congressman who chairs the subcommittee on oversight, became interested in the jocks’ insurance matter, and opened a hearing into it.

Along the way it became known that Gertmenian was being paid $165,000 a year, with another $335,000 going to something called Matrix Capital Associates. That turned out to be Gertmenian, sole owner and operator.

McCarron, testifying before Whitfield’s subcommittee, said he had been conned by Gertmenian, and he called his role in getting Gertmenian the Guild job "the worst mistake of my life."

Soon after that the pot came to a boil, and the Guild’s lawyer, Barry Broad, quit in disgust. Eleven members of jockeys’ senate asked him to hang around and advise them how to get rid of Gertmenian. He told them the senate could meet, and a majority could change the Guild’s bylaws, then depose the present board of directors and appoint a new one, which could fire Gertmenian.

A week ago they did just that, but while they were doing it Gertmenian was busy on the opposite coast, in the Guild office in Monrovia, California, writing $217,000 in checks to himself and his COO, Albert Fiss.

A platoon of jocks, led by Gertmenian’s successor Darrell Haire and including Laffit Pincay Jr., Kent Desormeaux, and Alex Solis, went to the Guild office and found that Gertmenian had changed the locks. They called a locksmith, identified themselves, and gained admission.

While they were there, Gertmenian and Fiss showed up, and a brawl ensued, with Gertmenian shoving Haire to the floor. The cops were called, and a phone call to attorney Broad resolved the matter. Briefly.

Broad says the jockeys had recently passed a resolution that no expenditure over $200 could be made without the approval of the Guild treasurer, and that they considered the $217,000 in checks stolen money and were taking steps to have Gertmenian charged.

Back in Washington, Ed Whitfield said he might call for federal legislation if the jocks and track management could not get together. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who during the hearings called Gertmenian’s regime "a disgrace," said he would prefer a voluntary solution.

All that in one week, and the book not yet closed.

This isn’t Seabiscuit, and the only happy ending in sight is that L. Wayne Gertmenian is gone, headed back to Pepperdine or Teheran or wherever, but not to the jockeys’ executive’s chair in Monrovia.