Jockeys’ guild hopes for better ’06

Dec 27, 2005 3:01 AM

Paul Atkinson seldom gets the cheese, but he says he knows a rat when he sees one.

The 36-year-old jockey has fewer than 800 wins in an intermittent career spanning 20 years, an average of about 40 a year, not the most prudent way to earn a bountiful income. Obviously, he watches his pennies, especially since he provides for a wife and twin daughters.

That diligence served him in good stead in helping to bring Wayne Gertmenian and his band of ne’erdowells to accountability after their Boss Tweed-like handling of the Jockeys’ Guild. Dr. G, as he is known, apparently manipulated the Guild’s funds and insurance premiums with sleight of hand that David Copperfield would envy.

Atkinson, a lad from Idaho who began riding in Utah at bush tracks called American Fork, South Jordan and Beaver, was one of a handful of suspicious and curious riders who caught Gertmenian with his hands in the Guild’s insufficient cookie car. With Gertmenian ousted as the group’s president on Nov. 16 and a lengthy legal battle forthcoming in an effort to resolve disputes, Atkinson is riding shotgun to right the Guild’s sordid ship, even though he holds no official status other than being one of its 1,200 members.

Atkinson was one of several riders who scuffled with Gertmenian and his associate at the Guild’s Monrovia office when the jocks attempted to gain access on Nov. 16.

Gertmenian was axed by the Guild’s newly elected board of directors after 4 ½ years at the helm, during which he permitted the Guild’s insurance coverage to lapse. Gertmenian’s annual salary was $165,000 and his consulting firm, Matrix Capital Associates, the Guild’s only client, was paid another $335,000 annually.

"We got rid of Gertmenian but there are still many things that need to be taken care of," Atkinson said. "The guy caused a lot of problems. It’s unfortunate that a lot of riders believed what Gertmenian told them was the truth. They weren’t listening to anyone else and finally they saw the light and recognized that he was really screwing things up."

The light revealed that Gertmenian allowed the Guild’s on-track insurance policy to lapse several months before jockey Gary Birzer was paralyzed from the waist down in a spill at Mountaineer Park last year. He has filed a $10 million lawsuit against Gertmenian and the Guild. Gertmenian, who moved the Guild’s base of operations from Kentucky to Monrovia, near Santa Anita, also is accused of illicitly lining his pockets with the Guild’s money.

In addition, the Guild has been served by a subpoena by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which is probing the jockeys’ problems.

"Gertmenian left all of us in a very vulnerable position," Atkinson said. "An investigation (by the Monrovia Police Department and the FBI) is ongoing and hopefully the Guild can recoup some of the money back from the guy. The FBI is slow, so this is going to take some time. Hopefully, it won’t go so long that it will hurt the Guild anymore than it’s been hurt already."

Meanwhile, Atkinson is spearheading the inquisition on behalf of the jockeys.

"I just cause s””," he said, smiling. "Seriously, I read information about what’s going on and follow up on it. I didn’t believe anything Gertmenian ever said so I would always double-check on it, and I caught him in lies too many times. Once I do that, they’re done. I never trust them again. I felt a lot of guys on the (Guild’s) senate didn’t do the job they volunteered to do in reading the information. Had they read it we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in right now."

Atkinson has had little contact with Chris McCarron, the retired Hall of Fame jockey who portrayed the Pied Piper in leading the Guild’s members to give a pink slip its popular and longtime president John Giovanni in favor of Gertmenian. McCarron later was quoted as saying, "Bringing Dr. Gertmenian into the mix was the worst mistake I ever made."

"I haven’t spoken with Chris recently but I know he feels bad about what’s happened," Atkinson said. "He felt bad here a few years ago right after he finished the movie (Seabiscuit) and first started speaking with Gertmenian. I talked with Chris then in the parking lot and told him I felt like he owned me an explanation, he owed everybody an explanation. I can understand that he feels pretty bad and I know he’s taken a lot of heat in the press for not apologizing to Giovanni. Chris did apologize for the way Gertmenian and his associates treated Giovanni and his people and I think that was heartfelt, but I’ve read articles where Chris was hammered for not apologizing to John himself. That probably goes back from years ago when Chris and John had conflicts, so maybe McCarron isn’t sorry for John being ousted, he’s just sorry for the way it happened and who he helped put in charge. I’m not really sure on that, but that’s my take on it.

"We still have a lot of work ahead. I read an article where the Guild was considering a lawsuit against Gertmenian and as far as I’m concerned, that should be a must. We should go after this guy and hit him with everything. My God, he’s very bad."

The homestretch

Apparently Hollywood Park can’t close soon enough for Bobby Frankel, despite the fact that the Hall of Fame trainer has made it his California headquarters for years. "The main track is a horror show," Frankel told me. Asked why he doesn’t train full time at Santa Anita, the 64-year-old Brooklyn native said, "What can I tell you? Can I get 60 stalls at Santa Anita?" On the subject of Polytrack, Frankel said, "I trained on it at Keeneland. I only galloped on it and breezed a few on it. I had no trouble on it."

”¡ Veteran newsman Grahame Jones, whose specialty for the Los Angeles Times is soccer, will replace Bill Christine on the racing beat.

”¡ Here’s why I disregard Beyer figures: Young Luck, beaten 26 ½ lengths while finishing last in his only start in a $28,000 maiden race at Hollywood Park on Nov. 16, ran for $32,000 on closing day and won by daylight returning $20.60. His Beyer going into the race: zero.

”¡ Good news, bad news: Good: There are so many graphics on screen when Dick Vitale spews his confection-coated comments they nearly hide his face. Bad: You can still hear him.