Better late than never,
Jackson has guild’s ear

Jul 11, 2006 12:46 AM

Jimmy Wakefield would have had a better life better if the Rev. Jesse Jackson had been around 100 years ago.

Wakefield, who won the Kentucky Derby twice, on His Eminence in 1901 and Alan-A-Dale in 1902, is considered one of the greatest jockeys of all time. But because he was African-American and barraged with the racial prejudices of his era, at 22, he left America for Russia in 1903 where he rode for the Czar. He rode in Europe until his retirement at 48, but chose never to live again in the United States. He died at his home in France at the age of 92 on March 23, 1974.

If there had been a Jockeys’ Guild with Jackson as first mate when Wakefield was in his prime, he likely would have been spared ignorant invectives, and ultimately could have retired with peace of mind in his native Kentucky

As it is, 104 years later, there is a Jockeys’ Guild, albeit it in a state of disarray, with Jackson, a rookie co-administrator, in tow.

More than a century since Wakefield was moved to self-exile, progress has been laborious for jockeys of all persuasions. Except for luminaries like Shoemaker, Pincay, McCarron, Bailey and their ilk, most riders barely keep the wolf away from the door. Jockeys put their lives on the line each time they ride, but their remuneration isn’t near what it should be. Their earnings are a pittance compared to professional athletes in other sports.

Jerry Bailey retired with career purse earnings of nearly $296 million after 31 years in the saddle. At the standard stipend of 10 percent of the winning purse, he would have gleaned nearly $30 million. From that, he paid valet expenses and an agent’s fee, usually 25 percent, leaving him just over $22 million.

By comparison, NBA rebounding and defensive specialist Ben Wallace recently signed a $60 million contract for four years with the Chicago Bulls. At $15 million a year, that would come to $465 million over 31 years. And Bailey is a better free throw shooter!

"We are compensated through purse earnings, but only a percentage of jockeys win those purses," said veteran rider Jon Court, who recently was elected Guild secretary and is one of nine members on its Board of Directors.

"A lot of jockeys struggle and have no future when it comes to pensions," said Court, who has been riding in Southern California since March 2004. "Many older riders have only minuscule earnings. At 45, I’m an older rider, too, but I’ve got a good career — better than some, not as good as others. Most riders toil day in and day out just to pursue their dream."

That’s a major reason the embroiled Jockeys’ Guild named Dwight Manley their national manager June 26. As if that weren’t controversial enough — Manley has limited racing industry experience — the Guild’s Board of Directors also brought on board the oft-times saber rattling Jackson as co-manager in an advisory capacity.

The 40-year-old Manley, who became a self-made millionaire dealing in rare coins, had formerly represented NBA stars Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman. Jackson, 64, a Civil Rights leader who marched with the late Martin Luther King Jr., is an international presence who rarely fails to champion a cause that doesn’t gain headlines. His alignment with Manley raised fretful furrows on the brows of some racing hardliners.

With Manley and Jackson at the helm, the Guild hopes to resolve a plethora of issues that have flared since 2001, when its top gun, former jockey John Giovanni, was ousted and replaced by controversial L. Wayne Gertmenian, a professor of economics at Pepperdine University, whose campus rests on lush billion dollar real estate overlooking the Pacific in Malibu.

Gertmenian was given his pink slip last November in the wake of alleged financial mismanagement and a resume laced with little white lies. His greatest gaffe was failure to renew a Guild medical insurance policy covering members for up to $1 million. It came to a head after jockey Gary Birzer was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2004 accident at Mountaineer Park.

"Manley applied for the job of national manager when we ran an ad through race track publications and others," explained Court, a serious-minded native of Gainesville, Fla. "Our committee screened and interviewed applicants and narrowed them down to a few finalists. Manley was voted in unanimously by our Board of Directors.

"Jackson happened to be in Louisville protesting the Volunteer Segregation issue at the time of our screenings," Court continued. "Manley has connections with political figures and asked Jesse to speak to our group. The media ran with his opinions. Whether some favor or oppose Jackson is up to the individual. Jackson, of course, is a very highly recognized public figure, but he’s not under contract (to the Guild) and he’s not hired (by the Guild). He’s just one of many influential resources Manley has and would use again as an unpaid advisor.

"I don’t like to live in the past, but we were under the microscope before the John Giovanni era, way back when Nick Jemas was our president," he added. "Giovanni got slammed, but he had a contract and kind of kept everything in check. After that we went through the Gertmanian ordeal. He really wasn’t the right guy to manage us. He gave some convincing speeches, but didn’t pan out and we ran into trouble.

"We have to be optimistic about the future," Court said. "The ship has been righted. If you read between the lines, there are many positive signs. We’re not only trying to work with our members, but the entire industry. The feedback so far has been mixed, but that’s par for any organization. Some are elated, others aren’t so confident. Manley is a good administrator and that’s what we’re looking for. We’ll see if he can handle the quest that is before him."

Jackson’s inclusion already has given the Guild unprecedented exposure.

"I expected that," Court said. "Now I’m hoping riders can do their part by becoming as well-recognized as other athletes, including equine athletes. It would help identify the game. I anticipate better things in the next two years."

The homestretch

”¡ Horse to watch at Del Mar: Lazio, a Brazilian-bred colt that closed with interest to finish fourth at 16-1 in his U.S. debut at Hollywood for Paulo Lobo.

”¡ Stick a fork in Eric Gagne. The super stopper’s career is done.

”¡ I heard a radio announcement trumpeting a "previously unreleased classic." How could it be a classic if it hasn’t been released yet?

”¡ And what purpose does graffiti serve? The only ones who understand it are the vandals who write it.