Hard to comp-rehend: Dispute could drastically alter Cal racing

Mar 5, 2002 8:59 AM

Increased costs for bettors, smaller fields.

Just what California racing needs.

But those alarming possibilities exist unless there’s an 11th-hour resolution that provides horsemen with an alternative to skyrocketing workmen’s compensation insurance premiums they must pay for their employees and the jockeys who ride their horses.

Increases went into effect on March 1, and reaction from trainers, knee-jerk though it may be, ranged from outrage to resignation. There is serious talk of small outfits going out of business and some moving to other racing states. To keep the status quo, cost increases to trainers could be passed on to their owners and ultimately to the bettors, those unrepresented folks who are the backbone of the game.

Presently, there is only one workmen’s comp provider for California horsemen””State Fund, which has more than doubled its premiums in some instances. Since the California Horse Racing Board says California trainers must have workmen’s comp in order to race their horses, their backs are against the wall.

“For every $100 on a trainer’s payroll, he has to pay a percentage of that $100 towards workmen’s comp,” one trainer explained. “It has been as low as 12 or 14 percent, but now it’s gone up to as high as 40-some dollars, so now it takes $300 to $400 a month extra per horse, just to cover the cost of workers’ comp. And that does not include jockeys’ insurance, which has gone up in some instances to $90 a mount, where it used to be $20.”

Gary Lewis is one of those faceless trainers who has struggled to survive for more than two decades in an industry he loves, but he could be out of business if there is no quick solution.

“It’s a killer. I’ll be 61 next month and I’ve been training steady for 23 years, since 1979,” said Lewis, who saddled Jumron to a fourth-place finish in the 1995 Kentucky Derby. “I’ve only got five horses. I do most of the work myself, but it’s a bad situation, there’s no doubt about it. I heard a lot of trainers, like Rick Mettee, have gone out of business already, and some are talking about leaving the state.”

Mettee, indeed, is calling it a career as a head trainer. “I’ll look for a job as an assistant,” said Mettee, 43. “Things have been pretty slow the last few years anyway. This was just the icing on the cake.”

Continued Lewis: “My coverage expires in October, but they’ve raised the jock’s fee to $65, which is only a few dollars more than they’ve charged me in the past, and I’ve been with State Fund for 15-16 years. It’s the only one (provider) in existence. The others are brokers, and State Fund is the only one handling workers’ comp. There were two others, but they went out of business.”

Eric Kruljac, a successful trainer with operations in Arizona and California, says he is considering leaving California altogether.

“This situation was created by State Fund running out the only other competition, by dropping their rates,” Kruljac said. “What kind of service is that? Everybody’s kind of scrambling for position right now, trying to figure out what works for them. I’m kind of in between. I have a functioning barn in Arizona and I have the ability to go back to the Midwest, and I might do that.

“The state is making it so tough, the way it’s set up. We should not be paying for the jockeys’ insurance, there’s no way in the world. They’re independent contractors, they have agents who run their business. The jockeys should be paying for their own insurance or the tracks should pay for it.

“That’s probably the greatest accelerator of all the problems regarding workmen’s comp. You’ll see a lot of people move out of the state, so there’ll be shorter fields. Trainers are considering increasing their day rates, the fees they charge owners per day per horse. The going rate presently is about $80, but I’m ready to raise mine by 10 percent.”

Other racing states are not faced with the rigid stance taken by State Fund.

“Half the trainers in Arizona don’t have insurance and they should have it,” Kruljac said. “It is a state law in Arizona, but a lot of the trainers have gotten away with not having coverage for a long time. The officials say they’re going to clamp down on it, but they never do, and the insurance has never been that expensive anyway. But it’s horrible in California, and now that State Fund has a monopoly, rates are going to go through the ceiling, especially if anybody has any kind of claim.”

Added another trainer: “The trainers are not truly the employers in this situation. The owners are the employers. The horse is the business. The man who owns the horse is actually the one who’s in the business. The TOC (Thoroughbred Owners of California) has called us on more than one occasion, ”˜Just hired help.’ They see trainers as no more or less skilled than exercise boys or hot walkers. So technically, in my opinion, we should do like they do in other states, where the owner has to buy the workmen’s comp policy, covering his horse.”

THE HOMESTRETCH: David Hofmans has lost two of his leading 3-year-olds to injuries, $600,000 Deputy Minister colt Definite Edge, and promising Cal-bred Joey Franco. That leaves him with “only” Siphonic, who in the March 17 San Felipe Stakes takes his last prep for the April 6 Santa Anita Derby. Definite Edge “broke down,” according to Hofmans, “and I’ll have to stop on him.” He’ll be out indefinitely. Joey Franco suffered a fractured right elbow in his last race and will be sidelined for three months. Meanwhile, another top soph, California Champion Stakes winner Earl of Danby, had his first breeze since recovering from bouts of fever, going three furlongs for Paco Gonzalez in :37.20. “He’s looking good,” said co-owner John Toffan, “but I have no idea where he’ll run next. We’ll see how it goes.” . . . Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, who won the Kentucky Derby with Alysheba in 1987, will have his license suspended on March 12 by Santa Anita stewards for not meeting his financial obligations. The 65-year-old Van Berg, a winner of more than 6,300 races, reportedly owes a veterinarian an amount of money that runs into five figures.