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Jockeys can benefit if they get their house in order

Nov 23, 2004 3:27 AM

Ron Ellis expresses the view of most Southern California trainers when he says jockeys are going to have to pay the freight on their insurance in the latest brouhaha that has created deep and diverse fissures within the racing community.

"The only way jockeys can get help is if the Jockeys Guild gets some sort of program for riders nationwide," Ellis said. "Trainers are going to do everything they can to get them off their workmens’ comp (premiums) in California. Eventually it’s going to come down to a big fight so I think they’re better off figuring out a way to pay these premiums and finding out how much it will cost."

Presently, only five states cover riders through workers’ comp - California, Idaho, Maryland, New Jersey and New York. In other racing states, tracks provide up to $100,000 in insurance coverage for every rider, not nearly enough to cover injuries in most cases, specifically Gary Birzer, an uninsured jockey who was paralyzed from the waist down in a spill at Mountaineer Park in July. His medical bills reportedly have exceeded $500,000.

A story by Marcus Green in Louisville’s Courier-Journal stated that "more than 90 percent of the estimated 1,300 full-time riders in the United States earn less than $30,000 a year before paying taxes, agent fees and costs for boots, whips and other equipment, according to the Jockeys’ Guild ... The Guild used to provide additional insurance to cover medical bills that exceed $100,000. But the Guild, a trade group based in Monrovia, California, allowed that coverage to lapse when premiums rose after expenses were paid for a hurt rider in a 2000 Arizona race."

The insurance issue was brought to a head when Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens opted not to ride in Texas on Breeders’ Cup day, citing lack of adequate insurance coverage in the Lone Star State the majority of the year. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Lone Star Park, site of the Breeders’ Cup on Oct. 30, upped the ante to $500,000 for the Breeders’ Cup. The controversy effects every rider to some degree, even those far less prominent than Stevens and Shane Sellers, a leading catalyst in an attempt to bring better coverage.

"In the early to mid 1990s when I was questioning whether to remain in the Guild or not, one thing I always thought was worth the price of admission was the insurance policy, the additional $1 million," says David Nuesch, a 35-year-old native of Free Union, Virginia, who is scraping to make ends meet on the competitive Southern California circuit.

"At the time it was costing us about $4.50 or $5 a mount to be a member. That was well worth it to me. It was disheartening when I heard the policy was going to drop. Whether it lapsed or not is kind of a non-issue. They way I understood it, it was absolutely a money issue. Premiums went up 30 or 40 percent, something like that."

A Nov. 7 boycott at Churchill Downs by some jockeys, the most noteworthy of whom were Sellers, Robby Albarado and national wins leader Rafael Bejarano, was not the best course of action on behalf of their cause, according to some jockeys, Nuesch among them.

"This is an issue that had to be addressed," he admitted, "but it’s kind of a shame that it happened like it did in Kentucky because that gets everybody riled up instead of staying rational. All of a sudden it turns into a big battle. I’ve always advocated not jumping into a fight unless you know all the angles. Otherwise, there’s usually something that surprises you. You have to do your homework and your research and figure out a good game plan. The riders’ issue can be settled. This sport generates a lot of money so there’s got to be an answer."

Fernando Valenzuela suffered through major injuries a few years ago. The 35-year-old cousin of Patrick Valenzuela was sidelined more than a year and a half.

"If I hadn’t been covered by workers’ comp, I would have had to pay for my medical bills of more than $100,000 and I probably would still be paying," he said. "Workers’ comp covered everything. I’d hate to see what happened to me occur in a state without it and have the bills paid out of a rider’s own pocket. The benefits have to be raised more than they are now but I don’t know what it’s going to take and how long. I just hope they resolve it."

The consensus among trainers is that the Guild should get its house in order and not depend on other sources to pay its insurance premiums.

"I can’t find anybody who could argue at this point why a jockey is not (considered) an independent contractor," Ellis said.

The homestretch

Declan’s Moon couldn’t have been more impressive in winning Saturday’s Hollywood Prevue Stakes geared down by two lengths. He’s a lock to win the Eclipse Award as top 2-year-old male if he defeats Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Wilko in the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 18.

”¡ Patrick Valenzuela should know by Dec. 12 whether an administrative law judge will rule that he can resume riding, according to his agent, former jockey Corey Black. The 42-year-old Valenzuela currently is serving the latest in a series of suspensions that has plagued his turbulent riding career. "It probably will be all or nothing," Black said, "but Patrick felt the session went well."

”¡ Wesley Ward took the blame for Slide Home’s dismal performance in his second start after the California-bred gelding had breezed to a smashing four-length win in his maiden race. "I ran him back in 17 days," the trainer said. "It was too quick."

”¡ The ugly brawls at the Pistons-Pacers NBA game and the Clemson-South Carolina football game last weekend can’t be blamed on inadequate security. The only way to stop that kind of mayhem is to have a security guard for each fan, which is unreasonable and unrealistic in a free society.

”¡ It was a case of good news, bad news: The bad news: the near-riots were spawned by contemporary cockeyed social values, in which gang culture has permeated the mainstream to the point that it’s on family-hour TV and in commercials approved by All-American sponsors like J.C. Penney and McDonald’s. The good news: Reality TV has never been better.