Several horse industry groups took a strong stand against legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives Thursday that would divert revenue from simulcasting to state racing commissions to fund accident insurance for jockeys, exercise riders, and other racetrack workers.
The legislation, entitled the Jockeys' Insurance Fairness Act, was written as an amendment to the Interstate Horseracing Act that regulates interstate simulcasting. It was co-sponsored by Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield and Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak, the ranking members of a House subcommittee that examined jockeys insurance and the activities of the management and board of directors of the Jockeys' Guild during congressional hearings held in 2005 and earlier this year.
In addition to redirecting at least 50% funds from horsemen's organizations to state racing commissions for the purpose of buying insurance, the proposed legislation prohibits any horse from being entered in a race if it has ever been treated with anabolic steroids.
The legislation has the support of the Jockeys' Guild, which recently hired former sports agent Dwight Manley as its national manager.
"It's absolutely absurd," said Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. Foreman pointed out that the funding that currently goes to horsemen's organizations such as the one he represents or the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association already is being used for health and welfare programs for backstretch workers, including jockeys.
"What has a number of us frosted with the jockeys is that, in 2005, $86 million was paid to jockeys in mount fees for roughly 900 riders," Foreman said. "To say that $86 million isn't enough to fund a health and welfare fund for 900 riders defies logic."
Greg Avioli, CEO of the Breeders' Cup and National Thoroughbred Racing Association, issued a statement saying: "The NTRA strongly opposes this effort to amend the Interstate Horseracing Act. There are more productive and effective ways to address issues of rider welfare and safety issues, and we will continue to work with the industry to address those."
Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, which lobbies on behalf of the horse industry in Washington, D.C., said "the industry is not awash in money pursuant to the Interstate Horseracing Act, and redistributing any of it will have a serious affect on another part of the industry. That's got to be explained and understood before any action is taken."
Whitfield, however, whose wife Connie is a member of the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, hasn't returned phone calls from lobbyists or representatives from several industry organizations hoping to dissuade him from filing the bill.
Earlier this year, after Whitfield spoke about reopening the Interstate Horseracing Act to fund insurance for jockeys, Avioli and then-NTRA commissioner D.G. Van Clief Jr. sent a letter to Whitfield stating their opposition to the proposed legislation. The letter detailed industry progress toward higher accident insurance in the wake of the Congressional hearings, outlined the various benevolent programs in place around the country, pointed out the long-established role of states as the key regulators for racing, and suggested the legislation could set a precedent for all businesses to pay health insurance for independent contractors they hire (the National Labor Relations Board categorized jockeys as independent contractors).
"To open the IHA for amendment," the letter stated, "is fraught with peril as opponents of gaming and horseracing in general will use that opportunity to offer amendments which could literally decimate the largest agri-business in your home state. More specifically, mandating health insurance by hijacking revenue from carefully constructed simulcast agreements would upset numerous economic balances in our industry when other solutions (like a reconstituted and strong Jockeys' Guild) are more readily available...we remain committed to working with you and your staff to further discuss these important issues."
There were no further discussions with the NTRA, despite efforts to meet with the Congressman or members of his staff.
Chris Scherf, executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America, also said he left messages hoping to speak with Whitfield or a staff member but "never got a return call."
Scherf said he had not seen the bill's language and said it isn't clear whether the legislation intends to redirect 50% of horsemen's purse revenue from simulcasting to insurance or 50% of what goes to horsemen's organizations -- which is usually between 1-2% of purses. "If it's purse money," Scherf said, "the first people who are going to raise holy hell will be the jockeys, because they will be getting a massive pay cut. Purses will decline dramatically. If they are talking about the minuscule percentage that goes to fund horsemen's groups, that's not going to fund much of an insurance program. The bill is either destructive or inadequate."
Scherf said he thinks the legislation stems from a "misunderstanding" by some Congressmen during the hearings. "They seemed to be under the impression (because of statements made by the former Jockeys' Guild CEO Wayne Gertmenian) that half the money that went to the horsemen went to fund the HBPA and other horsemen's groups."
Brent Dolen, a member of Whitfield's staff, said the intent of the bill is not to take money away from purses but to redirect half the money currently going to the horsemen's organizations for their operations.
The bill's language, according to Dolen, reads in part: "that as a condition precedent to such consent (for off-track wagering) (except in a state where jockeys, exercise riders, or backside personnel and trainers are included in a state worker's compensation program under the laws or regulations of such state effective on June 30, 2006) the terms and conditions of the agreement described in subparagraph (A) provide that not less than 50% of any amount received by the horsemen's group under such agreement be paid by the horsemen's group to the host racing commission for the purpose of the host racing commission offering insurance coverage for professional jockeys, exercise riders, and backside personnel and trainers..."
The language for "prohibition of steroids" reads: "No person may enter a horse in any horse race that is the subject of an interstate off-track wager if such horse has been given anabolic steroids of any kind. The appropriate host racing commission shall develop procedures for and administer appropriate testing for the presence of anabolic steroids."