Members of the U.S. House of Representatives are calling on the National Labor Relations Board and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to take action to protect jockeys, exercise riders, and others who work with racehorses.
Six members of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which on Oct. 18 held a hearing into jockey health and welfare issues and the Jockeys' Guild, sent a letter Nov. 2 to NLRB chairman Robert Battista. It calls on the NLRB to "correct a grave injustice" that began more than 30 years ago when jockeys and others were excluded from the 1973 National Labor Relations Act.
"During our investigation, we discovered that the NLRB has abrogated its responsibility to protect the rights of jockeys, exercise riders, or any employees of the horse or dog racing industries to petition for protection under the National Labor Relations Act," the letter says. "The old argument that jockeys and freelance exercise riders are independent contractors should be laid to rest.
"Certainly, jockeys agree to ride specific horses for specific trainers on any given card or at any given meet. It is neither, however, the owners of the racehorses nor the trainers that set the conditions of employment. The workplace is provided and the work rules are established by the racetracks."
The letter says jockeys and exercise riders aren't free to negotiate compensation or work conditions, which are "at the discretion of the de facto employer, the racetracks."
"It's something the jockeys have worked toward for a long time," said jockey Jeff Johnston, a Kentucky-based rider who serves as treasurer of the Jockeys' Guild. "We're very happy to see Congress taking an interest in this."
In a release, Rep. Bart Stupak, the Michigan lawmaker who serves as ranking member of the subcommittee, claimed that "with a number of racetracks consolidating and reserving the rights to determine which riders compete in which races, larger conglomerates are using antitrust laws to protect themselves from collective action on behalf of the jockeys to improve conditions."
The letter to Battista mentions Churchill Downs Inc. and Magna Entertainment Corp. "Despite its own conglomerate status, (CDI) in particular has turned to the antitrust statutes to prevent its 'independent contractors' from taking collective action to improve their working conditions. This is precisely the type of legal intimidation that the (National Labor Relations Act) intended to preclude from workplace disputes."
Racetrack officials have long contended jockeys are independent contractors. They stood by that position last year when riders boycotted a few tracks over what they called inadequate on-track medical insurance.
"The National Labor Relations Board has maintained, and we agree, that jockeys are self-employed," CDI director of communications Julie Koenig Loignon said in a Nov. 4 statement. "Racetracks do not employ jockeys or negotiate their fees for performing services for horse owners and trainers. State regulators determine the rules of racing that jockeys are required to follow.
"The on-track safety of jockeys, exercise riders, and racehorses is a top priority for racetracks owned and operated by Churchill Downs Inc. Our company has worked proactively with jockeys and their representatives whenever issues arise, and will continue to do so in the future."
A statement or comment from MEC couldn't be immediately obtained.
The Thoroughbred Racing Associations and its 43 member racing associations said they are "disappointed by the apparent rush to judgment by certain members of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations without first having a hearing with representatives of the racetracks and horsemen on the issues of jockeys' accident insurance and prevention." The TRA in a Nov. 4 statement said the letters sent to the agencies "do not accurately represent the workings of the horse racing industry or, at least, not as well as they might have done by questioning industry representatives first."
The TRA said it supports the primary concerns of the subcommittee, but "unequivocally disputes" certain assertions made in the letter to the NLRB. The TRA said it's clear jockeys and freelance exercise riders aren't independent contractors, and the contention that racetracks are employers of jockeys is incorrect.
The TRA also said it believes "current state regulation of the racing industry is effective and does not warrant extraordinary action by federal regulatory agencies."
In a Nov. 3 letter to Michael Leavitt, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, lawmakers suggest a "comprehensive inventory of safety hazards in the industry is needed." It calls for NIOSH to provide recommended standards for racetracks, and said the House Committee on Energy and Commerce needs a "comprehensive evaluation of safety concerns faced by the (racing) industry."
Safety concerns raised during the Congressional inquiry include weights and body fat, track conditions, safety equipment, the condition of racehorses, and work rules at various tracks.
Though the subcommittee, which scheduled a second hearing for Nov. 17, focused on the embattled Guild and its management during the first hearing, Johnston said when he was initially contacted, he was under the impression health and welfare issues for jockeys and exercise riders would be on the table. He said Nov. 4 it now appears those issues have moved to the forefront.
"This is for the betterment of racing and all the people who participate in it," he said.
Eleven members of the Guild Senate have called a special meeting for Nov. 15 to discuss possible removal of the organization's management team, headed by Dr. Wayne Gertmenian and his company, Matrix Capital Associates.