The Jockeys' Guild has outlined a five-point plan for 2007 that primarily focuses on financial matters, but it also has made a strong call for solidarity among the membership and heightened political action in individual states and Washington, D.C.
Guild members met Dec. 4 in Las Vegas for their annual assembly, the first under the leadership of national manager Dwight Manley, who took over Aug. 1. The mood was considerably more upbeat than that of previous assemblies, and a stark contrast to the meeting of 2004, when all business was conducted behind closed doors under the order of former president Dr. Wayne Gertmenian.
Since the start of 2006, Guild membership has gone from 1,153 to 1,353. Bills are being paid every month or even every two weeks. And the board of directors is considering a new insurance plan management says is designed to be more inclusive yet within the organization's financial capabilities.
There remains, however, outstanding lawsuits, most of them tied to the former management regime; reluctance on the part of the industry to embrace the Guild in light of its recent past; and a need for revenue, some of which would come from new programs, and the rest from a reallocation of industry resources.
Manley called the progress "rather extraordinary compared with what was in place a year ago." And with the exception of some pointed questions from a few Guild members during the daylong meeting, there did appear to be unity among the 100 or so members in attendance.
"The next 12 months are going to dictate the future of the Guild," Manley said.
"It's what we can do for the Guild--remember that," Guild chairman John Velazquez said. "The jockeys are the Guild."
Manley outlined five issues for 2007: finding affordable health insurance for Guild members and their families; getting Thoroughbred Racing Associations-member racetracks to again pay a "media rights" fee that used to amount to $2.2 million a year; creating personal savings and pension plans for Guild members; hiking the minimum mount fee jockeys are paid to ride horses; and increasing to $2 million the maximum benefit for catastrophic on-track accident insurance.
According to Jeff Johnston, now Midwest regional manger for the Guild and the organization's former treasurer when he was a member of the board of directors, the Guild has about $3.5 million in total revenue based on dues, $4-per-mount fees, and the money from TRA tracks, though many of them pulled the funding two years ago.
Manley said new sports marketing-related projects that will benefit not only jockeys but other industry groups are in the works, though he said he wouldn't reveal details until a later date.
Manley and the board did field questions from a few riders still wondering how Gertmenian and his Matrix Capital Associates consulting firm were hired. Joey Castro asked how things are different now, while Paul Atkinson had questions about Manley's contract.
"The person who was in charge before fooled a university," Manley said in reference to Gertmenian's position at Pepperdine University in California. "It isn't fair to blame people for not seeing that. You're asking if I stole something from a place that doesn't have anything? I get paid no salary."
When asked why he took the job as national manager, Manley said: "Passion. I kind of got backed into this by a friend, and it became a personal issue. I don't like seeing people getting mistreated."
An animated Velazquez said: "Personally, I didn't want the job (as chairman). I want you to do it; I want somebody else to do it. Do you think Alex Solis has the time to sit here in front of you guys, taking all this criticism?"
Guild vice chairman G.R. Carter, who voted to hire Gertmenian said "everybody on the board felt like they owed to their fellow riders" to serve after Gertmenian was fired late last year. "In the history of the Guild, I can't believe there has been a board as active as this one."
The exchange didn't end on a bad note. In fact, Manley offered to visit Northern California, where Castro rides, to introduce himself to the local riding colony and discuss the Guild's plans. Velazquez acknowledged the questions from members were fair game and later in the meeting accepted the Guild chairmanship once again.
Guild attorney Tom Kennedy, in his legal update, touched on Manley's contract, which came about after about a month of negotiations. Manley gets no compensation until revenue is derived from new sources, and only after that revenue tops $8 million, he said. Manley loaned the Guild money interest-free for the first year, and at the prime rate thereafter.
Perhaps most importantly, the Guild appears to be making serious progress on the political front. Barry Broad, a Guild attorney and lobbyist, discussed a Nov. 30 meeting at which about 10 jockeys from Southern California met with legislators and labor representatives at a dinner hosted by the owner of Bay Meadows and Hollywood Park. Solis addressed attendees.
"A lot of legislators were affected by that," Broad said. "There are few perfect moments in the world--what Alex did was fabulous. What happened in California that night cemented us a full partner in the industry."
The Guild has had previous legislative success in California, but Broad said there are issues in Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania that need attention. He and Manley also noted that the shift in power in Congress to the Democrats could assist jockeys; U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan could take over from U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which held hearings into jockey health and insurance issues.
Guild officials also said they plan to push Whitfield's proposal that the Interstate Horseracing Act be amended to provide dedicated revenue for insurance for jockeys and backstretch workers. The IHA governs interstate simulcasts and account wagering, and also lists the parties that must sign off on simulcast contracts. Jockeys aren't among them.
"I think we live and die by what state legislatures and the federal government do," Broad said after Guild business was wrapped up Dec. 4. "Horse racing is so heavily regulated. It's critical for the Jockeys' Guild to have a presence in every major racing state and at the federal level."
Though the Guild doesn't have a political action committee, members are encouraged to contribute to various candidates.
"That kind of participation by jockeys is in its infancy," Broad said of PAC activity. "Actually, we've been pretty successful by just telling our story. It's the people that don't have a good story to tell that have to pay a whole lot of money."
In other Guild business, Glen Murphy was elected to fill the board seat vacated by Johnston, and Jerry LaSala was elected treasurer. Velazquez remains chairman, Carter vice chairman, and Jon Court secretary. Other members of the nine-member board are Perry Compton, Mark Guidry, Edgar Prado, and Solis.