Calling them the "worst deadbeats," the Jockeys' Guild has put out a list of 10 track operators it says are most insensitive to jockey health and safety issues but a representative of the first track on the list disputes the characterization.
The Guild's volley, the latest move in a long debate on how medical benefits should be funded, follows discussion of the issue at its annual assembly completed Jan. 29. The Guild put the list out Jan. 31 and called on track owners to support rider health benefits.
"Since 1968, the majority of track operators have contributed to the Guild to help pay for needed member benefits," said Jockeys' Guild national manager Terry Meyocks. "However, none of these 'deadbeats' currently contributes to the Guild for members' temporary disability benefits, life insurance, AD&D insurance, and health care subsidies for qualifying active riders, as well as supplemental assistance for the Guild's permanently disabled riders.
"And while these are not the only tracks not contributing to help our jockeys, we are listing those operators whose inaction is, in our opinion, most egregious. Legislators, regulators, and the public all need to know that these tracks are shirking their responsibilities."
Topping the list was Penn National Gaming, but Penn National vice president of racing Chris McErlean disputed the Guild's characterization. He noted the track owner annually pays a $1.2 million premium to guarantee $1 million in catastrophic injury coverage for each rider and has contributed $30,000 a year for five straight years to the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund.
"Obviously we're disappointed about the tone of the press release and their accusations not only against Penn Gaming but the other tracks on the list," said McErlean, who also is president of Thoroughbred Racing Associations. "We make a very substantial investment in the riders and the disabled riders."
McErlean said Penn National does not view jockeys as eligible for such health benefits.
"The riders are independent contractors. They're not our employees," McErlean said. "At Penn Gaming, if a person isn't full-time or doesn't work a certain amount of hours, they might not be eligible for health insurance either. So for them to call us out, we think is disingenuous. To the contrary, I think we've made a substantial amount of investment, voluntarily."
Meyocks is concerned that many of the gaming companies that have come into racing in recent years are not fully committed to the sport. The top five tracks on the "deadbeat" list are all owned by gaming companies that specialize in racinos. He noted that Guild riders contribute $4 per mount toward various health benefits, which amounts to about $900,000 a year.
"Most of these deadbeat track operators have one thing in common; most have racinos," Meyocks said. "They know they cannot get a casino license without horse racing. However, we believe that once they get their license, they focus most of their attention on the casinos and downplay racing. This concerns us greatly."
Topping the list is Penn National. Tracks it owns include Hollywood Casino at Charles Town, Hollywood Casino at Penn National, Beulah Park, Zia Park, and partial ownership in some others.
"PNGI leads the list because it has the most tracks and, in my opinion, has made it clear that it cares about only one thing, casino gaming," Meyocks said. "Various news reports over the years have documented serious safety issues both for riders and horses at PNGI tracks."
McErlean believes Penn National has been honest in its talks with the Guild.
"In discussions in the past with the Guild, we told them what our position is. Obviously they don't like our position but it looks like it's similar to other tracks. We feel like we're doing the right thing with what we're doing right now," McErlean said. "They're looking for shock value and we don't think that's constructive."
After Penn National, the Guild's list of tracks not paying medical benefits is followed by Harrah's, which owns Louisiana Downs,Thistledown, and Turfway Park; Boyd Gaming Corp., owner of Delta Downs and Evangeline Downs; MTR Gaming Group, owner of Mountaineer and Presque Isle Downs; Centaur Holdings, owner of Hoosier Park; Monmouth Park; Los Alamitos; Ellis Park; Ruidoso Downs; and Turf Paradise.
(Harrah's is now owned by Caesars Entertainment.)
The Guild said Monmouth Park contributed for years but last year halted payments when horsemen took over track operations. In addition, the Guild said only two of the 18 tracks owned by these 10 track operators are accredited by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance, which puts safety protocols in place.
The Guild did note tracks that have contributed, calling them "The Good Guys." That list includes large track corporations Churchill Downs Inc. (Arlington Park, Calder Race Course, Churchill Downs, and Fair Grounds); New York Racing Assocition (Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park, and Saratoga Race Course); and The Stronach Group (Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, Laurel Park, Pimlico Race Course, Portland Meadows, and Santa Anita Park); as well as Arapahoe, Betfair Hollywood Park, California Authority of Racing Fairs, Del Mar, Finger Lakes, Fonner Park, Hawthorne, Keeneland, Kentucky Downs, Oaklawn Park, Fairplex Park, Remington Park, Suffolk Downs, and Sunland Park.
Meyocks said tracks that do not participate create an unfair situation for the riders and for the tracks that do pay. The Guild's board of directors is asking all non-contributing tracks to engage in discussions that can lead to improvements and better conditions for jockeys, as well as a long-term plan to support disabled riders.
"It's time these track operators commit to invest in the health and welfare of jockeys," said Guild chairman John Velazquez. "Right now, the track operators who won't contribute are avoiding their moral responsibility, while the ones who do contribute are carrying the load. We must have guaranteed funding from the industry to help these men and women jockeys with their basic needs."