Dan Liebman

Dan Liebman Editor-in-Chief

File Photo

Commentary: Rough Ride

In some ways, jockeys are no different than coal miners, oil-rig workers, and police and firemen. There is inherent risk in their everyday job.

But you can’t think about the risk. To dwell on it would make the job impossible to perform.
More times than he can remember over more than 30 years, Elvis Perrodin has been legged up on a horse. Like all jocks, he hopes the journey ends in the winner’s circle following the race. Nearly 3,000 times, it has. But, more importantly, he hopes for a safe trip.

A Louisiana native, Perrodin has ridden for years at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. On Nov. 23, he was thrown while warming up a 2-year-old filly. Perrodin was taken to the hospital, where the 50-year-old rider was found to have a badly fractured pelvis, lacerated liver, and broken ribs.

Elvis Perrodin is one of the lucky ones. Surgery and time will heal his injuries. If he rides again, it will be his choice. He is lucky because he is alive. He is lucky because he was not paralyzed.

Gary Birzer was not so fortunate.

Birzer was paralyzed in a racing accident at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort July 20, 2004. To make matters worse, it was learned that his on-track medical insurance coverage was only $100,000, though he and many other Jockeys’ Guild members believed they were still covered for $1 million. In fact, the policy had been allowed to lapse, and Guild members charged they were not notified of the policy change by then-Guild president Dr. Wayne Gertmenian.

Birzer’s accident caused tracks to independently look at catastrophic injury policies for jockeys, and many racetracks throughout North America have since raised their on-track accident insurance for riders to between $500,000 and $1 million.

Birzer brought several actions following his accident, and later settled a lawsuit against the Guild after sports agent Dwight Manley took over as president. The former rider also sued Mountaineer, as well as owners/trainers Danny Bird and Kelly Wiseman and veterinarian Howard Weir.

The Guild has its own pending state action against Gertmenian and others alleging breach of fiduciary duties and mishandling of funds. A similar federal suit was dismissed, although it is under appeal by the Jockeys’ Guild.

Manley left the position after only a year, the new national manager being longtime industry executive Terry Meyocks.

Meyocks took over in September and has been busy in his first two months on the job. The Guild filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Oct. 12, and in early November, Meyocks suggested members secure their own health insurance because of a strong possibility the organization would not be able to renew its policy covering them. On Nov. 13, Meyocks held a meeting with representatives of various industry organizations, reaching out for emergency help to secure health insurance for riders and their families.

California funds $1 million toward health insurance for riders from uncashed mutuel tickets, leaving, Meyocks said, about 120 jockeys without coverage at the end of the year should a funding source not be found.

That the number is only 120 means many jockeys are either not Guild members or are not participating in the plan, thus they are finding their own insurance or are going without.
Health care costs are skyrocketing, and the number of uninsured is alarming. Because of the constant weight battle waged by many jockeys, they are at an elevated risk for certain medical conditions. But health insurance for jockeys should be funded only by the riders themselves.

If the Guild is broke, and its members believe it is because of poor management, then they have no one to blame but themselves.

Jockeys are a crucial and integral part of this industry. And perhaps the industry can help them solve their problems. But the jockeys will have to get their own house in order first.