Commentary: It's About Health

By  John Velazquez

Recently, the Jockeys’ Guild has taken two critical actions we believe will strengthen the organization for the long term. In addition, the state of California has enacted legislation vital to jockeys and the Guild.

In September, the Guild named Terry Meyocks as its national manager, and on Oct. 12, the Guild filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which will allow us to reorganize.

One of the reasons we chose Meyocks is we want to work with the industry in a spirit of cooperation to enhance horse racing. With Meyocks’ vast and varied background in the industry, he knows and understands the perspective of horsemen, track management, and jockeys. We are not going to grow as an industry unless we come together to work toward common goals.

As a first step, the Guild and the industry need to engage in a genuine dialogue about critical issues.

In many areas we have common interests. The development of new national and regional corporate sponsorship programs that benefit the tracks, the owners, and the jockeys is obviously something we could all work toward together. For example, if we can grow revenues, we can work with tracks to help lessen their burden in catastrophic insurance costs.

Additionally, the jockeys are willing to make a commitment to the industry to help grow the sport. With the short racing careers of star horses, it is important to market the sport with participants that have much longer careers, including the jockeys.

At the same time, the Guild represents the interests of Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse jockeys across the country. There are critical issues relating to jockeys that need the help of the racing industry to solve. None of these is more important than adequate and affordable health insurance coverage.

Jockeys, like anyone else, want to know their own medical care, and the care of their family, is assured. Right now, even jockeys who can afford coverage can’t go out and buy health insurance coverage for themselves. They are turned down because of their profession. It has reached a crisis stage. One of the reasons the Guild filed for Chapter 11 was to give us time to find and implement a workable solution for this problem.

Currently jockeys pay a fee for each horse they ride, which goes toward the cost of health insurance. Jockeys also make a monthly payment for insurance in addition to the per mount contribution.

In California, jockeys now receive contributions to health and welfare, a pension plan, and have received an increase in mount fees. We would like this structure to be a model for the industry. Mount fees have been basically stagnant for decades. In spite of the risk jockeys face, in many jurisdictions the personnel that bring the horses to the races are compensated more than a jockey when his mount finishes in fourth place or worse.

The Guild is committed to improving safety in all areas on the track as well as seeing that up-to-date equipment in ambulances and first-aid stations at the tracks are provided. It is also important that the hospitals to which riders are sent are designated trauma centers. This is an issue that affects not only jockeys, but everybody who works on the backstretch. I think we can all agree that safety for both the horse and human should never be compromised.

We are exploring the possible application of a medical breakthrough. Kevin Everett of the Buffalo Bills suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a game against the Denver Broncos earlier this season. Because of quick work by doctors using a cooling treatment, a procedure developed by the Miami Project, the injury did not result in permanent paralysis. The cooling treatment was administered in an ambulance less than 15 minutes after the injury occurred.

The Guild would like to work with the tracks to make this treatment available. It is a clear breakthrough, and the Guild has been in contact with representatives of the Miami Project to explore the feasibility of its implementation in racing.

There is a common thread that runs through the concerns of jockeys—health and safety. The health of the industry and the health and safety of those that participate in it, both equine and human, are paramount to the Jockeys’ Guild. I’m optimistic the Guild and all segments of the industry will come together to do what is right, and best, for racing.

John Velazquez is Chairman of the Board of the Jockeys' Guild