Spirit of Cooperation Seen on Jockey Insurance

They may not agree on how to get there, but industry representatives expressed willingness Oct. 17 to examine the jockey insurance issue and work together on solutions.

The topic was the focus of a panel discussion held as part of the International Simulcast Conference in Philadelphia. Simulcast revenue has entered the equation via federal legislation that would amend the Interstate Horseracing Act to provide insurance for jockeys and backstretch workers.

The Jockeys' Guild, represented on the panel by national manager Dwight Manley and attorney Tom Kennedy, support the national scheme. Horsemen's groups that would help pay for the national insurance plan oppose it, though it remains unclear which revenue from simulcasts would be targeted.

"We think it's the right way to go," Kennedy said of the Jockey Insurance Fairness Act introduced by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky. "It would reduce some of the state-by-state problems."

There is a wide gap in the U.S. in terms of insurance for jockeys. A handful of racing states offer full workers' compensation plans; most tracks around the country offer catastrophic accident insurance with a maximum benefit of $500,000 to $1 million.

Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, noted the Maryland workers' comp program enacted in 1984. Owners and trainers fund it through a license fee.

"If you ask anyone involved in the program, they'll say it has been a terrific program," Foreman said. "It was replicated in New York and New Jersey. My regret is that more states have not embraced it."

Foreman said the national insurance plan may not fly because state law governs the relationship between an employer and an employee. He called the bill "nonsensical" given the economics of pari-mutuel horse racing.

"To shake up an economic engine that's working is a dynamic that will reverberate throughout the entire business," Foreman said.

Manley contends the model doesn't work if workers' comp insurance is not available for everyone. He pointed to Gary Birzer, the jockey paralyzed in a 2004 racing accident at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort. Manley said Birzer's treatment cost about $1.8 million over two years; the maximum insurance benefit offered by tracks could be $100,000 to $1 million.

"It's essentially zero when somebody has a Gary Birzer-type injury," Manley said "It's not acceptable. It doesn't make sense that 30 tracks are at $1 million. It could be argued they are doing it as a protection measure."

Manley is advocating a plan whereby tracks and the Guild would work together to provide up to $2 million in coverage; the Guild would provide the "override policy" to make up the difference. He said the plan might have to change, however, given increases in costs that could make the minimum $3 million in 10 years.

"It's one plus one equals three if we work together on that," Manley said.

Joe Santanna, president of the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and Dan Metzger, president of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, expressed concern with the federal legislation. They said taking money from purses would create economic problems in an industry in which owners pay $2 billion a year to keep racehorses but race for only $1 billion a year in purses.

Officials said the Oct. 17 dialogue was an important step in improving the relationship between the Guild and other industry stakeholders. (Panelists even posed for a picture after the session.) Manley this summer inherited a financially hurting organization that had been at odds with the industry under the previous regime.

After the meeting, Manley said he believes the parties can overcome differences and develop a formula to move the industry forward. "We may not agree on everything, but we agree we all want to make it more successful," he said.