Congressman Ed Whitfield, proposed funding plan for jockeys' insurance.

Congressman Ed Whitfield, proposed funding plan for jockeys' insurance.


Jockeys in Favor of Amending 'Horseracing Act'

Eclipse Award-winning jockey John Velazquez said he would be in favor of an amendment to the Interstate Horseracing Act of 1978 that would provide funding for workers' compensation insurance for jockeys, exercise riders, trainers, and backstretch workers.

Velazquez was one of three witnesses to testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in Washington, D.C., May 9.

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, who chairs the committee, and Rep. Bart Stupak said during the hearing they are considering legislation that would allow for a percentage of revenue from simulcasts to go toward funding insurance premiums. The IHA governs interstate simulcasts, or the sending of signals across state lines. It requires approval from racetracks, horsemen's groups, and regulators before signals can be transmitted.

"I personally believe we need a federal solution in this area," Whitfield said.

Whitfield was one of the lawmakers who facilitated the 2005 Congressional inquiries into backstretch health and welfare issues, insurance, and the Jockeys' Guild.

Stupak said his office is researching legislation that would allow jockeys and exercise riders to collectively bargain.

"Our government is not only failing in its duty to protect jockeys and exercise riders from the oppressive practices of the racetrack, it is actively preventing these riders from protecting themselves by permitting the racetracks to breakup any attempts by the jockeys and exercise riders to act collectively to improve their working conditions," he said.

Stupak said he plans to join Whitfield in his attempt to amend the IHA.

"The idea to amend the Interstate Horseracing Act to include jockeys and exercise riders in the revenue sharing from simulcasting may be the quickest solution to solving the health and insurance crisis," he said. "By including jockeys in the revenue sharing, adequate finances will finally be made available for adequate on-track and off-track health insurance, as well as a moderate retirement fund for the human athletes that are the lynchpins of this $26-billion industry."

In addition to support for the proposed legislation from Velazquez, Darrell Haire, interim national manager of the Jockeys' Guild, and Barry Broad, attorney for the Jockeys' Guild, voiced their support. Haire and Broad also testified before the committee.

"The (IHA) needs to be amended to give jockeys the legal right, along with trainers and owners, to a fair share of the revenue from the transmission of a horse racing signal," Velazquez said.

Velazquez, who currently serves as the chairman of the Jockeys' Guild, suffered a broken shoulder and cracked ribs in a racing accident at Keeneland in April when his mount broke down just past the wire and rolled on top of him.

"The fact of the matter is that every time you leave that paddock, you really don't know if you're coming back. It can happen to any of us on any racing day," Velazquez said. "We need to know, for the sake of ourselves and our families, that if we are injured, we will receive the best medical care and, God forbid, if we suffer a devastating injury, we will be taken care of."

Velazquez testified that many racetracks have subsequently raised their coverage to $1 million for on-track accidents, but he said there are many tracks that still have inadequate coverage.

"Some tracks still provide no coverage at all," he said.

Racing states such as California, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York already offer workers' comp for jockeys, and in some states owners pay a portion of the premium. Efforts to pass legislation in Kentucky, where the public would pick up the cost through a pari-mutuel takeout hike under the latest proposal, have failed.

Racetracks in early April created a fund to provide money for disabled riders, whose Guild-operated benefits program was discontinued in early 2005. Velazquez said the group has pledged to raise $1 million annually to provide financial assistance and case management services to the 61 jockeys that are disabled and for those that will receive crippling injuries in the future.

"We are grateful to that the tracks and horsemen are willing to step up to the plate and accept that the care of those who have given everything to the horse racing industry is the responsibility of the entire industry, not just the jockeys themselves," Velazquez said.

In other business at the hearing, questions were raised about safety-related issues at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort, the West Virginia track where jockey Gary Birzer was paralyzed in a 2004 racing accident. MTR Gaming, parent company of the racetrack, took responsibility, but its on-track accident insurance policy stopped at $100,000, leaving Birzer with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.

Rose Mary Williams, director of racing at Mountaineer, was compelled to testify after she was subpoenaed by the committee. She said she didn't have the accident statistics for the track, which prompted criticism from Whitfield.

Haire told the committee many jockeys have said they felt pressured to ride at Mountaineer under bad weather and poor track conditions.