Foundation to Assist Injured Riders Officially Launched

An organization first discussed last year to assist jockeys and exercise riders who suffer serious injuries was officially launched with its first board of directors meeting Oct. 28 at Belmont Park.

The National Turf Foundation, whose members include industry leaders, was formed in the absence of the Disabled Jockeys' Fund, which was terminated by the Jockeys' Guild earlier this year. Its mission is to offer financial aid, support, and assistance and coordinate available federal, state, and community benefits that are available, according to a mission statement.

Maryland Jockey Club chief executive officer Lou Raffetto Jr. will serve as president. Kelly Weitsma, whose company, Equisponse, handles marketing for some high-profile jockeys, will be vice president. Retired jockey Pat Day is treasurer, while John Giovanni, the former national manager of the Jockeys' Guild, was named executive director.

"We founded the organization basically because of a void in our industry of taking care of jockeys and exercise riders," Weitsma said. "Obviously, the Birzer issue brought to light the need for it."

Gary Birzer was injured and paralyzed in a racing accident at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in July 2004. It was discovered his on-track medical insurance coverage was only $100,000, which led to revelations many jockeys around the country had insufficient injury coverage.

The foundation, to be based in New York, was announced only a day before the Oct. 29 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Belmont. Last year, about $35,000 was raised on Cup day to assist Birzer.

"With the demise of the Disabled Jockeys' Fund, there is a void," Giovanni said. "There are things (injury) insurance doesn't pay for, and things needed for day-to-day life. In the past, when I ran the Disabled Jockeys' Fund, I worked to coordinate efforts between (organizations). We worked to get benefits from the state and federal governments that people are entitled to. Some of these people aren't eligible for Social Security or Medicare."

Giovanni, who attended the Oct. 18 Congressional subcommittee hearing into jockey health and welfare issues, said he'd like to revisit national legislation along the lines of the New York Jockey Injury Compensation Fund, which provides benefits to riders.

The National Turf Foundation, incorporated in Delaware, got its first $10,000 from former jockey Ron Turcotte, one of its board members. Weitsma said several jockeys and trainers participating in this year's Breeders' Cup have pledged a percentage of any earnings to the fund.

"What I'll be doing is really going after corporate donations," Weitsma said. "I'll be going after those whose livelihood is the racetrack."

Weitsma and Giovanni said the foundation wouldn't cannibalize existing industry organizations that provide assistance. They also said they'd like to see the foundation eventually work with the Jockeys' Guild, currently in turmoil in the wake of the Congressional hearing at which the organization and its management came under fire from lawmakers.

"We hope to have a healthy association with the Guild," Weitsma said. "At this moment, however, that's not possible."