Tracks Line Up Riders; Panel Hopes to Keep Focus

by Tom LaMarra and Leslie Deckard
As two more winter Thoroughbred meets prepare to open, management is lining up commitments from jockeys in the wake of walkouts at Churchill Downs and Hoosier Park. Meanwhile, members of an insurance task force that will meet for the first time Nov. 22 hope to maintain focus and expedite recommendations.

Bob Elliston, president of Turfway Park and a member of the new National Thoroughbred Racing Association Jockeys' Medical Insurance Panel, said the northern Kentucky racetrack polled riders who were expected to compete at the meet that begins Nov. 28. Most of them, he said, committed to accept mounts.

Many of the jockeys ejected from Churchill and Hoosier Park ride at Turfway in the winter. Elliston previously had said it's imperative for management to know there will be enough riders on hand at the track, which can accommodate 12-horse fields.

The Churchill riders protested what they believe is inadequate medical insurance for on-track accidents. The Hoosier riders cited insurance and concerns over the inner rail at the Indiana track.

At Fair Grounds, the New Orleans track that like Hoosier Park is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., jockeys banned at CDI tracks must meet with president Randall Soth before the meet begins Nov. 25. Fair Grounds will ask them if they intend to accept mounts and ride in races.

Fair Grounds regular Robby Albarado, one of 14 riders that wouldn't accept mounts at Churchill and subsequently were ejected for the remainder of the meet, plans to meet with Soth Nov. 23, said his agent, Lenny Pike.

"I had a conversation with Randy and everything is cool," Pike said. "We go back 30 years, and he knows my word is as good as gold. He asked me if Robby plans to ride at Fair Grounds, and I said, 'Yes.' He asked if Robby would cause any trouble, and I said, 'No, he plans on being leading rider for the meet. We are cleared and ready to rock and roll."

The status of other riders wasn't immediately known.

Pike said Albarado purchased a supplemental insurance policy to cover himself while he rides at Fair Grounds. In Louisiana and many other racing jurisdictions, only up to $100,000 in medical expenses for on-track accidents is covered.

The 30-plus members of the insurance task force plan to meet at Turfway for perhaps six hours. NTRA executive Keith Chamblin, chairman of the panel, said members would look at the current insurance environment, how much policies cost, who pays for them, and how much additional coverage would cost.

Chamblin said workers' compensation programs and increases in coverage through private carriers would be discussed. The former, which would require legislative approval, could take some time, while the latter might be achieved in the short term, he said.

Elliston said in his opinion, the objectives are to "come to an equitable solution for all parties," and "ensure adequate protection for riders."

"This is not a negotiation," Elliston said. "It can't be that. It has got to be a fact-finding initiative that brings all perspectives to a common table."

Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and a member of the insurance panel, said a workers' compensation insurance fund in Maryland has proven a success. The fund, which legally serves as the "employer" for jockeys, is supported through an annual financial assessment on all licensed owners and trainers.

Foreman said that since 1986, when the fund was launched, about $7 million in premiums has been paid. (In 2004, the premium is about $720,000). From 2000 through this year, about $974,000 has been paid in claims by jockeys, he said.

"It's very doable," Foreman said. "There are creative ways to do this, but it takes a little bit of cooperation."