Guild's Insurance Strategy Remains Unclear

The national push for upgraded medical insurance for jockeys could be impacted by turmoil at the Jockeys' Guild, whose members apparently aren't all on the same page in terms of a strategy going forward.

It remains to be seen in which direction the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Jockeys' Medical Insurance Panel will move after its first meeting Nov. 22. But Albert Fiss, vice president of the Jockeys' Guild, said the organization doesn't support a state-by-state effort to pursue workers' compensation insurance.

Five states--California, Idaho, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York--offer workers' comp to jockeys. In the majority of racing states, riders are covered for only up to $100,000 in on-track medical expenses unless they have supplemental policies.

"Going down the workers' comp road is a bad deal," Fiss said Nov. 16 during an interview on "At the Races & Beyond," a talk show hosted by former Thoroughbred trainer J.J. Graci on WNN-AM in Pompano Beach, Fla. "It's prohibitive, and legislation is difficult to do. Also, it puts the burden on owners or trainers of horses, who we don't believe should be footing the bill."

The Fiss interview was replayed the evening of Nov. 17, when the guests included NTRA executive Keith Chamblin, who chairs the insurance panel; jockey Eddie King, who was expelled from the Guild for allegedly violating its bylaws; and jockey Jerry Bailey. One of the callers was retired jockey Ray Sibille, the current Guild treasurer.

"Who doesn't want a workers' comp state?" Sibille asked. "We'll take insurance any way we can get it."

Fiss said because the states, through regulatory agencies, and racetracks have some control over jockeys, they should be considered the jockeys' employers. "It's not the jockeys' responsibility to pay for on-track accidents," he said.

Though he said pursuing workers' comp insurance in other states is the wrong approach, Fiss did note that in the five states that offer workers' comp, jockeys are considered employees under funds supported by contributions from horsemen.

The Guild has been accused of wanting it both ways in terms of whether jockeys are independent contractors. For insurance purposes, they want to be considered employees, but for media-rights purposes, they want to be considered independent contractors.

"(The insurance issue) has nothing to do with media rights," Fiss said. "It's an intellectual property issue."

Fiss used the National Football League as an example for jockeys. NFL players assign their rights to the Players' Association, which handles collective bargaining for all players. The association reassigns the rights to the league office, which negotiates with networks for television coverage.

Fiss said the Guild has had negotiations with the TRA in that regard.

King, who was voted off the Guild board because he allegedly provided the media with financial information, said the press already had the information when he was interviewed. King had made repeated requests for numbers, including documentation of the status of about $1 million from the Disabled Jockeys' Fund.

"I wanted proof of where it was," King said. "That's all I asked for. I let a lot of other things go as far as the books went."

Fiss said there has been a Guild audit, but he offered no details. He said a 2003 financial report, now many months late, would "absolutely" be forthcoming, but he offered no timeline.

As for an insurance policy that covered riders for on-track injuries, Fiss claimed Bailey and jockey Pat Day, both of whom are no longer Guild members, canceled it in March 2001. Bailey called that "a bald-face lie." He said the proof it remained in effect was a letter Fiss sent to the NTRA in 2002 explaining the policy was about to expire.

Bailey also said he and Day didn't have the power to cancel a policy. The full executive board takes such action, he said.

The situation surrounding that policy came to a head this summer when jockey Gary Birzer was paralyzed after a racing accident at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in West Virginia. His expenses were covered up to only $100,000.

"Gary Birzer didn't know he wasn't covered," Bailey said. "The Guild had the onus. It's the Guild's responsibility to let members know they're not covered."

As for the status of jockeys as employees, Bailey said it's a question that has to be answered. He said he understands the Guild position that jockeys follow the rules of states and racetracks, and therefore fall under their auspices.

"It's a delicate situation," Bailey said. "Whom are we employed by? There has got to be some middle ground we can find. I hope the riders and management will all be reasonable."

Chamblin said the insurance panel would study existing laws, financial mechanisms, and potential policies. He said the overall solution would take time, though an increase in existing coverage through a private carrier might be easier to attain in the short term.