By John W. Greathouse Jr.
The jockeys at Churchill Downs and Hoosier Park who recently chose to sit out the meet over insurance issues have made a grievous mistake. And don't think for one second that the trainers and owners will soon forget what these riders did. An ultimatum may work on the high seas when there is only one boat, but in this case there are plenty of boats just waiting to be launched. In 1988, the jockey colony struck in New York over higher fees for second- and third-place finishes as well as improvements in the area of safety measures. Laffit Pincay Jr. refused to go there and ride Claiborne Farm's Forty Niner in the NYRA Mile. Seth Hancock of Claiborne chose 22-year-old William Fox Jr., and told Pincay he would lose the mount for good if he did not ride. Pincay did not give in. Neither did Hancock. The point is, jockeys have tried to stiff-arm owners before. Churchill Downs found a reasonably priced insurance policy to eliminate the legitimate concerns the jockeys had when they discovered they were only covered up to $100,000, and many of the riders who did not walk out have opted to pay for that coverage. Yet 14 jockeys decided to walk out on the lucrative Churchill meeting to await Turfway, where purses are much lower. Some are now riding in other states. So one asks: Why are they striking Churchill and Hoosier and not those other meets? We all face rising insurance costs for ourselves, and worry about the burden this places on employers and families. Previous management at the Jockeys' Guild seemed to be handling the insurance issue much better than those now in power. Making matters worse are questions surrounding the Guild's finances. The dilemma inside the Jockeys' Guild is not an open book for the rest of us and apparently, not for the jockeys themselves. What has the Guild paid for? How was it paid? Why wasn't more accident coverage available? These are questions jockeys themselves can't get answered. Two jockeys who have spoken loudest on the insurance issue, Gary Stevens and Shane Sellers, had previously announced their retirements because of injuries. After reportedly collecting insurance settlements, both "unretired," and I have to wonder what their insurance companies thought of that. Neither of them had Breeders' Cup mounts, so it seemed like a good time to play the insurance card when they learned riders in Texas were only covered for $100,000. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Lone Star Park made headlines when they announced increased insurance coverage to $500,000 on Breeders' Cup weekend. This was a mistake, only serving to let the Guild say, "See, I told you so!" Does the jockey colony want a form of socialized medicine? Or are they after something more? Consider this: If the racetracks and owners become responsible for the insurance--as I believe the jockeys want--how long will it be before someone gets hurt and decides that they want a part of Churchill Downs or Keeneland? Or want a part of a company run by the horse's owner? Is this ultimately what the jockeys are trying to get to? If they can't afford $250 a month for their own insurance, then they should take up another line of work. The jockeys want the best of all worlds. In one case, they want to be independent contractors and use my horse as a sandwich board for advertising. They want all of that revenue. On the other hand, they now want to be my employee. They want insurance but want others to pay for it. You can't have it both ways. Jockeys have one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. They are a vital part of our sport. They are brave, strong, courageous people. But they are wrong on this issue. Common sense will sooner or later come to those who run this sport, and maybe then things will go back to normal. If it doesn't, there will be plenty of jockeys to ride our horses.JOHN W. GREATHOUSE JR. is co-owner of Glencrest Farm near Midway, Ky.