Legislators: Insurance Law Would Take Time

Two Kentucky legislators with ties to the horse racing industry indicated Nov. 10 that any effort get workers' compensation insurance for jockeys through the state General Assembly would take plenty of homework and perhaps a lot of time.

Meanwhile, a horsemen's association representative who has studied insurance issues for years believes a national solution can be achieved by working within existing workers' comp laws in various states.

The medical insurance issue has come to a head in Kentucky, where many of the top jockeys at Churchill Downs were ejected because they refused to commit to accepting mounts. The jockeys are protesting what they believe is inadequate insurance for accidents on the racetrack.

The state Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet, which oversees the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority, has indicated a willingness to meet with Jockeys' Guild officials, according to Cabinet Secretary LaJuana Wilcher. The Guild, in a Nov. 8 release, criticized the state for not moving on the insurance issue.

"We need to give the process time to work," said Sen. Damon Thayer, who co-chairs the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture's Subcommittee on Horse Farming. "There are a lot of smart people working on a solution. The (2005) legislative session doesn't begin until January, so we have some time."

Thayer said if a working group formed by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association recommended a legislative solution, he'd be willing to take it under consideration. Members of the working group are yet to be named.

"I've already spoken to Secretary Wilcher about this, and told her it's important that all sides try to work together toward a solution before we look to government to solve the problem," Thayer said.

Rep. Susan Westrom, who co-chairs the subcommittee along with Thayer, said the process could take time should it go the legislative route.

"It would have to be placed on a fast track," Westrom said. "This issue just rose to the forefront, and the main thing would be to educate legislators on what's happening. It would be helpful if they came (to legislators) with suggestions."

Linda Mills, president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and former chair of the National HBPA Insurance Committee, said a national solution isn't out of the question. She said the legislative route can be quite slow: The Florida HBPA a few years ago devised a bill for workers' comp insurance, but it failed to make the floor for a vote.

"This is something that has to be addressed on a nationwide basis, and it should have been done before," said Mills, who frequently spoke to brokers when she was studying the issue for the HBPA. "The scope is not that overwhelming, but it has to be done right the first time. It requires cooperation from all the entities involved. I think it's wonderful the NTRA has taken a lead on this."

Mills said the New York program, by which workers' comp is paid for by owners, works well but required passage of legislation. She indicated pursuing legislation state by state would be time-consuming and perhaps unproductive.

In California, a workers' comp law passed this year after several years of debate over how to pay for it. The current legislation raises about $10 million a year through slight increases in pari-mutuel takeout rates.

"I think we can work within existing laws in each state," Mills said. "We need to move quickly to get this done. I think it can be fixed, and it can be fixed quickly."

Funding mechanisms for workers' comp insurance vary from state to state. A national program might require a uniform funding mechanism.

Of the tracks in non-workers' comp states, Churchill currently offers the premier meet. Fair Grounds in Louisiana opens Nov. 25, while Gulfstream Park in Florida opens Jan. 3; neither of those states offer insurance above the standard $100,000 maximum for medical expenses for jockeys.

During a December 2002 summit sponsored by the National HBPA and American Quarter Horse Association, the concept of an industry-owned insurance company was floated. Officials admitted formation of such a company--to cover everyone from grooms to racetrack office personnel--would be a daunting task.

One obstacle, officials said at the time, is unwillingness by industry participants to report accurate financial information. No action was taken, and no insurance summits have since been held.