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THOROUGHBRED RACING / BILL CHRISTINE : Time Running Out on Jockeys' Riding Contract

November 12, 1994|BILL CHRISTINE

The next sport that could be shut down because of a labor dispute is horse racing, which might have a severe jockey shortage on Jan. 1 if the tracks and the riders don't reach an agreement on health and accident insurance.

"I don't think the jockeys will ride without a contract," said John Giovanni, national manager of the Jockeys' Guild, whose members ride 85%-90% of the horses in the United States.

Giovanni, who rode about 1,800 winners during a 20-year career, is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Chicago with the Thoroughbred Racing Assn., a national trade group that submitted a new proposal on behalf of the tracks to the jockeys last Sunday at Churchill Downs.

The guild's reaction to that proposal, which the TRA says will increase the jockeys' accident benefits by 25%, is already known. "This raises the question of whether they want to negotiate in good faith," Giovanni said.

The three-year contract that expires Dec. 31 was hammered out just before the last deadline, on New Year's Eve in 1991. The new negotiations, which started only a few months ago, have been brief and acrimonious. Sunday's meeting lasted less than an hour.

The eternal issue is money--how much the tracks are willing to pay for the jockeys' expensive coverage in a high-risk profession--but there are other differences as well.

One focuses on television rights, which the jockeys have waived in their contracts for almost 30 years. Mainly, this means that the jockeys give up their perceived share of the multimillion-dollar rights fees that the networks pay for televising the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup.

"In 1966, the tracks came to us and told us we had those rights," Giovanni said. "We didn't even know we had them until they told us. Now, after all these years, they're telling us that we don't have them. How can that be?"

The TRA says that the jockeys are now compensated for the TV rights in other ways.

"(There have been) increased purses generated by the simulcasting of races," the TRA said in a statement. "More than $30 million of the estimated $60 million in fees paid directly to jockeys by horse owners in 1993 was derived from simulcast purse distributions."

Asked if the TV rights issue is as big a stumbling block as the salary cap is for the striking major league baseball players, Giovanni said, "Yes, it is."

Jerry Bailey, the president of the guild, rode Concern to victory in the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic, and his 10% share of the purse was $156,000. Bailey can afford the reported $13,000 in annual premiums that he pays for private insurance, but he is an exception. The guild says that the average jockey earns about $25,000 a year, and as independent contractors they have expenses that baseball and hockey players don't have.

To start with, jockeys' agents, who book their mounts, typically charge 25% of what the rider earns. When a jockey leaves home to ride during the summer at Del Mar or Saratoga, or when a New York jockey rides in Florida during the winter, he pays his own living expenses.

The tracks say that jockeys' annual health insurance premiums have increased 96% in the last 10 years, to $2.4 million in 1993. The tracks say that the fees they have paid for each rider's mount, money that eventually goes into the insurance program, were $1.6 million last year, up 139% from 1984. The accident insurance for jockeys has been costing the tracks $4.5 million under the current contract.

The tracks have pooh-poohed a guild proposal that the bettors be taxed a penny on every $10 wagered, to be used to pay for health and accident insurance and a pension plan.

"The guild's plan calls for an additional taxation on the fans approximating $11 million," the tracks' statement said. "The TRA strongly opposes this concept of raising the takeout, particularly when the racing industry is in a period of economic distress and declining demand. Raising prices would only further deteriorate the situation."

Giovanni scoffed at the tracks' proposal that the jockeys' accident policy increase medical benefits from $50,000 to $62,500.

"That's the first time in 20 years that that benefit has gone up," he said. "But they'll be doing it for the same rates. We're the ones who have fought for protective vests and safety rails. We've kept the injuries down, and now they're telling us that they're giving us something extra."

Santa Anita is one of the tracks scheduled to be running Jan. 1. Fans are advised to have backup plans.

Horse Racing Notes

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