02/15/2005 1:00AM

$1M coverage for jockeys


Officials for Churchill Downs Inc. said Tuesday they expect to purchase an insurance policy that would cover jockeys who ride at six of the company's seven tracks for up to $1 million in medical bills.

The insurance policy would increase by ninefold the amount of accident coverage offered to jockeys at Churchill's racetracks. The current limit at Churchill tracks is $100,000 in medical bills, the same coverage provided by most tracks in states without workers' compensation programs that include jockeys.

Andy Skehan, Churchill's chief operating officer, said the insurance policy would cover riders at Churchill Downs and Ellis Park in Kentucky, Hoosier Park in Indiana, Fair Grounds in Louisiana, Calder Race Course in Florida, and Arlington Park in Illinois. Churchill also owns Hollywood Park in California, but riders there are covered by a workers' compensation program. The policy is expected to be in place by the time Churchill's flagship meet in Louisville, Ky., opens this spring, or sooner.

The issue of insurance has been a source of industry contention since two jockey walkouts in November at Hoosier and Churchill. More than a dozen riders at each of the tracks walked out to protest what they characterized as inadequate insurance coverage, and 28 riders were eventually banned for the duration of the two tracks' meets in 2004.

Although some details remain unclear, Julie Koenig-Loignon, a spokeswoman for Churchill, said that Churchill is committed to paying the increased costs of the new policy. She said that Churchill officials have begun setting up meetings with trainers and jockeys to explore ways to defray some of the costs.

"What we want to talk to them about is the fact that this is going to cost more money," Koenig-Loignon said. "We've felt all along that while we believe it is important to have adequate coverage for jockeys, everyone who has a stake in this problem should be part of the solution."

Churchill has been working with an industry task force organized by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association that has been seeking ways to expand insurance coverage since late November. Last week, the committee sent a memo to National Thoroughbred Racing Association tracks informing officials that Churchill's insurance carrier, which has not been identified, would be willing to disclose rates to other racetracks.

The policy would address a criticism of the Jockeys' Guild, a national organization that has been calling for increased insurance coverage. The Guild had previously paid for a policy that covered jockeys for medical bills up to $1 million, but Guild officials let the policy lapse in 2002. Since then, many racetrack operators and Guild members have complained that the Guild did not properly inform them the policy was dropped.

Late last year, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations asked the Guild to account for approximately $2.2 million in annual fees paid by tracks to the Guild. The fees, TRA tracks believed, were being used to purchase the insurance policy, which cost $440,000 in 2001. The tracks, including those owned by Churchill, pay the fees based on the number of races they card and the amount of handle on the races.

Koenig-Loignon said Churchill "is still exploring our options" as to whether the company will continue to pay fees to the Guild if the new insurance policy is purchased.

Churchill disclosed its negotiations for an insurance policy at a press conference in Frankfort, Ky., called by Gov. Ernie Fletcher. Fletcher said he was forming a panel to explore the possibility of covering jockeys and exercise riders under a workers' compensation program similar to those in place in five other states, including New York, California, New Jersey, and Maryland.

Two weeks ago, at the request of Fletcher, the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority outlined a plan that would have taken money from handle on in-state races to fund a workers' compensation program that would have covered jockeys and exercise riders. The deadline to introduce legislation in Kentucky was Feb. 12, however, and no bill was ever filed.