11/09/2004 1:00AM

Bejarano hits road in insurance flap


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Rafael Bejarano, the national wins leader and one of 15 jockeys banished by Churchill Downs management, is leaving the Kentucky circuit to ride in New York, possibly on a permanent basis, according to both his former and current agent.

Bejarano has hired agent Joe Ferrer in New York after parting with Steve Elzey in the aftermath of an unofficial boycott by some of the Kentucky circuit's top riders, centered around jockeys' health-insurance issues. Bejarano, whose mounts have won 418 races and nearly $11 million this year, is scheduled to ride Colita for trainer Todd Pletcher in the Stuyvesant Handicap on Saturday at Aqueduct, although "he won't be here on a regular basis until he has time to get his affairs in order in Kentucky," said Ferrer. "That may take until the following weekend or so."

New York is one of five racing states, along with California, Idaho, Maryland, and New Jersey, where jockeys' insurance needs are covered under workers' compensation legislation.

Ferrer, who normally spends the winter at Gulfstream Park in south Florida, said it had not yet been decided whether Bejarano would remain at Aqueduct through the winter or try the Gulfstream meet that begins Jan. 3. Florida, like Kentucky, is not a workers' compensation state.

Elzey had been Bejarano's agent for about two years. He said he had urged the 22-year-old Peruvian not to join the Churchill boycott, "but he didn't want to listen to me," said Elzey, who will go to work for Ramsey Zimmerman at the Turfway Park meet that begins Nov. 28. "That's okay. We had an unbelievable run together."

Elzey said he and Bejarano "probably" had been going to leave together for Aqueduct after the Churchill meet, but the developments of the last few days altered those plans.

The premature departure of Bejarano, who had dominated the Kentucky circuit over the past year, underscores the dramatic change that has swept into Churchill the past few days.

When racing was scheduled to resume here Wednesday after a two-day break, longtime standouts such as Robby Albarado, Calvin Borel, Mark Guidry, Craig Perret, and Willie Martinez were to be missing because they told Churchill officials Sunday that they intended to honor the boycott. Such relative unknowns as Scott Orm, Faustino Orantes, Pedro Velez, and Jordan Charkoudian, all of whom have been working primarily as exercise riders, are named to ride at Churchill beginning Wednesday.

At issue is the amount of accident insurance coverage that Churchill and other racetracks are willing to provide jockeys. Churchill and other Kentucky tracks currently provide $100,000 in medical coverage in case of an accident, but the jockeys are steadfastly maintaining that they need a major increase in coverage.

There appears to be no imminent resolution to the standoff, which has very much frustrated the jockeys who held out.

"This isn't just a problem in Kentucky," said Guidry. "It's something in almost every state. We just happened to be the ones that got to the point that we said, 'Enough is enough.' This is a nationwide issue here. We just happened to be the first ones that stood up for what is right."

Steve Sexton, president of Churchill Downs, said, "I consider what they did a knee-jerk reaction. It is just not fair to target one track. But we'll deal with it, and we'll be among the leaders working toward a long-term resolution."

In the meantime, Churchill already has gotten commitments from two other tracks it owns, Calder in Florida and Hoosier Park in Indiana, to reciprocate the ban on the 15 boycotting jockeys through the close of the Churchill meet on Nov. 27. A Churchill spokesman, John Asher, said Tuesday that the track was awaiting word from two other company-owned tracks, Fair Grounds and Hollywood Park, about reciprocation.

Another Kentucky track, Turfway Park, which is open for training and begins its meet on Nov. 28, is "evaluating" whether or not to extend the ban to apply to morning exercise work, said Turfway's president, Bob Elliston. "As far as extending the ban into our meet, no, we have not even thought about that," Elliston said.

In New York, where Bejarano is headed, there will be no reciprocation of the Churchill ban.

"We don't have a dog in this fight," said Charlie Hayward, the newly appointed president of the New York Racing Association. "If jocks want to come here to ride, we have the insurance. No one has asked us to do anything, and as far as I know, we don't plan to do anything in that regard."

Conversely, there are far more states in the same position as Kentucky, where basic coverage is relatively small and jockeys must buy their own supplemental coverage.

Twenty-seven jockeys were named to ride in the 10 races on the Wednesday card at Churchill. The Wednesday overnight had been released Sunday as incomplete, with a little more than half of the 122 entered horses originally having riders named. Fill-in riders were named Tuesday morning, and soon thereafter the Thursday overnight was released with 126 horses, all with riders named, entered in 10 races.

The other nine jockeys banned from Churchill are Dean Butler, Jesus Castanon, Joe Deegan, Jeff Johnston, Orlando Mojica, Brian Peck, Dean Sarvis, Justin Shepherd, and Eddie Zuniga.

The regular riders who will continue riding at the meet include Pat Day, John McKee, Brice Blanc, Larry Melancon, and apprentice Brian Hernandez.