08/16/2004 11:00PM

Board takes up debate over weight

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DEL MAR, Calif. - A proposal that would significantly raise the weights that horses carry in Thoroughbred races in California has divided factions of the sport and will be the focus of what is expected to be a contentious California Horse Racing Board meeting on Thursday.

If approved, the rule change would allow jockeys to ride at higher weights. The rule is intended to address long-standing health concerns among jockeys, who ride at far below their natural weight.

The meeting is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. at the Del Mar simulcast facility adjacent to the racetrack. If the rule is approved by the board Thursday, it could be enacted as early as November.

The minimum that horses in California carry is 112 pounds, but the proposal, endorsed by the Jockeys' Guild and first presented to the CHRB in June, would raise the minimum to 118 pounds and establish a minimum body fat content of not less than 5 percent for jockeys. Riders licensed in the United States prior to 2004 would not be subject to the minimum body fat rule.

The 118-pound minimum would not include 27 pieces of jockeys' equipment and attire, such as pants, boots, silks, whip, saddle towel, saddle, and safety equipment such as a helmet and safety vest. Currently, clothing is included in a rider's weight assignment, but safety equipment is not.

Assigned weights in most races would range from 118 to about 130 pounds, plus any clothing or safety equipment. Horses would actually carry up to 10 pounds more than their assigned weights. Even higher assigned weights could exist in handicaps, racing officials said.

The proposed rule change does not have the support of the state's official horsemen's groups, the Thoroughbred Owners of California and the California Thoroughbred Trainers. Each organization has proposed its own changes to the rule.

Last Friday, the TOC sent a two-page letter to the CHRB recommending four changes: an increase in minimum weight to 120 pounds, which would include all permitted equipment, including safety equipment; permit public viewing of riders being weighed before and after a race; a 5 percent minimum body fat content for all riders, regardless of when licensed; and better nutritional programs for jockeys.

The California Thoroughbred Trainers want additional study to be done on the effect that higher weights have on horses. The CTT also wants better nutrition and fitness programs for riders and a body fat minimum for all riders, according to executive director Ed Halpern.

In addition, three racetrack companies - Churchill Downs Inc., Magna Entertainment, and the New York Racing Association - issued a joint statement last week, suggesting that the subject be given further review before state regulatory agencies take action. Churchill Downs owns Hollywood Park; Magna owns Santa Anita, Bay Meadows, and Golden Gate Fields.

Any delay in passing the rule is opposed by the Jockey's Guild, according to vice president Albert Fiss. He expects the proposed rule to be passed by the CHRB on Thursday.

"I see this thing as one of the situations when the tracks are trying to get the California commission to table the issue until those three have come up with a policy," he said in a telephone interview last week. "It means this topic would go from a front-page topic to a back-page topic and then ultimately dropped.

"We're not willing to let that happen," he said. "We want to press forward and have the CHRB approve the proposal and then go to other states."

TOC officials told the CHRB last month that the issue deserves additional study. Since mid-July, the subject of higher jockey weights has been part of a public comment period, which is required before the board enacts any rule change. Any changes to the proposed rule would force another public comment period and a lengthy delay.

The CTT supports parts of the proposed rule, but doesn't think it adequately addresses concerns about jockeys' health.

"Our proposal is in support of much of what the Guild says," said Halpern of the CTT. "We're on the same team here and these people are trainers and jockeys and friends and sometimes family members. We are interested in finding solutions that make life better for them.

"The plan that's set forth doesn't solve the problem," he said. "The additional weight allows people to add a few pounds. They will face the same issue when they have two or three pounds. It doesn't address the basic problem of making [riding] safe and healthy."

Fiss said the CHRB "can do something to improve the lives of the participants of the sport" by passing the proposed rule. If that doesn't happen, he said the Guild may consider going to a higher government agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, seeking action.

"This can be an issue that OSHA would address," Fiss said. "Our position is we'd like to see it remain in the industry."

Fiss said that if the proposed rule is passed in California, the Guild would like to begin discussions on the issue with officials from other states. He said he was to meet Tuesday with New York racing officials in Saratoga.

"We are tired of waiting," he said. "We think this is absolutely in line with what needs to be done."