11/11/2004 12:00AM

Both sides in dispute blunder


NEW YORK - On Wednesday, Nov. 2, with its full complement of regular jockeys riding, Churchill Downs ran 10 races which attracted $5.5 million in wagers nationwide. A week later, with 14 of those jockeys boycotting the card and a collection of unknowns and exercise riders taking their place, Churchill again ran 10 races and handled $6.3 million.

A pick six carryover into the card of Nov. 9 attracted $285,000, but even allowing for that unusual pool and some additional interest it may have generated, the message is clear: If the jockeys thought they had the support of the public or the economic clout to force the changes in insurance coverage they seek, they were mistaken.

This is one of those labor disputes in which both sides are looking bad. The jockeys have done a poor job of articulating their case that someone, anyone, other than themselves should pay the full cost of their catastrophic insurance policies. When the jockeys have wanted to wear advertising logos in televised races and keep nearly all the revenue from it, they argue in court that they are independent contractors who owe nothing to the tracks where they perform. Then when insurance costs go up, they want to be treated as employees rather than contractors.

They need to make up their minds, and also need to clarify the role and function of their nominal leadership group, the Jockeys' Guild, which has been mired in controversy since being put under new management three years ago. The Guild subsequently canceled a group liability policy, replacing it with one providing improved family benefits that did not cover riding accidents. It is unclear what the Guild has done with more than $2 million a year in payments it receives from the tracks, and the Guild has rejected calls from some of its membership for an independent audit.

It also is unclear why the riders have rejected an offer from Churchill under which they could have purchased a policy covering $500,000 in accident expenses for a modest premium of around $225 a month. Is the Guild, which reportedly is preparing to file lawsuits in more than 30 states, more interested in securing affordable coverage or in playing high-profile politics?

No one in the racing industry is arguing that jockeys shouldn't be insured or that the tracks shouldn't bear some of the cost, as they already do to the tune of $1,000 per track per day - more than most companies do for contractors who repeatedly insist they are freelancers. Still, Churchill has hardly helped its cause by a heavy-handed response that has included having Shane Sellers handcuffed in the jockeys' room and refusing to reconsider its ban on some of those riders now having second thoughts about their boycott.

The governor's office and legislative leaders in Kentucky have said they are open to possible changes in the state's workers' compensation program that would allow jockeys to be covered, as they are in five other racing states, including New York and California. Those officials, however, also said that no one from the Jockeys' Guild has previously raised the issue with them. If that is the case, it would seem that the riders have as many issues to raise with their leadership as they do with the tracks.

Foolproof betting system

Several readers have written to point out that there has been a truly foolproof betting system that has worked in four of the last five Breeders' Cups and cleaned up again this year: Bet every single horse in every race to win, and you would have come out ahead.

Two weeks ago, this would have cost you $182 for a $2 win ticket on all 91 starters in the eight Cup races. The return - after cashing on Ashado ($6), Sweet Catomine ($6.60), Singletary ($35), Speightstown ($9.40), Ouija Board ($3.80), Wilko ($58.60), Better Talk Now ($57.80), and Ghostzapper ($7) - would have been $184.20, a miniscule profit but a profit nonetheless.

In 2003 at Santa Anita, thanks to Adoration ($83.40), Cajun Beat ($47.60), and Action This Day ($55.60), you would have passed into the profit zone even before the dead-heat Turf and Pleasantly Perfect's 14-1 Classic, and collected $264 for the day. In 2002 at Arlington, you were losing with a race to go but Volponi ($89) made it another winning day with a $202 return.

In addition to the cash, you would have been able to brag after every single race that you had the winner and bet on him. What an easy game.