05/23/2004 11:00PM

California comp aid to begin Saturday


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The initial benefits of recently passed legislation that will reduce the costs of workers' compensation insurance paid by horsemen will be implemented on Saturday, with a starter's fee paid to the owners of horses who do not earn part of the purse.

The amount will vary throughout the state. On the Southern California circuit, owners whose horses finish fifth or worse will receive $400. In northern California, they will receive $300.

The fee is the first benefit of legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on May 13 that will raise the takeout on exotic bets placed on California races by one-half of 1 percent to offset insurance costs. The revenue generated by the higher takeout, expected to reach $10 million annually, will be forwarded to horsemen, who have faced escalating costs in recent years to insure stable staff and jockeys in races.

The starter's fee was expected to be launched this Wednesday, but last-minute paperwork led to a delay, racing officials said. Officials met Monday to discuss details of the insurance benefit program.

On July 1, the second stage of the legislation will be implemented in the form of a subsidy that will be paid toward the insurance premiums that trainers pay to insure stable staff. The amount of the subsidy has not been finalized, but is likely to be $14 per $100 of payroll, according to Rick Baedeker, president of Hollywood Park.

In Southern California, the starter's fee will guarantee that all runners receive at least $400. If fifth-place money is below $400, the prize money for that placing will be raised to $400.

The amount is designed to offset such costs as raceday medication, and fees paid to jockeys for losing mounts and to pony riders.

"Hopefully, it will make it less cost-prohibitive to start a horse and you don't get nicked with all these costs," said Drew Couto, the executive director of the Thoroughbred Owners of California.

The money dedicated for the starter's fee will be derived from the new legislation and partially from purse funds.

In recent weeks, racing officials contemplated doing away with fifth-place purse money and reallocating the percentages for the first through fourth-place finishers. The idea has been dismissed, Couto said.

"At this point, there is no adjustment to the percentages," Couto said. "We were looking at a final mechanism that would have had an adjustment to percentages. It looks like we will be able to structure it without doing that."

On some days, the starter's fee will not be that costly. Hollywood Park has only 62 runners on its eight-race program on Wednesday. If they all start, the starter's fees would add to $8,960, with some of the money going to fifth-place finishers to ensure they earn the $400 minimum.

Baedeker said it could take until July, when the payroll subsidy starts, before the benefits of the program will lead to larger fields. The current Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting ends on July 18.

"The goal is to continue to get the word out and realize the benefits before we're done," Baedeker said.