01/04/2005 12:00AM

California panel probing Guild funds

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - A California Horse Racing Board committee that was formed to look into Jockeys' Guild finances met for the first time Tuesday at Santa Anita Park, the leader of the committee said.

The committee intends to ask Guild management to account for the money it receives each year to pay for insurance for the state's jockeys and to help disabled riders. The committee, which was formed by Richard Shapiro, who was appointed to the racing board late in 2004, also intends to look into the background of the Guild's president, Dr. L. Wayne Gertmenian, Shapiro said Tuesday.

California covers jockeys under a workers' compensation program that is funded by owners and trainers. The Guild receives money from uncashed mutuel tickets - which totaled about $1 million for 2003 - that under California law is to be used for additional insurance and to help disabled riders.

Shapiro had asked Guild officials to attend a meeting in early December in order to answer questions about the organization's finances. The Guild's vice president, Albert Fiss, attended the meeting, but Shapiro said he was not satisfied with the answers that Fiss gave, calling them "vague and noncommittal." Shapiro said the committee would seek "solid and specific answers" to the board's questions.

"There are issues to me that are very concerning about the Guild, and I feel an obligation to ensure that theses monies are being spent properly, accounted for properly, and distributed properly," Shapiro said by phone Tuesday before entering the meeting. "Frankly, I don't feel comfortable about the state of California giving them money until I have these questions answered."

The Guild canceled a $1 million catastrophic insurance policy in 2002 because, Guild officials said, it did not have the money to maintain the policy. Many jockeys have said they did not know the policy had been canceled until Gary Birzer was critically injured in July 2004, in an accident at Mountaineer Race Track. Shapiro said the Guild had not informed the California Horse Racing Board that the policy was canceled.

"That's the Guild's job, to me," Shapiro said. "They should be making sure that everyone who gets on a horse knows what they are putting on the line."

Members of the committee include John Harris, the chairman of the state racing board; Drew Couto, president of Thoroughbred Owners of California; Craig Fravel, the executive vice president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club; Chris McCarron, the retired Hall of Fame jockey who is now an official of Santa Anita Park; Kent Desormeaux, the Hall of Fame rider; and Paul Atkinson, a Southern California-based jockey.

McCarron and Desormeaux both have strained relations with the Guild. McCarron led the effort to install Gertmenian and his Matrix Capital Associates as the managers of the Guild in 2001, a change that led to the resignations of many high-profile jockeys from the Guild, including Jerry Bailey and Pat Day. McCarron is no longer on speaking terms with Gertmenian.

Before the Guild's annual meeting in early December, Desormeaux had called for the Guild to answer specific questions about its finances and the background of Gertmenian. Desormeaux was voted off of the Guild's board at that meeting.

Many of the positions that Gertmenian listed in his resume on the website of Pepperdine University, where he is a tenured professor, could not be verified, including high-ranking positions in the Nixon and Ford administrations. In an interview in December, Gertmenian claimed that the positions were "valid," but he declined to answer any detailed questions about his resume.

The Guild has been immersed in controversy for several months, following two jockey walkouts at Midwest tracks in November over what the jockeys claimed was a lack of sufficient insurance coverage. Since then, several jockeys and racing officials have questioned the Guild's management.

Following the November walkouts, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association formed a task force to recommend how the industry should pay for jockeys' insurance. A subcommittee of the task force was scheduled to hold its final meeting on Wednesday, according to Keith Chamblin, a senior vice president at the NTRA and the co-chair of the task force. The subcommittee will present its recommendations to the full task force sometime before Jan. 14, Chamblin said.