11/07/2004 1:00AM

Churchill jockeys boycotting Wed. card

Jockey Shane Sellers was escorted off the Churchill Downs property Sunday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Most of the top jockeys at Churchill Downs told their agents not to name them on horses for the Wednesday card, further inflaming a controversy that promises to have widespread ramifications over the national issue of sufficient insurance coverage for jockeys.

Technically, as independent contractors without a union, jockeys cannot call a strike, although one said on condition of anonymity that there had been agreement among the jockey colony that they would boycott by not permitting themselves to be named on mounts as of Wednesday. The 11-race Sunday card was not affected by this latest development.

The dividing issue is liability insurance coverage for jockeys. Churchill and other Kentucky tracks currently provide $100,000 in medical coverage in case of an accident, but jockeys maintain that a major increase in coverage is necessary for them to continue working. Churchill president Steve Sexton reportedly informed the jockeys Saturday that the track would not be able to provide that increase, after which the jockeys conferred among each other, resulting in the de facto strike.

The Wednesday overnight was released Sunday with several well known jockeys who are not participating in the boycott, but also with a hodgepodge of part-time and seldom-used jockeys and exercise riders. Pat Day is named to ride four horses Wednesday, but his agent, Doc Danner, said Day was only honoring calls given well before the jockeys' collective decision to hold out and that Day would soon be among those declining all calls.

The jockeys who apparently intend to ignore the boycott by riding Wednesday include veterans Eddie Martin Jr., Larry Melancon, Donnie Meche, Kevin Krigger, and Joe Johnson, and apprentices Brian Hernandez Jr. and Juan Molina Jr. About one-fourth of the 122 horses listed on the Wednesday overnight had no riders named.

Predictably, trainers are unhappy with the jockeys' stance. "If they have an issue, they're going about it the wrong way," said Dale Romans, the top trainer here the last several years.

Churchill spokesman John Asher said late Sunday afternoon that the unofficial boycott is "unfortunate, especially for the fans. These aren't new issues. These are things that have been under discussion for some time. Of course it is an issue of great concern, but not one that can be solved overnight. This is an extremely complicated issue. We believe the issue requires an industry response, and to attempt to do something racetrack by racetrack does nothing to help the situation."

The insurance issue has been among the hottest in racing lately. Veteran jockey Shane Sellers quit riding in early October over the issue, while Hall of Famer Gary Stevens refused to ride at the Breeders' Cup for essentially the same reason. Further complicating this latest development at Churchill is that there are numerous mitigating factors involved, including what the tracks can provide jockeys as legally defined by the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority; the role of The Jockeys' Guild in the issue; and the wide state-by-state disparity in laws governing workers' compensation, liability insurance, and other related issues.

Boycotts occasionally have surfaced in racing, most notably in the late 1980s at Aqueduct in New York, where racing continued to be held despite the refusal of the top jockeys to ride.

* In related news, Sellers, who has not ridden since Oct. 2 at Hoosier Park, was escorted off the Churchill Downs property in handcuffs Sunday by a Louisville Metro Police officer after being asked "several times" to leave the jockey quarters, said Asher. Sellers eventually left without incident, and no charges were filed.

Although currently inactive, Sellers has been a major catalyst behind the scenes in the latest action by the jockeys. Asher said he is evicted from all Churchill properties until further notice. Churchill has proprietary discretion to evict anyone from its property and has done so in several prominent cases in recent years.