03/03/2005 1:00AM

Churchill sues Guild, holds back payments


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Churchill Downs Inc. revived its simmering feud with the Jockeys' Guild on Thursday, suing the organization in U.S. District Court for violating antitrust laws and seeking unspecified damages.

Churchill Downs Inc., which owns seven racetracks, also said it would begin withholding voluntary payments that have been made for years to the Guild through the Thoroughbred Racing Associations. That amount is about $375,000 annually, according to Churchill officials.

The 22-page suit alleges that Churchill incurred "monetary loss" and "irreparable harm" when some jockeys refused to ride Nov. 10 at Churchill Downs and Nov. 12 at another Churchill track, Hoosier Park in Indiana.

In the lawsuit, Churchill is seeking an injunction that would prohibit the Jockeys' Guild from staging a boycott.

In a statement, Andrew Skehan, chief operating officer for CDI, contended that since the jockeys are independent contractors they can not by law boycott or disrupt Churchill's business.

Although there was no disruption of live racing at Churchill Downs, 14 jockeys ultimately were banished by management for taking part in an attempted boycott. At Hoosier, a full card of racing had to be canceled when jockeys refused to ride.

"Since the November incidents," Skehan said, "it has become evident that the Guild orchestrated these boycott activities as a means to hurt our business."

Albert Fiss, vice president of the Guild, said Thursday afternoon from northern California that Guild officials had not yet had time to adequately examine the suit but added, "I think it's a mistake on Churchill's part. There was no orchestration by the Guild of those events that occurred. Other than that, we have no comment at this time."

Skehan, speaking during a media teleconference Thursday afternoon, was asked whether the timing of the suit amounted to Churchill firing a preemptive salvo in attempting to prevent similar boycott actions from occurring at the 131st Kentucky Derby, which will be run at Churchill on May 7. Skehan responded by saying the Derby "is the most popular race in the world. I can't say it hasn't influenced our decision. We have some concern that if we don't hold them accountable for their actions, they could do this again."

The suit comes amid ongoing negotiations among Churchill, the Guild, and other industry factions to arrive at an equitable solution in regard to accident insurance for jockeys, who at most tracks currently have only $100,000 in coverage for medical bills for any accident on the track. Those negotiations are being conducted by a National Thoroughbred Racing Association task force.

Two other Kentucky tracks, Turfway Park and Keeneland Racecourse, have purchased insurance policies through the company AIG to provide up to $1 million in coverage for riders at their tracks.

The suit asks that the amount of punitive damages be decided by trial, but Skehan said, "We are more concerned about the principle than the money involved."

Skehan said the suspension of voluntary payments to the Guild was made partly because of recent allegations that have surfaced about the Guild not using those funds to buy insurance coverage for its members.

"We are exploring different ways to redirect funds so we can be sure they directly benefit jockeys," he said.

The Churchill press release said Guild management has "ignored requests by CDI for an accounting of these fees and other contributions. Since the Guild cannot or will not explain where this money is going, we are withholding this funding."