02/15/2007 12:00AM

Clumsy power plays hurt jockeys' cause

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NEW YORK - Jockeys often seem bewildered that they don't get more support for the issues they care about from horsemen and racing fans. Perhaps they should consider how selfish and unsympathetic their leaders sometimes make them appear to the owners, trainers, and horseplayers who provide their livelihood. Two recent incidents, a walkout at Aqueduct on Feb. 3 and an ongoing suit in northern California, are cases in point.

The Feb. 3 card at Aqueduct was terminated after the fifth of nine scheduled races when the jockeys refused to ride because of an ongoing dispute with management over hospitalization procedures. The riders consider the facilities at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset superior to those at Jamaica Hospital, which is closer to Aqueduct, but medical protocol in New York requires ambulances to take trauma victims to the nearest hospital.

There's a laborious but uncomplicated solution to this issue, which includes getting the riders to file waivers that they will not later sue if taken to the hospital they prefer instead of the closer one. This could have been negotiated with management, and the riders could have even set a public deadline for its resolution, giving advance warning that they would no longer ride starting next week or next month without a new procedure in place.

Instead, they simply refused to go the paddock for the sixth race on Feb. 3, accomplishing absolutely nothing for themselves while inconveniencing and financially damaging everyone else in the game: The owners and trainers of horses who were scheduled to compete for over $120,000 in purses later that afternoon, backstretch workers and horses who had been in the detention barn since that morning, and fans who had invested their time and bankrolls in races that now had to be scrapped.

At least this ill-advised power play had a tangential relationship to a genuine safety issue. The northern California situation, on the other hand, is a calculated piece of unmitigated gall.

Nearly a year ago, a horse named Magic Destiny won a race at Bay Meadows, earning his owners $6,000, from which the customary 10 percent, or $600, was to go to the winning jockey, Roberto Gonzalez, and the winning trainer, Richard Baltas. The horse's postrace sample, however, tested positive for two antihistamines, so Magic Destiny was disqualified and the purse, including the jockey and trainer shares, was redistributed in accordance with the revised order of finish. In addition, Baltas was fined $2,500 and suspended 15 days.

Such purse redistributions happen hundreds of times a year in racing, whether for in-race disqualifications or postrace positives, and are as much a part of the vagaries of the profession as stumbles from the starting gate and traffic jams. Gonzalez and the Jockeys' Guild, however, filed a petition with the California Horse Racing Board seeking a reinstatement of the jockey's $600, claiming he was "an innocent victim" who should not be deprived of "his share" of the purse. The $600 has been redistributed to other jockeys in the race, so now they want the money to come from the trainer's pocket.

It must be awfully tempting for Baltas and the owners to give Gonzales his $600 and then turn around and sue him and every other rider who has ever gotten one of their horses taken down for a riding infraction or cost them victory with an ill-advised trip. This could become a new cottage industry. Perhaps trainers could sue breeders for sending them horses with defects in their conformation, and owners could sue trainers for working their horses five rather than four furlongs. And why shouldn't the public get in on the action? Horseplayers who lost money betting against Magic Destiny could sue the track or their least favorite jockey for their next failure to cash.

Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers Association, has properly branded the guild's petition "ridiculous," and it seems unlikely the CHRB will rule in Gonzalez's favor. The jockeys and their guild, however, have caused a lot more than $600 worth of damage to their credibility, reinforcing the idea that they are mercenaries with no regard for common sense or the welfare of anyone else in the industry.

It's really a shame because it makes everyone suspect their motives and sincerity even when they're right. The 10 Florida jockeys currently being banned at many tracks because of secret, second-hand charges in a glacial race-fixing investigation are getting a raw deal. There are still outstanding safety and insurance issues at some tracks where the riders deserve better. By petulantly walking off the job, however, or petitioning to be awarded purse money from people who have already been penalized more than they have, the riders have exhibited bad faith that only invites more of the same from the rest of the racing community.