11/30/2004 12:00AM

Expect sparks to fly in Tucson

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TUCSON, Ariz. - The elite troops of American racing descend on Tucson next week for the annual orgy of oratory, the four-day Racing Symposium sponsored by the Race Track Industry Program of the University of Arizona. It is the largest ecumenical gathering in the sport in America.

Doug Reed, who runs the show, prefers the flavor to be vanilla, as does the university. This one may be spiced by jalapeno peppers, a Tucson specialty, as the rift grows uglier between the jockeys' leaders and track management, and between jockeys and their own Jockeys' Guild, which meets in Dallas just before the Symposium in Tucson. The matter is not on the Tucson agenda, but is likely to provide the liveliest discussion there.

The Guild's former treasurer, jockey Eddie King, was tossed out for requesting an audit to find out what happened to a cool million that was transferred out of the insurance fund - at the request, King says, of the Guild's controversial president, Dr. Wayne Gertmenian. Robert Colton, a former jockey and past chief financial officer of the Guild, also was excommunicated, and has filed a defamation-of-character suit against the Guild and Gertmenian's Matrix Capital Associates, charging them with mismanagement and violation of federal labor laws. They have sued Colton as well.

More than 100 jockeys reportedly have filed a petition asking for an audit. Jerry Bailey is suing to stop Guild reports that he and Pat Day were responsible for what some say was the unannounced cessation of previous Guild catastrophic insurance coverage. Bailey says responsibility for that event, which came as a surprising shock to many jockeys, including the paralyzed Gary Birzer, occurred on Gertmenian's watch, long after he and Day left the Guild following Gertmenian's hiring. Chris McCarron, the man most responsible for hiring Gertmenian after ousting the personable and popular John Giovanni three years ago, reportedly no longer is a Gertmenian fan.

Daily Racing Form's Matt Hegarty and others have reported encountering difficulty in substantiating some of Gertmenian's claims of accomplishment. Whatever they are - or are not - modesty and moderation are not two of his shortcomings.

Most experts in fields I know are the last to anoint themselves as experts, and few Ph.D.'s I know, including those in my own family, go around calling themselves "doctor." Gertmenian likes to be called "Dr. G," reveling in his academic title from the University of Idaho. He noted in his curriculum vitae that he "has become a recognized expert" in his field. He may be, but his verbal assault on racetracks and states - using terms in published reports and in a letter on the Jockeys' Guild website such as "morally reprehensible," "depraved indifference," and "Master and Slave," and comparing the jocks' situation to Selma, Ala. - seem a strange approach for a man who authored an eight-hour audiotape series called "Everything's Negotiable."

The racetracks of this country contribute $2.2 million a year to a fund for jockeys, and Steve Sexton, president of Churchill Downs, which Gertmenian in his website letter contemptuously calls the "Churchill Plantation," is totally justified asking where the $6.6 million went that was paid in the last three years. Gertmenian won't answer, but he can't excommunicate Sexton.

Gertmenian attended the first meeting of a National Thoroughbred Racing Association committee trying to solve the problem, and then issued a statement that "I did not offer suggestions, since that would have been presumptuous on my part." Presumptuous for the otherwise strident president of a supposedly aggrieved organization to voice his views on the issue he is fomenting?

That and a number of other things about this mess are strange. Gertmenian says he is assembling a troop of 50 lawyers - representing the Jockeys' Guild without a fee - to sue 33 states that do not currently offer workers' compensation for jocks.

Some jockeys would like to be both independent contractors and employees, as convenience dictates. Maryland's Alan Foreman, one of the leading racing lawyers in America, found a way to resolve this anachronism. He created the Maryland Insurance Fund, which serves as the technical employer of the jockeys. Owners and trainers also are members of the fund. They paid between $200 and $225 a year to cover a $670,000 premium for the desired coverage this year. In New Jersey, a $500,000 premium for coverage is paid by purse deductions not to exceed 3 percent. In harness racing, Chubb Insurance writes a $250,000 accident, death, and disablement policy for $240 a month.

There clearly is a rational solution to replace Gertmenian's call for blood. Either way, it will make for interesting discussion in Tucson. The flavor may not be vanilla, but a jalapeno sundae now and then can be different, if not exactly enjoyable.