03/25/2005 1:00AM

Guild claims Churchill violated jockeys' rights


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Jockeys' Guild has filed a counterclaim to a lawsuit brought by Churchill Downs Inc. in which the Guild contends that Churchill violated the constitutional rights of more than two dozen riders last November when they were ejected from two of its racetracks.

The claim, filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Louisville, denies that the Guild illegally coordinated walkouts at Churchill Downs and Hoosier Park, a contention in Churchill's lawsuit. The claim alleges that Churchill engaged in a conspiracy to violate jockeys' free-expression rights by having riders who refused to leave the grounds at the two tracks arrested.

Julie Koenig Loignon, director of communications for Churchill, said Friday that the company would have no response to the counterclaim.

Churchill Downs filed suit in early March. The suit included a transcript of a conference call held by the Guild's board of directors on Nov. 7 in which Guild officers and members discussed strategies in dealing with Churchill in general and also a possible walkout at Hoosier Park.

Five days later, on Nov. 12, 15 jockeys refused to ride at Hoosier, citing safety concerns. Hoosier canceled that day's card and eventually barred 14 riders for the remainder of the meet.

The Churchill lawsuit said that since jockeys are independent contractors, the Guild cannot encourage any labor actions. The Guild's counterclaim denied that interpretation, saying that the Guild has engaged in collective-bargaining negotiations with racetracks in which it was recognized as the representative of jockeys.

"This court must reject Churchill's bid to achieve economic dominance by preventing jockeys from organizing for their safety in an industry in which every other market force is organized," the complaint states.

The counterclaim is the latest development in a conflict that has flared repeatedly between the racing industry and the Jockeys' Guild since November. The Guild is intent on securing more accident insurance coverage for jockeys. Racetrack operators have raised concern about money that they have paid the Guild and that some track officials say should be used to pay for insurance.

The Guild's counterclaim attempts to make the case that racetracks employ riders, along with owners and trainers, a point that racetracks flatly deny. Christopher Lasch, a Louisville attorney who is representing the Guild in the lawsuit, said that racetracks employ riders because "they act in a lot of ways as an employer" by providing working space at the track and by exercising rights to bar riders.

Courts have consistently held that racetracks may bar any individuals from their grounds. Lasch contended that Churchill overstepped its authority by barring the riders last year by "failing to understand that jockeys have a constitutional right to gather and discuss matters that are important to them."