12/06/2004 1:00AM

Guild under scrutiny as member jockeys gather


Members and officials of the Jockeys' Guild gathered in Dallas on Monday for a two-day annual meeting amid calls for unity from its executive director and questions from some riders about its leadership.

The Guild, in its third year under Matrix Capital Associates, a management group owned by L. Wayne Gertmenian, is at a critical juncture. The organization claims 1,250 members, manages several funds for disabled jockeys, and lobbies for jockeys' issues. But the group has been under fire from some riders, and two weeks ago, one of its board members, Kent Desormeaux, said he was beginning an inquiry into the Guild's financial practices and Gertmenian's qualifications. Desormeaux said he planned to present the results of the inquiry at the annual meeting.

The meeting, conducted privately, was still in session late Monday afternoon. A Guild spokesman, Eric Banks, said the group would issue a statement later Monday night.

Over the past several years, Gertmenian and other Guild officials have called on the racing industry to improve accident insurance coverage for jockeys, forcefully enough to alienate some track operators. Guild officials have said that racetracks should be responsible for purchasing accident insurance for jockeys and that the policies should provide at least $1 million of coverage. Previously, the Guild paid for $1 million in accident coverage for jockeys, but it let the policy lapse in 2002.

Last week, Gertmenian posted a letter on the Guild's website calling on jockeys to unite behind the Guild's mission, comparing racetracks to "plantation" owners who had enslaved jockeys.

"Now is the time to throw off your chains," Gertmenian wrote. "Get to Dallas for the annual assembly and help the Guild end this abuse. Solidarity and absolute discipline will win the race."

Last week, Churchill Downs president Steve Sexton and Kelly Wietsma, the president of Equisponse, a company that secures advertisements and sponsorships for jockeys, sent letters to the Guild asking questions about how the group manages its finances. The letters were made public and were clearly timed to increase pressure on Gertmenian.

Criticism of the Guild's management has come from a relatively small but vocal minority of jockeys, some of whom have sued the Guild. In separate lawsuits, former Guild directors Robert Colton and Eddie King accused Gertmenian of mismanaging the Guild's finances and of preventing its directors from reviewing the organization's financial statements. King is a former treasurer and Colton a former chief financial officer for the Guild.

Banks, the Guild spokesman, said that King was expelled from the group by a unanimous vote of the Guild's board, earlier on Monday.

Gertmenian and Matrix appear to have strong support from many of the Guild's board members and from many rank-and-file members. Despite Desormeaux's promised inquiry, Guild board members contacted over the past several weeks have declined to comment, have not returned phone calls, or have said they support Gertmenian.

"I'm going to let [Gertmenian] talk for me," said Ray Sibille, the Guild's current treasurer, in a recent interview. Sibille declined to answer any other questions.

Gertmenian has not responded to requests for comment.

Complaints about the Guild began in the summer, after jockey Gary Birzer was critically injured in a fall at Mountaineer Racetrack. Afterward, some jockeys complained that they had not been informed by the Guild's management of its decision to allow the accident insurance policy to lapse.

Forms filed by the Guild with the Department of Labor show that the organization had $4.2 million in cash at the end of 2002, the year the Guild let the insurance policy lapse, up from $2.1 million at the beginning of the year. The policy cost approximately $450,000 for one year, according to Guild records.

Questions about Gertmenian's qualifications revolve around several positions listed on his resume posted on the Internet site belonging to the University of Pepperdine, where he is a tenured professor in the school of business. The positions - Gertmenian claimed he was chief detente negotiator in Moscow for the National Security Council and emissary to Teheran for the Commerce Secretary during the Nixon and Ford administrations - could not be substantiated by official archivists at the Nixon and Ford libraries.

- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini