06/29/2006 11:00PM

Guild's decision a giant step back

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NEW YORK - The Jockeys' Guild's decision to hire Jesse Jackson and Dwight Manley as its new national managers appears to be both a declaration of war on the racing industry and an eerie rerun of previous decisions that have nearly bankrupted the organization and cost it credibility.

Five years ago, the guild fired its longtime management team and cast its lot with Dr. Wayne Gertmenian, an entrepreneur and management guru who hypnotized the guild's leadership with class-warfare rhetoric and pie-in-the-sky promises. After four years of "leadership" from Gertmenian and his Matrix Capital Associates, the jockeys belatedly found that their treasury was depleted and their insurance policies had not been renewed. They finally sacked Gertmenian and Matrix earlier this year, and it seemed that the riders were headed in a positive new direction to resolve some legitimate issues involving insurance and safety.

They considered some sound choices for their new leadership among several candidates with extensive industry experience and good relationships with the track operators. There was John Giovanni, who had been unfairly deposed in the 2001 Gertmenian coup, or Terry Meyocks, the former New York Racing Association and National Thoroughbred Racing Association executive. They also were given a strong and detailed presentation from David Stevenson, a former rider and track executive and current simulcast-company owner.

Any of these candidates would have been welcomed by the racing industry for their professionalism and experience. Perhaps that welcome is exactly what led the wing of the guild that believes jockeys are oppressed and exploited laborers in the opposite direction. This past Monday, the guild's board voted instead not only to hire, but also to give a permanent equity stake in their organization, to two confrontational neophytes: Manley, a millionaire coin collector and sports agent with a very short client list, and Jackson, the civil rights activist who has become better known in recent years for extracting donations to the advocacy groups he runs from American corporations he protests.

Jackson met the riders for the first time Monday, spoke with reporters afterward, and came flying out of the gate in his racing debut with incendiary and ill-informed comments. First, referring to the jockeys' well-established legal status as independent contractors, Jackson called that term "a long word meaning semi-indentured servant," which amounts to calling every self-employed person in the country a slave.

Jackson further revealed his ignorance about his new cause by telling the riders, "At the end of the day, you get some roses, but someone else gets the money" and that "The jockeys must leverage their power to demand a share of the industry's growth." Wrong and wrong. The jockeys do get 10 percent of the purse money as well as roses when they win the Kentucky Derby, and the fact that they operate on a percentage basis means they do receive a share of any growth. As purses go up, so do their earnings, just like the owners and trainers.

The "leverage their power" part is a naked threat of boycotts and work stoppages, and Jackson is going to be surprised to learn that his semi-indentured servants both lack such leverage and are a longshot to act cohesively, especially now that the guild membership is deeply divided over its new leadership. When Jackson inevitably calls for riders to strike in the name of human rights and worker solidarity on the eve of the Breeders' Cup or the Derby, he is going to be in for a rude surprise when his board members tell him there's no way they're giving up their mounts in seven-digit races.

This is not to say that the riders do not have some real issues that need resolution. There is not a person in racing who does not want to see them receive adequate insurance and improved safety measures, and perhaps there are ways to reconfigure fee structures more equitably to help struggling riders at the low end of the profession. These are issues, however, that would have been better addressed by other candidates who are knowledgeable, experienced, and who have positive relationships within the industry.

It is difficult to believe that the riders thought that Manley and Jackson represented their best chance of achieving those goals. Their choice instead seems to reflect longtime feelings of anger and disenfranchisement that they are not as celebrated as other professional athletes. By choosing flashy entrepreneurship and demagoguery over experienced management, just as they did five years ago, the riders once again appear to favor confrontation over progress, and the guild's credibility is back to where it was during the darkest days of the Gertmenian era.