10/18/2005 12:00AM

House panel critical of Guild leadership

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WASHINGTON - Members of a U.S. House subcommittee harshly criticized the Jockeys' Guild on Tuesday for the guild's decision in 2002 not to renew a catastrophic insurance policy that covered riders for up to $1 million in medical expenses.

The criticism came at a hearing called by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which stretched late into the afternoon as members leveled increasingly pointed questions at the guild's management, including president L. Wayne Gertmenian. The questions revolved around the guild's business practices and the decision not to renew the insurance policy, which covered jockeys for up to $1 million for any ontrack accident.

The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Ed Whitfield, a Republican from Kentucky, and has been investigating the guild and looking into riders' health and welfare issues since last March.

By the end of the Tuesday session, many of the subcommittee's members had issued withering criticisms. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, closed his questioning by calling Gertmenian's leadership of the guild a "disgrace."

"It sure looks to me like you got in control of the guild, got your cronies on the board, did everything you could to keep the guild members in the dark about the lack of an insurance policy to cover ontrack accidents, and then you went out and started these front operations to put even more money in your pocket," Barton said. "I don't know if we have any guild members here, but if I was a dues-paying member of the guild, I would want new management."

Gertmenian was not specific in his comments, and he used his five-minute opening address to call for the racing industry to adopt new rules on how jockeys are weighed. Gertmenian appeared after five hours of testimony from former and current members of the guild in which the organization's practices were questioned.

The hearing began with testimony from Gary Birzer, a jockey who was paralyzed from the middle of the back down as the result of an accident at Mountaineer in 2004. Birzer and his wife, Amy, repeatedly told the subcommittee that the guild had never notified the couple that the catastrophic insurance policy was allowed to lapse. Amy Birzer said the couple still owes $500,000 in medical bills.

The guild is in its fourth year under Matrix Capital Associates, a management group owned by Gertmenian. 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 track operators.

Over the past several years, Gertmenian and other guild officials have called on the racing industry to improve accident insurance coverage for jockeys and have said that racetracks should be responsible for purchasing the policy.