01/22/2015 4:32PM

Hovdey: Fiddling with rules burns jockeys' image

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The Jockeys’ Guild should have had a pretty good week.

On Saturday night at Gulfstream Park, guild members Javier Castellano and Drayden Van Dyke put a polished image on display in graceful, heartfelt acceptances of their Eclipse Awards for the 2014 season.

On Monday, the guild’s directors and available members assembled in Florida to do their annual business while taking advantage of the afterglow from Eclipse Awards festivities. They were rewarded with a handsome turnout of industry celebrities, including past guild presidents Jerry Bailey and Chris McCarron.

That same night, on the nationally syndicated broadcast of “Jeopardy!,” the $800 Double Jeopardy question under the category of “Labor” was: “Founding members of their guild, the J.G., include Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden and John Pollard.” The answer was, “What is the Jockeys’ Guild?” And somebody got it right.

Unfortunately, the only jockey news to make headlines from Sunday morning on was the Roman Chapa story from Sam Houston Race Park and his suspension by Texas racing authorities pending investigations into Chapa’s alleged possession of an electrical device in a race Saturday night. Chapa, a two-time loser on similar charges from his past, is a member in good standing of the Jockeys’ Guild.

The concept of using an electrical shock to terrify a racehorse into a burst of forward energy is vomit-inducing from any number of angles, just as it is absurd that jockeys come up with the idea on their own. The fact that it has been practiced for decades, with a wink here and a nod there, is one of those dirty secrets that racetrackers share to their everlasting shame. Every jockey will have a buzzer story, whether they’ve used one in the morning or afternoon, or refuse to go along and jeopardize their business.

The guild issued a predictably measured statement in the wake of the Chapa story that tried to have it both ways, vowing to “insure that all its members receive due process in the event they face charges for improper conduct,” while condemning “the use of any devices that affect the performance of any horse.”

If this sounds like coming down on the side of motherhood and apple pie, good call. But like any professional group, the guild is loath to hang a member out to dry, at least until he or she saws off the limb (mixed metaphor duly noted). Terry Meyocks, the guild’s national manager, was somewhat more pointed, however, when asked what advice he would give a jockey who was given the choice of using a buzzer or losing a mount.

“Say no,” Meyocks said. “You’ve got to say no. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. Pick up the phone, call the TRPB integrity hotline and tell them what happened because believe me, if you get caught and stand to lose your license, or maybe even go to jail, that trainer won’t be there for you.”

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. But if the guild backs whistle-blowing members to the hilt, loudly and in public, the Chapa incident might be one of those watershed moments that inspires a fundamental shift in racing culture.

Forgive riders, however, if they suffer from a number of mixed messages, some of them highlighted at the Guild Assembly this week.

For instance, as the menu of exotic bets expands at the same pace as concerns for animal abuse, jockeys would like to know just how hard they are supposed to ride for fifth place in a Super High Five race when the difference between purse placings amounts to about a hundred bucks, and their horse might be dead tired and far behind the winner.

In an era of technological advancements in sports equipment and testing, with helmet and vest designs improving by leaps and bounds, riders and their representatives are right to wonder why state racing commissions are so reluctant to require such protective gear as part of a racetrack’s license application. Likewise other sensible, precautionary measures, most of them urged by the accreditation process of the NTRA’s Safety and Integrity Alliance.

“If a racetrack can’t do prerace exams at racetracks, they shouldn’t get licensed,” Meyocks said. “If you can’t monitor shockwave therapy, a track shouldn’t get licensed. If you don’t have paramedics on site, they shouldn’t get licensed. These should be very basic concerns of commissions.”

Ah, but that would be preventive medicine, and everyone knows how that goes down. Meyocks can point to the 154 jockey fatalities since 1940 and the 71 riders who currently qualify as permanently disabled as reasons enough to continue banging on the drum for more emphasis on safety measures. Juan Saez, a promising apprentice killed at Indiana Grand last October, was not officially honored at the Eclipse Awards but mentioned more than once, especially by fellow apprentice Van Dyke.

“Why are we doing this? All this emphasis on better helmets, vests, safety reins, rails?” Meyocks said. “It benefits everybody if we can prevent riders from being killed or paralyzed. It’s very cost-prohibitive to have the ontrack accident policies. But if we work together to reduce these incidents, it can be beneficial to everyone.”

So, there’s the challenge. Bad news like the Chapa story can be marginalized with a preponderance of swift, positive action. To prevent considerably worse news like the death of Saez requires persistent pressure and creative compromise from groups like the Jockeys’ Guild and the sport’s other major players. Meyocks is hopeful but realistic.

“The blinkers are on in a lot of cases,” he said. “We need to open up the blinkers.”