11/18/2005 1:00AM

If hearing is any indication, jockey insurance bill a longshot

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - The possibility that the U.S. Congress will pass legislation that forces the racing industry to pay for a national jockeys' insurance program seemed remote at the close of a second hearing on Thursday into jockeys' health and welfare issues.

The hearing, which was called by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, drew far less interest from legislators than the committee's first hearing Oct. 18, which focused on the management of the Jockeys' Guild. Only three members of the committee - Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) - took an active role in questioning the 17 people who testified, and only one, Stupak, seemed intent on holding racetracks fully responsible for gaps in jockeys' coverage created when the guild decided to allow a policy covering its members for $1 million in medical bills to lapse in 2002.

Overall, that lack of interest - and a seeming lack of understanding about federal legislation that currently regulates the sport - appeared to indicate that federal legislators would find it difficult to craft a politically palatable bill that would radically change how the industry currently deals with insurance issues.

Stupak - who was one of eight Democratic members of the subcommittee who sent a letter to the National Labor Relations Board a week ago asking the board to reconsider a decision 30 years ago that held that jockeys could not collectively bargain with racetracks - repeatedly asserted that racetracks, trainers, and owners were flourishing while ignoring the needs of jockeys. His remarks were supported by Darrell Haire, the interim national manager of the Guild, but openly challenged by most other panelists.

Stupak had easy targets when aggressively questioning representatives of Mountaineer Park and Charles Town Races, two West Virginia racetracks that draw the vast majority of their revenues from slot machine operations. Separate accidents at Mountaineer and Charles Town last year resulted in two riders being paralyzed.

Using back-of-the-envelope figures for the amount of money the West Virginia tracks make per day on their slot machine operations, Stupak wanted the officials - John Finamore, the senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming Inc., which owns Charles Town, and Rose Mary Williams, the director of racing for Mountaineer - to explain why the tracks had not increased their catastrophic insurance coverage to $1 million, as many tracks have done in the past year.

Williams argued that Mountaineer officials had approached the track's current insurance provider about upping the coverage to $1 million but that the provider refused to provide a quote. Finamore contended that Charles Town and Penn National paid $160,000 to the guild last year in the hopes that the organization would restore its lapsed policy, while repeatedly contending that racetracks do not employ jockeys.

After receiving those answers, Stupak directly asked the two representatives whether they would "tomorrow, do the right thing," by increasing their insurance coverage, and both evaded the question.

Both Stupak and Whitfield repeatedly offered a solution to raising money for jockeys - amending the Interstate Horse Racing Act in order to cut jockeys in on a share of the proceeds from simulcasting. But both seemed surprised when Marty Maline, the executive director of the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, and Chris Scherf, the executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, pointed out that jockeys already receive a cut of simulcasting revenues through their share of purses.

After the hearing, Scherf said that he believed legislators would have never been attracted to jockeys' issues if the guild had not allowed its policy to lapse, and that the industry had been adequately protecting jockeys prior to the guild's decision. In addition, Scherf said, the industry would, within the next year, develop a long-term solution on its own without the help of federal intervention.

"I think they're overestimating the problem before us, at least in terms of adequate accident insurance," Scherf said. "The money is there, we're just not getting it into the right [places]."

That's not to say that legislators won't attempt to intervene. Toward the end of the five-hour hearing, Stupak told representatives that the subcommittee was "looking for a revenue source, because we have to take care of these folks."