12/05/2002 1:00AM

Insurance agreement near

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - An insurance program that will offer less expensive workers' compensation rates for California Thoroughbred trainers could be launched in the next few days.

Ed Halpern, the executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, said on Thursday that an agreement had been reached with American Insurance Group to offer policies that will cover backstretch workers and jockeys.

There was some hope the policies would be available quickly, but Halpern warned that the program could be delayed until next week, pending the working out of details.

The insurance issue has been a concern for California racing throughout the year.

Since March, California trainers have seen insurance rates escalate after the last private company decided to stop renewing policies in February. The last of the private policies expired in July. Since March, trainers have been forced to buy insurance with the Government-backed State Fund, which has higher rates than the private insurers.

The new policy will offer a base rate of $31.28 per $100 of payroll for backstretch employees and $73.81 per jockey mount. With possible discounts for experience and a lack of claims, many trainers will pay rates of approximately $25 for payroll and $50 for jockey mounts. Some will pay even less.

By comparison, State Fund offered base rates of $48.40 for payroll and $105 for a jockey mount for policies that were purchased in July.

The number of trainers who will switch from the State Fund to the new program was not immediately clear, Halpern said. Some trainers who joined State Fund in March pay lower rates than trainers who joined State Fund in July, and therefore wouldn't benefit as much by switching to American Insurance.

But State Fund has notified trainers that its premiums will rise by at least 25 percent next year.

"For many trainers, the rates are lower; for some they are similar, and some they don't help," Halpern said of the new program.

Recently, State Fund notified policyholders that they would be entitled to a refund of their deposit if they terminate their policy, Halpern said. There was concern that the American Insurance program would not have sufficient enrollment if trainers did not receive refunds, which for many are in excess of $10,000.

Earlier this year, legislation was enacted redirecting money from a stabling and vanning fund and a marketing fund to help offset the cost of workers' compensation policies.

Some trainers have been forced to reduce staff and the size of their stables to cut costs. Many of the added costs of insurance have been passed on to owners in the form of higher daily training fees.

One trainer, Jose Silva, cited the rising insurance costs as a reason for leaving the sport earlier this year.