11/16/2004 12:00AM

Insurance summit

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has assembled a 33-member task force that will meet on Monday in Florence, Ky., to explore solutions to the problem of inadequate accident insurance coverage for jockeys.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - When the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's task force on medical insurance for jockeys convenes on Monday at Turfway Park, one of the first topics under discussion will be a push for more states to cover jockeys under workers' compensation plans, panel members said Tuesday.

The task force, with 33 members from a cross section of the industry, will be headed by Keith Chamblin, the NTRA's senior vice president for marketing and industry relations, and has hired the services of an employment-law expert, Anthony Byergo, of the St. Louis-based company Armstrong Teasdale. The panel's mission is to search for solutions to the problem of inadequate accident insurance for jockeys after disputes at two tracks earlier this month resulted in the ban of 28 riders and the cancellation of one racing program.

This is the first of a series of meetings for the panel, but the complete schedule has not been set.

"It's not intended to be a negotiation of any kind," Chamblin said. "It's supposed to be a careful review of the facts and the perspectives of all the different viewpoints that are going to be around the table."

The task force was formed last week after Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., and Hoosier Park in Anderson, Ind., each banned 14 jockeys who refused to ride in a dispute over safety and insurance concerns. At Churchill, the riders have been banned from the grounds until the track's fall meet ends on Nov. 27. At Hoosier, the length of the bans have not been determined, according to Julie Koenig-Loignon, a spokeswoman for Churchill Downs Inc., which owns both tracks, although Hoosier's meet ends Sunday.

According to Chamblin, the NTRA panel is likely to look at models in place in five states where jockeys are covered under workers' compensation laws. In those states - California, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, and Idaho - jockeys are considered employees of trainers and owners. The programs in those states generally require owners, trainers, and sometimes jockeys to make contributions through purse funds to pay the insurance premiums, according to Chris Scherf, the executive vice president of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, which secures accident-insurance policies for tracks.

Jockeys are currently covered under policies purchased by individual racetracks that provide up to $100,000 in coverage for medical bills for any accident on the track. Critics, especially the management of the Jockeys' Guild, have said that the coverage should be at least $1 million and that the tracks should pay for it.

Darrell Haire, a former rider, is the lone representative of the Jockeys' Guild on the panel. The Guild, which claims 1,250 members, has been at the center of the Churchill and Hoosier boycotts. The group was formed in the 1940's to provide a fund-raising platform to care for disabled jockeys, but over the past several years it has evolved to loosely represent riders' concerns.

Haire and Albert Fiss, another Guild official, were in the jockeys' room at Hoosier when more than a dozen jockeys refused to ride 10 minutes before the first race last Friday night. The program was eventually canceled. On Tuesday, Fiss said that Guild representatives were invited to Hoosier by the riding colony to act as observers.

Two other jockeys, Pat Day and Jerry Bailey, have been named to the NTRA panel, along with a retired jockey, Donna Brothers, who rode as Donna Barton. Day, Bailey, and three other riders resigned from the Guild in 2001 after the Guild board voted to remove John Giovanni as national manager in favor of its current management, Matrix Capital Associates.

Many racing officials have strained relationships with the Guild's president, Dr. L. Wayne Gertmenian, who owns Matrix, and some members of the NTRA panel have suggested that the makeup of the task force could have the effect of minimizing the Guild's ability to influence the debate over insurance solutions.

Gertmenian has argued that racetracks and other industry groups should foot the bill for jockeys insurance, and his outspoken and uncompromising tone has made several industry officials uncomfortable. During a speech at a recent conference of the North American Pari-Mutuel Regulators, he told regulators that the Guild would soon file lawsuits against personnel at state regulatory agencies, according to Linda Mills, the president of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, who attended the meeting. Mills has been appointed to the NTRA panel.

"He told the regulators that because of their depraved indifference, because they knew about the existence of sweat boxes and flipping bowls, he was going to sue each and every one of them," said Mills.

The Guild is currently embroiled in its own problems. The Guild's treasurer, Eddie King, said he was removed from the Guild's board on Nov. 7 after he repeatedly called for an outside audit of the group and asked Guild officials to account for a $1 million withdrawal from the Disabled Jockeys' Fund. Another 100 jockeys have signed a petition calling for an audit, according to Marguerite Davis, the wife of jockey Robbie Davis, who circulated the petition.

Tomey Jean Swan, a former jockey and the chairwoman of the Jockeys' Guild, said that members of the Guild's management had addressed King's concerns about the Disabled Jockeys' Fund earlier and found "no problems." She said King had continued to talk to reporters about his concerns, despite those answers and warnings from the board. Swan said members of the board, known as the senate, felt that King should be removed.

"Our senate believed that Eddie had an agenda that did not have the best interests of the riders at heart," Swan said.

The Guild previously purchased catastrophic insurance covering jockeys up to $1 million, but the Guild's current management let the policy expire in April 2002, citing an increase in premiums. According to some jockeys and their wives, many riders were unaware that the catastrophic insurance was allowed to lapse until Gary Birzer, a rider at Mountaineer Park, was paralyzed in a riding accident earlier this year.

Aside from the current $100,000 in accident coverage provided by tracks, the Thoroughbred Racing Associa-tions member tracks contribute $2.2 million a year to the Guild through a system of fees based on the number of starts made by horses each year. In exchange, the Guild signed a contract with the TRA waiving jockeys' broadcast rights for the purposes of simulcasting. The contract expires at the end of 2005.

Swan said that the Guild has used the payment from the TRA to supplement a family health-insurance policy it offers to its members that does not cover accidents or injuries on the track.

In Kentucky, approximately 20 jockeys have taken out insurance policies in the past week through an offer originating with Churchill Downs through Anthem Blue Cross-Blue Shield, the vice president of Anthem, Jude Thompson, said late Monday.

The insurance policies, which have monthly premiums that can range from $30 to $250, provide jockeys and their families with up to $5 million in coverage for medical bills, but the policies do not provide for disability payments.

When asked why the Guild did not search for insurers willing to write policies for the jockeys, Fiss said, "It is not the jockeys' responsibility to purchase insurance for the injuries they sustain on the racetrack. If the racetrack wants to continue to cap insurance at $100,000, we will take our lawyers and bring them to court to sue them for negligence."