09/22/2006 12:00AM

Jockey bill would open can of worms


NEW YORK - The Jockeys Insurance Fairness Act of 2006, a bill introduced to the House of Representatives on Thursday, is an ill-conceived, overreaching, and dangerous piece of legislation. It would imperil simulcasting and involve the federal government in regulating racing in ways that the industry would soon regret.

The bill, co-sponsored by Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), stems from Whitfield's hearings earlier this year into jockey insurance and the alleged mismanagement of Jockeys' Guild funds during the Wayne Gertmenian era. Those hearings were useful in shedding light on the topic and should be one of the catalysts to ensure that the guild and the tracks reach quick agreements on adequate coverage. Unfortunately, congressmen feel obliged to file legislation in the wake of any hearings they hold, so Whitfield's bill calls for amendments to the Interstate Horse Racing Act that would require 50 percent of the simulcasting revenue that goes to "horsemen's groups" to be used for offering insurance coverage.

Any tinkering with the IHRA is an invitation to disaster. That fragile document, which permits simulcasting and related account wagering, already is under siege from the anti-gambling brigade, the Justice Department, and various efforts to restrict Internet wagering. Altering the act to serve special-interest groups will be an invitation to others to do the same, and the federal government in any case should not be involved in divvying up simulcast revenues.

There is no indication that reasonable efforts to address the issue on a state-by-state level have been exhausted, and in some cases the jockeys have been the intransigent ones. In Whitfield's home state of Kentucky, the whole problem could have been solved under an agreement under which the tracks, owners, and jockeys would each have paid one-third the cost of an annual accident policy. The jockeys, however, pulled the plug at the last moment, refusing to make even a token contribution to their own coverage.

As with most congressional bills, this one doesn't even stay on topic. A bizarre second section to the bill calls for a further IHRA amendment that "No person may enter a horse in any horse-race that is the subject of an interstate off-track wager if such horse has been given anabolic steroids of any kind." What this has to do with jockeys' insurance is a mystery, and clearly no one has explained to the sponsors that many steroids have completely legitimate therapeutic applications for horses. This seems like some cheesy attempt to link racing to baseball's steroid woes and brand the sponsors as brave, zero-tolerance reformers.

Stupak's limited understanding of racing is clear from his inflammatory remarks in the press release accompanying the bill: "During the Kentucky Derby, the Woodford Reserve Distillery was selling $1,000 mint juleps with the proceeds going to a retirement fund for the race horses, yet there was no similar fundraising for the jockeys." So Stupak not only wants to tell private companies how to direct their charitable efforts but also would like to redirect money from defenseless animals to subsidize people who are unwilling to pay even one-third of their own health-care premiums.

Whitfield said he "hopes the bill will receive speedy consideration in the Congress," but political insiders say it has little chance of being brought to the floor this year. If there is any value at all to this bill, it will be in getting all sides in the insurance mess to the bargaining table quickly so that no similar federal legislation ever sees the light of day.

Misguided criticism

Politicians have no monopoly on grandstanding when it comes to racing, at least so long as the New York Times is around. In its most vitriolic editorial in recent weeks, it barbecued Kenneth Tomlinson, a federal appointee as the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the Voice of America radio operation, as a "gross embarrassment" and a "patronage hack" with "staying power more worthy of Dracula than Seabiscuit."

The reason for the racehorse reference, and what so infuriated the Times's editorialists, is that Tomlinson "operated a horse-racing business from high federal office." Tomlinson, who races a few horses including the turf claimer Massoud, who won twice at Saratoga, has described this sinister-sounding "operation" as a daily telephone call or e-mail message from his office and said it occupied an average of two minutes a day of his office time.

There are legitimate questions about some of Tomlinson's billings and expenditures, but going after him for his Thoroughbred activities is simple bias against horse racing and a smokescreen for the Times's dissatisfaction with his right-wing politics. If he had spent those two minutes a day chatting with his stockbroker or checking football scores and eBay listings, it would be considered as wholesome as apple pie, but because his hobby is what the Times snarkily calls "his hoofed interests," it's considered fair to call him a bloodsucker and make him a target for ridicule.