12/03/2004 1:00AM

Jockeys back riding, believe protest helped


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As the now infamous Churchill Downs jockey boycott and lockout grow more distant in racing's rearview mirror, the long-term effects of that unsettling period are becoming clearer.

For the most part, the 14 jockeys who were banned by Churchill for declining to ride on Nov. 10 in a long-simmering dispute over adequate accident insurance coverage now say they are back in a working groove, feeling little to no effects from what transpired. Moreover, they say they feel vindicated because their action ultimately helped lead to the formation of an industry panel that will explore the insurance issue in depth.

The largest group from within the banned 14 is riding at Turfway Park - six riders have been active since the Florence, Ky., track began its meet last Sunday. Several of those interviewed say they have been pleasantly surprised that they have been able to resume their careers without incident.

Willie Martinez, one of the banned jockeys, won five races during the first three cards at Turfway.

"It makes me feel good that some people don't forget about you," said Martinez. "I was never worried about coming back and getting back on track. There are different ways to describe what happened, but what's done is done. My only regret is that trainers and owners may have taken it a different way than we meant, and things escalated. I kind of feel bad about it.

"I missed a lot of good mounts at Churchill and a lot of money," Martinez said. "But it got people to look at the issue, and hopefully something good will come from something bad. They say time heals all wounds. We've all got to move forward."

Said Dean Butler, another of the 14: "So far, so good. Nobody's really said anything to me. I did something that I believe in. Now I'm just coming out, doing my work."

Jeff Johnston, who also joined the unofficial boycott, said: "I don't think it's affected us a lot. I think we did the right thing, although the one thing that gets me is there were some riders who said they weren't going to accept mounts, but they missed the meeting where we got ruled off and so they were able to ride at Churchill. But I think most of my business is still there. It's not like I've been turned around by anybody."

Among prominent jockeys who did not move to Turfway after the ban was lifted with the Nov. 28 end of the Churchill meet, Robby Albarado and Rafael Bejarano have resumed riding at Fair Grounds and Aqueduct, respectively; Mark Guidry, who was unavailable Friday, has told friends that he intends to begin riding in Southern California soon.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association assembled a panel that met Nov. 22 at Turfway to begin amassing information in an attempt to find a solution to the insurance issue.

Despite the riders' positive impressions, some trainers say they haven't forgotten what happened Nov. 10.

"Given a choice between riders of equal caliber, some trainers are going to go with the guy who didn't walk out," said trainer Dale Romans. "I believe quite a few trainers feel that way, at least for the present. I want to pick the people who stuck with me. Some of those riders left us hanging pretty bad."

Overall, however, the return of the jockeys has been uneventful. Turfway president Bob Elliston said he has been monitoring how they have been received.

"So far it appears that the transition back has been smooth," said Elliston. "We haven't had any incidents whatsoever of hostility toward the jockeys, which I'm very pleased to see. It seems we're back to normal."

Back in the saddle again

The 14 jockeys banned at Churchill in November

Robby Albarado, riding at FG

Rafael Bejarano, riding at Aqu

Calvin Borel, rides next at OP

Dean Butler, riding at TP

Jesus Castanon, rides next at Tam

Joe Deegan, riding at TP

Mark Guidry, rides next at SA or GP

Jeff Johnston, riding at TP

Willie Martinez, riding at TP

Orlando Mojica, rides next at Tam

Brian Peck, riding at TP

Craig Perret, indefinite

Justin Shepherd, rides next at OP

Eddie Zuniga, riding at TP