04/24/2008 11:00PM

Jockeys balk until they get pay raise

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STICKNEY, Ill. - The first race on Friday's racing program at Hawthorne was delayed nearly two hours as jockeys, trying to raise the base mount fee paid to riders in Chicago, declined to participate. The day's first race, scheduled for 3 p.m. Central, eventually went off at about 4:55, but only after four of the seven horses left the paddock and went back to their barns, causing them to be scratched.

"We're going to do everything we can today to finish the races," said Jim Miller, Hawthorne's assistant general manager.

During the delay late Friday afternoon, an agreement was reached among jockeys, Illinois horsemen, and the Illinois Racing Board to actually change the mount-fee scale in Chicago. According to jockey Randy Meier, who was closely involved in negotiations, the base mount fee, paid for merely riding in a race, was raised from $45 to $75. Jockeys finishing fourth or fifth will receive a 2-percent commission beginning Friday, where in the past, fourth- and fifth-place finishers were only paid base mount fees.

Meier said that the agreement had been hammered out over opposition from the leadership of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.

"The IRB is on our side, the racetracks are on our side," Meier said.

Jockeys pushed to raise the pay scale last June at Arlington, but the movement failed. A lawsuit was filed trying to force a change, but that suit was dropped earlier this year, Meier said, to try and facilitate negotiations with the state horsemen's group. Owners who choose not to pay jockeys according to the new rate can scratch their horses, but Meier said that the new agreement had "unanimous support" from the Hawthorne jockey colony.

Miller, the Hawthorne official, said the track wouldn't prevent horses from being scratched Friday who had received Lasix shots in anticipation of a normal post time.

Change of plans brings Zimmerman home

Jockey Ramsey Zimmerman, who was raised just down the road from Arlington Park in the nearby town of Barrington, is returning home this summer. Zimmerman, who first started riding in 1998 at Arlington, has ridden here only sparingly since 2001, and his career nearly went completely off the tracks in the early 2000s.

Zimmerman has come back to Arlington only because of unforeseen circumstances. On the final day of the Fair Grounds meet in late March, Zimmerman was thrown from a first-time starter in the post parade for a maiden race. He injured his foot, but didn't know the extent of the problem until after he had traveled to Texas to begin preparing for the Lone Star Park meet. Zimmerman topped the rider standings last year at Lone Star, winning 82 races in his first season at the track, and had every reason to anticipate another strong season there. But his foot problem, diagnosed as a hairline fracture of a metatarsal bone, stopped Zimmerman short.

"I actually did go to Lone Star to breeze some horses after Fair Grounds, but I wasn't able to [ride]," Zimmerman said. "I breezed nine horses one morning, and I couldn't get my boot off afterward."

The injury gave Zimmerman space to reconsider his summer plans, and in the end, he decided to give Arlington a shot.

"I came up here, got a couple good outfits that should support me, and got a real good agent that was interested in taking me," Zimmerman said.

The agent is Penny Ffitch-Heyes, whose riders traditionally win their share of races in Chicago. Zimmerman hopes to build on the tangible success he has had since the fall of 2006. Zimmerman went to Fair Grounds that winter, had a solid meet there, and parlayed his success into the Lone Star riding title. He rode 70 winners at Remington Park last fall, and had an even better Fair Grounds meet this year, winning 60 races.

This is a long way from Zimmerman's path several years ago. At one point, he lost his license to ride in Illinois because of positive drug tests, and by 2005, though Zimmerman was riding in Illinois, he was plying his trade at small-circuit Fairmount Park. At Arlington, Zimmerman has not won a race since 2002, and has ridden only 11 horses at Chicago's summer track since then. Nonetheless, Zimmerman said he comes back to Chicago not feeling like he has something to prove.

"I've done well all over the country, and there's no reason to think I can't do well here," Zimmerman said. "It seems like people are pretty excited about me coming home to ride."