12/09/2009 12:00AM

Jockeys, horsemen clash on mount fees

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TUCSON, Ariz. - Representatives of jockeys and trainers clashed Tuesday afternoon during a panel presentation at the University of Arizona's Symposium on Racing and Gaming over a model rule that sets minimums for the amount of money owners must pay riders in races.

Representatives of two major horsemen's organizations, the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and the National Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said that they strongly objected to Saturday's endorsement by the Association of Racing Commissioners International of the model rule, a vote that was supported by the Jockeys' Guild.

The rule codifies broad matrices of increases in losing mount fees based on the identity of the track and the purses of the race, and it calls for mount fees to be indexed to the government's cost-of-living adjustment used for Social Security payments. Under the model rule, some losing mount fees would increase by 100 percent.

Jeff Johnston, a regional manager for the Jockeys' Guild, said the increases address nearly two decades of stagnation in losing mount fees. Johnston said that jockeys were paid an average of $40 in losing mount fees in 1985 and that mount fees only increased once since then, by $5 in 2001, before the Guild began pushing individual tracks to increase fees last year.

Horsemen's representatives, however, countered that the losing mount fees should be subject to negotiation between a track's jockey colony and its horsemen's group and not set by racing regulators. They also claimed that the cost-of-living adjustment did not properly reflect economic conditions in the racing industry, which started stagnating in inflation-adjusted terms a decade ago and began declining in recent years.

"As newly minted as the model rule is, we seek a repeal of it," said Joe Santanna, president of the National HBPA.

The disagreement between the two groups has largely been played out behind the scenes over the past year, and the public airing of the two sides' grievances reflected the sharp divisions between opponents and supporters. Mike Campbell, president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said that negotiations between jockeys and horsemen this year over the issue at Arlington Park and Hawthorne dominated relations between the groups for 10 months, with trainers accusing other trainers of being traitors and jockeys threatening walkouts.

"If you want real disharmony, if you want to get nothing else done for the rest of the year, then just get involved in this issue," Campbell said. "You'll have to put everything else, even the most important things you do, off to the side."

Alan Foreman, chairman of the National THA, called the endorsement of the model rule a mistake and then said that the racing industry would be better served by reallocating proceeds from races under an entirely different model than the one used now, which awards the vast majority of purse earnings to the top tier of jockeys. Under any revision, Foreman said, the have-nots would get a portion of the money currently earned by the haves.

"The guys at the top get the money, and the guys at the bottom get the scraps," Foreman said. "That's never changed. And maybe that's the problem. We're in a time in the racing industry when we're re-examining every way in which we do business, and we should do that here, too."

The racing commissioners' group also endorsed another model rule affecting jockeys at its meeting Saturday. The rule states that no jockey will be assigned a weight lower than 118 pounds, with exceptions for apprentices.

Practically speaking, the rule, if adopted in a jurisdiction, would affect a small number of horses and races, since many racing secretaries have adopted conditions that rarely go below 118. However, jockey representatives said that the rule would relieve the physical and mental stress on many jockeys who struggle with their weight.

Most representatives of horsemen said that they supported the new rule, but Foreman cautioned that the revision of the standard upward could result in a gradual creep that would do nothing to address the pressures because heavier riders would now be encouraged to lose weight under the new system. That would result in a new set of jockeys potentially engaging in dangerous behavior.

Johnston, who retired from riding several years ago, said that if heavier, less-experienced riders did attempt to get mounts under the new scheme, it would only increase the competition in the jockeys' colony, and that would weed out the less talented riders.

"As you get more riders, you get more competition, and you can't abuse your body like that and still perform at a high level," Johnston said.