11/12/2004 12:00AM

For jockeys, an issue that hits home


Here is a sampling of opinions from jockeys across the country about the dispute over accident insurance at Churchill Downs, in which some riders threatened a boycott and the track banned 14 of them for the rest of Churchill's fall meet. Interviews were conducted by Karen M. Johnson (Aqueduct), Dave Basler (Beulah Park), Mike Welsch (Calder Race Course), Marty McGee (Churchill Downs), Chuck Dybdal (Golden Gate Fields), Marcus Hersh (Hawthorne Race Course), Jay Privman (Hollywood Park), Mike Farrell (The Meadowlands), and Mary Rampellini (Sam Houston Race Park).

Aqueduct - Ozone Park, N.Y.

Edgar Prado, 37

"It's a very good issue they are fighting for. I think the only thing that would achieve something is solidarity. I'm supportive."

Jose Santos, 43

"I think they did the right thing. It's a shame it turned out that they have to be fighting with Churchill Downs, one of the biggest racetracks in the world. They are looking for insurance. You know, $100,000 coverage is nothing. I think the NTRA and the industry needs to get together on this."

John Velazquez, 32

"I'm 100 percent behind them. I think everyone should be properly insured. If they [increased the insurance] for the Breeders' Cup, how come they can't do it for the rest of the meets? Some riders go paycheck to paycheck and why should their health be hurt by that."

Beulah Park - Grove City, Ohio

Nathan Solomon, 33

"The riders won't stick together so [a boycott] wouldn't do us any good."

J.J. Sunseri, 54

"This is supposed to be a democracy. We need to iron out our issues with management instead of them escorting the riders out the door. This a national issue that needs to be addressed, and it isn't going to go away. They can crush our bodies but they won't defeat our spirit."

Calder Race Course - Miami, Fla.

Gary Boulanger, 36

"It's really a shame the situation has come down to this for those guys at Churchill Downs, but sometimes you just have to take a stand. Where the responsibility lies for this situation, I cannot say. But it seems to be an industry-related problem to me. Unfortunately, because of some of the tremendous costs incurred due to previous injuries to jockeys around the country, not only doesn't the Guild have an insurance policy but we can't even get one. At some point, representatives from all facets of our industry will have to sit down and settle this situation the same as they have to settle the problem trainers are having with workmen's compensation.

"I'm a Guild delegate here in south Florida and a firm believer in doing what the Guild votes we should do, although everybody has a right to make an individual choice and I don't hold anything against any of the jockeys who chose to ride. The jockeys' room at Calder is comprised solely of Guild members, and there has been no talk about doing anything here similar to what is taking place in Kentucky."

Churchill Downs - Louisville, Ky.

Pat Day, 51, active rider

"It saddened me not to have all the riders here. I've said many times that I think there probably is a way to resolve this situation without the action that was taken. There are no winners in this situation, only losers."

Joe Deegan, 44, banned rider

"Obviously something needs to get done. The problem is not going to go away. The insurance is a joke - not inadequate, a joke. So then it gets down to who pays for the insurance. It's an industry problem, and we need to get it mediated or whatever."

John McKee, 23, active rider

"I thought the insurance program that the jocks were offered by Churchill was fair. Don't get me wrong - I respect the riders [who held out] 100 percent. But we all need to give something when we're in this kind of business."

Golden Gate Fields - Albany, Calif.

Adalberto Lopez, 39

"We're lucky in California. Pretty much we're covered, and I have insurance through the Jockeys' Guild for my family. Insurance is important if you have a family, especially if you don't have much money. Guys like [Gary] Stevens and [Jerry] Bailey can afford it, but what about the jockeys who are just making it day to day. Why make those guys suffer [by banning them]?"

Jason Lumpkins, 35

"With insurance costs and the economy, it's a bad situation. I have two insurances, but how about the small guy who can't afford insurance? It goes two ways. So many think jocks make so much they should get their own [insurance], and a lot of us do. But we're attractions for the track, and they should consider guarding us from bad accidents. Tracks are underinsured so they don't. That's what makes California good, with workers' compensation.

"I know Turfway [in Florence, Ky.] was good when my friend Mike Rowland died. I thank God they pitched in for the Rowland family. And we've had Gary Birzer in West Virginia [at Mountaineer Park] who was badly injured. [Banning the jockeys] was probably proper from their [Churchill officials] point of view. They refused to ride."

Hawthorne Race Course - Stickney, Ill.

Jesse Campbell, 27

"We support our brothers and fellow riders in Kentucky. I think there are a lot of issues involved, and this is a huge problem. It needs to be addressed - quickly. The way things are now, it just doesn't add up. I don't know if they went about it the right way, but it's done now. You don't ever know what it's like to be in somebody else's shoes. We're here to ride. We don't want what happened at Churchill to happen here."

Carlos Marquez Jr., 37

"Tony D'Amico got hurt real bad. He's in the hospital six or seven days, and the insurance already is going to run out. If you don't have the insurance to pay, what are you going to do? Before we had good coverage. Now it's so much less. Whatever they're doing, they're not just doing it for themselves, they're doing it to benefit all the riders. I didn't ride today [Thursday], and I had a chance to ride every race in Kentucky, but I wouldn't do that.

"I think they could've gone about it a different way. I rode down there last weekend, and it was ugly. Maybe they should have waited and done it everywhere - I don't know. I've been in the Guild for 20 years. With this, you know you're going to have enemies no matter what you do. Back in New York, they had a strike when I was out there and had the bug. It shouldn't be fair for a bug boy not to ride; you can't afford to take time off. I stopped riding. I thought at the time it was the right thing to do to follow the other riders."

Hollywood Park - Inglewood, Calif.

Kent Desormeaux, 34

"It's got us riders asking a lot of questions. I think those guys are emotionally strained. Last month one guy became a paraplegic, and then you've got some guy almost dying over your shoulder. They're scared. It's a hell of a light that continues to blink and shine and remind them. It's in your face.

"There's no way I'll comment on whether they did or did not do the right thing, because I'm not in that situation. But you're scared. You're scared for your family and the situation. It's caused a realization. I'm covered up to $1 million per year, $2 million per lifetime. That seems a bit safer, but is it enough?

"To compare myself to the nation of jockeys is unfair. The average guy makes $25,000. Fifty jockeys do wonderfully. Another 100 do well. The other 2,800 make ends meet. This is about the 2,800. They're working just as hard as I am. You could argue they work even harder. I ride horses where you just have to hold on and point them in the right direction. They're pushing and pushing on horses that go nowhere. The industry needs to show up and come to the table.

"This issue, we will find out quickly where the heart lies. Everybody wants to tell the jocks what they can and can't do, but no one wants to be the employer."

Rene Douglas, 37

"It's ridiculous. I can't believe they let these riders down that way. It's for our health. If one of their sons was a rider, this would be solved. It's like in 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' where he asks the senators if your son is in the war. People want to bet on jockeys with names. I was watching the races from there, and guys were blowing the turn, looking like clowns, moving at the five-eighths pole. Who wants to put up with that? Nobody's winning. They're fighting each other instead of getting together to solve the problem. Steve Sexton is a good man. I dealt with him at Arlington. He's a first-class man. They've got to stop fighting and instead resolve the problem. It's a risky sport. We have workers' comp here. Why not everywhere? It's a risky business."

Martin Pedroza, 39

"We stick together for what we believe is right. I feel sorry for those guys that it had to go down like that. It's one thing not to ride. It's another to get thrown out. I think it was wrong to tell them they could not ride. It's not fair to guys who have ridden there for years and years and years. You can't treat people who have been riding there for many years like that. I can't blame the guys for what they believe. They're risking their life."

The Meadowlands - East Rutherford, N.J.

Eddie King, 46

"It could have been handled better. I don't know everything that is going on over there. Maybe we should have been a little more organized if we're going to do something like that. They should have talked to management and tried for a resolution. I'm not going to say those riders are wrong. I'm not going to second- guess them. Butting heads with anyone is not a good resolution.

"It's a big issue and it all has to do with the loss of our catastrophic insurance policy. I hate to say it, but that's self induced. In the last few days, they [the Jockeys' Guild] voted to throw me off the board. I can't figure out why. I guess I ask too many questions. Maybe I finally asked the right questions."

Nick Santagata, 47

"I've been through strikes and disagreements. It's tough. You just want the sides to come together. Hopefully, they'll come to an agreement. Churchill Downs is going to close in two weeks. Maybe they can have a cooling-off period. Maybe it can be resolved by the time they open up next year. We just want to work together and make a living. It's tough to get a policy of that magnitude. They go by how much you've been hurt and I've probably broken every bone in my body. For me to get a policy would cost an astronomical amount, if they'd even give me one. It's tough for the middle to little guys to afford a policy."

Sam Houston Race Park - Houston, Texas

Roman Chapa, 33

"I would think $500,000 would be a fair number. The reason why is because when we get injured, most of the time it's a serious injury. Just to be in the hospital a couple of days, it's $30,000 to $40,000. A lot of times we get hurt seriously, and $100,000 is not anything to what hospitals charge nowadays. We're high risk being professional jockeys. How many people have ambulances following them doing their job?"