04/28/2004 11:00PM

Judge rules for jockeys in ad case

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A federal judge ruled Thursday morning that five jockeys who filed a lawsuit against the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority could wear advertising while riding in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.

The ruling, a temporary restraining order that prevents the authority from enforcing a longstanding rule that prohibits jockeys from wearing anything contrary to the "tradition of the turf," is at least a short-term victory for many high-profile jockeys who are able to attract the attention of sponsors eager to exploit televised races like the Derby.

"The judge is saying that jockeys have the same rights as other similarly situated athletes," said Ron Sheffer, the lawyer who represented the five jockeys who filed the suit, on Thursday morning. "That's all they were asking for."

The judge, John Heyburn II, said in his order that the ruling would restrain the Kentucky Horse Racing Authority from applying the rule to the five jockeys who filed the suit until the larger issue can be resolved. He ordered that a hearing be scheduled within the next 30 days.

Jockeys Jerry Bailey, Jose Santos, Shane Sellers, Alex Solis, and John Velazquez filed the lawsuit on April 19 in the U.S. District Court of Western Kentucky. In hearings on Monday and Tuesday, attorneys for the jockeys argued that the regulation prohibiting advertising violated their free-speech rights.

The judge also ruled that all jockeys would be able to wear a patch signifying support for the Jockeys' Guild during the Derby. Three jockeys, including Sellers, had filed a separate suit seeking to wear the patch.

Jockey advertising is a relatively thin market, compared with advertising and sponsorship in other sports. Many companies have so far been interested in securing sponsorships only with jockeys in high-visibility events, including the Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, the three races of the Triple Crown, which are televised live on NBC.

Kentucky is one of the few major racing states to ban advertising. New York, California, and Florida all allow jockeys to wear advertisements as long as riders conform to certain rules, such as securing approvals from owners and trainers.

Kelly Wietsma, the president of Equisponse, which represents jockeys in negotiations with advertisers, said on Thursday morning that the five riders who filed the lawsuit were "90 percent likely" to have sponsorship agreements in place for the Derby.

With Equisponse securing the deals, Bailey and Santos wore advertisements during last year's Belmont Stakes, along with Gary Stevens. Bailey and Stevens both wore patches bearing the logo of Wrangler jeans on their riding breeches. Santos wore a patch advertising Budweiser beer.

Wietsma said that the deals are structured so that jockeys receive "performance bonuses" if they are on horses who win or receive significant airtime. Regardless of where the jockeys finish, however, the jockeys are paid a flat fee.

Churchill Downs officials have told jockeys that the track supports jockey advertising as long as it conforms to certain rules. Churchill officials have said that jockeys should not wear advertising that could be deemed "offensive" or advertise for companies that are in competition with the track or its sponsors.

Wietsma said that she has advised her clients to "take it slow," restricting endorsement deals to major companies with good reputations.

"We have to watch out and we have to be careful," Wietsma said. "The snake-oil salesmen are going to come out of the woodwork. We don't want this to come back and bite us."