12/19/2014 2:58PM

New York racing in jeopardy over workers' compensation dispute

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A dispute over workmens’ compensation pricing could threaten to shut down New York racing beginning Jan. 1.

Horsemen are balking at a 59 percent increase in the premium they must pay the New York State Insurance Fund to cover work-related injuries suffered by jockeys and exercise riders at the New York Racing Association’s three tracks, Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga. The insurance costs for 2015 are scheduled to rise to $6.7 million, up from $4.3 million in 2014, according to trainer Rick Violette, president of the New York Jockey Injury Compensation Fund, which is in charge of securing workers’ compensation insurance coverage on a blanket basis for the benefit of all jockeys and exercise riders.

If insurance is not in place by Jan. 1, racing could be halted at Aqueduct. Training also could be compromised at both Aqueduct and Belmont that day as well.

“Everything could shut down,” Violette said. “We’re doing everything we physically can to avoid any interruption. That doesn’t serve anybody well.”

The Compensation Fund must present a plan at Monday’s New York Gaming Commission meeting.

Violette said the horsemen are looking aggressively at the commercial markets to purchase workers’ compensation, but time is running short. One possible solution, Violette said, would be for the horsemen “to bite the bullet” and pay an initial premium to the NYSIF, which would buy the horsemen three months as they continue to search the commercial markets. However, if the commercial markets offer no savings, then horsemen would be bound to the NYSIF policy.

Violette called the race increase “exorbitant and abusive. That big of a swing in one year without any early notice or preparation – we thought it was certainly excessive.”

Workers’ compensation is funded in three ways. First, there is a premium horsemen pay, which in 2014 was $940 but which could double in 2015. A second component is a percentage of purses, which currently is at 0.95 percent. There is a 1 percent cap on purse money that can go to workers’ compensation, so only 0.05 percent more could be taken from purses. Third, trainers pay 95 cents a day per stall allotted, a fee that could almost double in 2015.

“We continue to make New York a very expensive place to do business, and it’s not good for horsemen, it’s not good for the racetracks, it’s not good for racing, and it’s not good for the state of New York,” Violette said.

This week, many industry stakeholders met at Aqueduct to discuss the issue, including members of NYRA’s management team, the Gaming Commission, the State Insurance Fund, horsemen, and Brendan Fitzgerald, the assistant secretary for financial services under Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Violette said one way for rates to go down is to create a safer workplace. Violette said some facets of that are in place with the addition of safety lights at all NYRA tracks to announce the presence of a loose or injured horse on the track and to signal other riders not to breeze their horses. More trainers are using two-way radios to communicate with their riders, another safety enhancement.