11/20/2013 7:47PM

New York Task Force on Jockey Health and Safety has first meeting

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Tom Keyser
John Velazquez said that New York is “way behind” other states in terms of health benefits for jockeys.

ROSLYN, N.Y. - The hot-button issue of health benefits for jockeys in New York - and how to pay for them - will be the focal point of the state Task Force on Jockey Health and Safety, which held its initial meeting Wednesday. The task force is required to provide recommendations on jockey health benefits to Gov. Andrew Cuomo early next year.

Jockeys who are injured while riding at New York tracks are covered under the state’s workers' compensation policy funded by owners and trainers. However, there is no mechanism to fund health insurance or pensions for riders who are based in New York.

Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez, president of the Jockeys’ Guild and one of seven members on this task force - one of five members appointed by Gov. Cuomo - said after Wednesday’s two-hour meeting that New York is “way behind” other states in terms of health benefits for jockeys.

“It needs to be enhanced,” said Velazquez, who is recovering from serious internal injuries sustained in a spill at Santa Anita on Nov. 2 that has sidelined him indefinitely. “The whole thing is we are New York, we should [set] some precedent to what we do for racing. Helping the jockeys is one of the things that’s always on my mind - being a jockey and trying to help throughout the country. I think New York is behind California, behind Delaware, behind Jersey. Come on, we got to step up a little bit better.”

According to a release by the Jockeys’ Guild, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey provide some financial assistance toward health insurance. Riders in New Jersey, Maryland, California, and New York are covered under workers’ compensation.

“We have workmen’s compensation in New York, which is great, believe me, but we also have workmen’s comp in California [where] we also have a pension, we also have health insurance,” Velazquez said.

Velazquez and jockey Ramon Dominguez, who retired from race-riding due to head injuries suffered in a spill at Aqueduct in January, are members of the panel, which is chaired by Anthony Bonomo, a horse owner and New York Racing Association board member who is also chair of NYRA’s Equine Safety Committee. Other panel members include Alan Foreman, chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association; Nancy Kelly, executive director of the Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation; David Leno, a real estate attorney who has a longtime involvement in Thoroughbred racing; and Jennifer Best, who is on the staff of the New York State Assembly.

Wednesday’s meeting was held in a conference room at Physicians Reciprocal Insurers in Roslyn, about 12 miles from Belmont Park.
Bonomo said this task force is charged with delivering to Gov. Cuomo within 90 days a report “on findings and recommendations concerning jockey benefits including health, life, disability, pension, and how such needs can best be provided through the resources of the racing industry.”

Since jockeys are viewed as independent contractors there may be some people in the industry that may not support contributing additional funds toward health insurance premiums.

“Whatever we recommend there will be forces against it,” Bonomo said.

In one hypothetical scenario, Bonomo referenced coming up with a plan to contribute money that would go toward each jockey’s health insurance premium.

“We’re talking about a subsidy,” Bonomo said.

“You are, I’m not,” Foreman said.

The 45-minute discussion - as part of a two-hour meeting - that focused on health benefits lacked specifics. Board members agreed that some formula must be devised how to define a “New York jockey” based on how many mounts a rider has in a given year.

Dominguez said it’s important to note that not all jockeys make a lot of money and some are struggling to obtain insurance.

“The general perception is they make too much money,” Dominguez said. “The reality is the average jockey makes $38,000 a year with many making less than that. Of course, in New York in recent years we’ve seen an increase in purses and it’s great.”

Said Velazquez: “For racing to go in New York you need a jockey on top of a horse to go around. A subsidy for health insurance will strengthen the power of the colony you have in New York.”

Prior to the discussion of health benefits, Dominguez and Velazquez were asked by Bonomo to detail other areas where New York tracks can make things safer for riders.

Both jockeys suggested that New York needs to improve its response time with both the equine and human ambulances when there are accidents during training hours.

“There needs to be better communication between outrider and ambulance to figure out where the person is,” Velazquez said. “The communication, there is a little flaw there.”

Dominguez also said New York should consider instituting “pretty good” fines for riders who continue to breeze horses when warning lights are flashing and a siren is blaring during training hours, signifying a loose or injured horse.

Velazquez said that when a spill occurs during a race, paramedics and emergency medical technicians attending to a fallen rider need to exercise more patience.

“Let me have a chance to [catch] my breath; after a minute or two I’m going to try and get up and see how I’m going to do,” he said. “The thing was, they say ‘We got to go.’ ‘What do you mean we got to go? It doesn’t matter how long it’s going to take, you’re here to help me.’ ”