12/18/2013 5:39PM

New York task force says industry should help subsidize disability benefits for jockeys

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ROSLYN, N.Y. - A task force will recommend to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo that the state’s racing industry help subsidize health and disability benefits for jockeys - a contribution that could come close to $1 million - but it was unclear exactly how or by whom it will be funded.

At its second meeting, the state appointed, seven-member New York Task Force on Jockey Health and Safety unanimously agreed to include in its recommendations that the state partially assist qualifying jockeys - who are viewed by many as independent contractors - with the cost of health, welfare, and disability benefits.

“We’re going to recommend in our report that this get done,” said Anthony Bonomo, the Governor-appointed chair of the task force as well as a horse owner and member of the New York Racing Association Board.

The much more difficult charge for the Task Force before it presents its recommendations to the governor in March is how to fund this subsidy.

John Velazquez, a Hall of Fame rider who is currently idle due to injury, and three-time Eclipse Award winning rider Ramon Dominguez, forced to retire due to head trauma sustained in a spill at Aqueduct in January, are two of the seven members of this panel. Under a proposal they presented to the other task force members, a Health and Welfare Trust would be established that utilizes “a Health Reimbursement Account for each eligible, active, retired, or permanently disabled jockey in which the New York State contributions will be held for each year.”

Jockeys could use these funds to purchase health and welfare benefits or direct some, or all, of their share of funds to be accumulated as part of a deferred income plan.

The Trust would be available for those jockeys who have had 200 mounts in a year at a New York Racing Association track, or, failing that, 51 percent of a minimum 100 mounts. At Finger Lakes, jockeys eligible for benefits would be required to have had 100 mounts. Using those standards, 28 NYRA jockeys and 29 Finger Lakes jockeys would have been eligible to receive subsidies in 2012.

Retired jockeys who rode at least 7,500 mounts in New York and rode at least one race after Jan. 1, 2009, would also be eligible for benefits, covering approximately 30 riders, according to the proposal.

It is not definite that this proposal will be fully adopted by the Task Force in its report to the governor.

The jockeys presented a mid-level insurance plan that would cost $1.334 million.  At 70 percent, the industry would have to come up with $933,800.

New York owners and trainers already pay a base fee of $840 to workman’s compensation to riders plus .95 percent of purses earned as well as, at NYRA tracks, 90 cents per day per stall. That stall fee at Finger Lakes is 30 to 35 cents per day.

In 2012, NYRA horsemen contributed $3.1 million towards workman’s compensation while that figure was expected to be more than $4 million in 2013.

Velazquez said that one possible funding mechanism is from the revenue that goes to the industry from the casino at Aqueduct.

“That was part of the plan in the beginning. It just depends what the governor wants to do,” Velazquez said.

The percentage of casino revenue that is earmarked to horsemen, breeders, and tracks is already designated by state law.

“The easiest way is take it out of purses,” Bonomo said. “Purses are really high; then again you’re hurting the economic risk-taker [the owner]. I’m one of them. I’m not against it, but I’m only one.”

Alan Foreman, a member of the task force and the chairman and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, said he agrees “in concept with creating a health and welfare trust for the riders” but was skeptical about how much more the industry should contribute.

“For those who make well in excess of six figures, is it, in today’s marketplace, appropriate to subsidize these individuals?” Foreman said. “The people that don’t work on the backstretch don’t get health care subsidized, the trainers, many of whom have to buy health care coverage, it’s not subsidized. It’s a very fair question to ask. It’s got nothing to do with your contribution to the industry, nothing to do with the risk you take to ride horses.”

After the meeting, Foreman was asked about how a trust like this could be funded.

“If it’s to be implemented it has to be a shared responsibility,” Foreman said. “That may involve the track, the horsemen, the riders, and maybe others.”

Asked if others meant the fans, Foreman said, “I’m not suggesting that the fans should be paying for it. It’s the industry.”

The task force is scheduled to hold its next meeting on Jan. 22.