03/17/2015 11:50AM

Parx attorney says riders still can sue track for negligence

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An attorney for Parx racetrack outside of Philadelphia said on Tuesday that language in a document distributed to riders as a condition of being eligible for insurance coverage does not prohibit riders from suing the racetrack.

The attorney, Frank McDonnell, said the language asserting that jockeys “acknowledge” the risks of riding horses would not prevent a rider from suing the racetrack in the event of negligence by the track or another party. In addition, McDonnell said that language in the document limiting riders seeking legal recourse to the Bucks County, Pa., court system was the most important part of the document to Parx as it seeks to shield its lucrative casino operations from liability.

McDonnell’s comments are the first made publicly by any official for Parx since a dispute erupted late last year between management and riders over the language, which legal counsel for riders have described as unacceptable. The dispute is threatening to jeopardize Parx’s live-racing operations beginning Saturday, two days after a deadline set by the track for riders to sign forms that will make them eligible for a new insurance policy going into effect Thursday.

McDonnell acknowledged that the new language was put into the documents as a result of a judgment lost last year by Parx in which a jury in Philadelphia awarded $7.8 million to the family of an exercise rider killed in 2010. The jury ruled that chickens on the backstretch spooked the horse, and that Parx was aware of the danger posed by the animals. Parx has appealed the judgment.

McDonnell said that Parx “has a bull’s-eye on its back” in the Philadelphia court system, spurring the company to limit riders to seeking legal recourse in neighboring Bucks County, where Parx is located. In addition to its racetrack – which receives tens of millions of dollars in subsidies each year from casino revenue – Parx runs the largest casino in the Philadelphia area, and a company’s total assets are usually used as a foundation for determining legal liability.

“It doesn’t stop them from suing us if we’re negligent, it just means they have to go to Bucks County, which is where we are,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell said horsemen signed a similar document last year, at the time that the track first issued a form to jockeys containing the language acknowledging risks.

Approximately 50 riders at Parx and at racetracks near Philadelphia have informed the track that they will not ride unless the language is removed, according to the Jockeys’ Guild, which has provided legal counsel to riders at the track. Michael Ballezzi, the executive director of the organization representing horsemen at Parx, said on Monday that trainers will “honor” the riders’ refusals.

An overnight for Saturday’s nine-race card at Parx includes three jockeys named on mounts, but all three have few recent race rides.  

McDonnell said that Parx officials plan to meet on Tuesday to discuss a strategy “internally” for dealing with the dispute.