11/08/2004 12:00AM

Track bans 15 riders after insurance protest

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Churchill Downs has banned 15 jockeys for the balance of the fall meet for refusing to be named on horses Wednesday in a dispute over health insurance coverage.

Among the jockeys who will not be permitted to ride through Nov. 27, closing day at the Churchill meet, are the current national victory leader, Rafael Bejarano, as well as Robby Albarado, Mark Guidry, Calvin Borel, and Willie Martinez.

Churchill and other Kentucky tracks currently provide $100,000 in medical coverage in case of an accident, but jockeys maintain that they need a major increase in coverage.

Most of the jockey colony met with the track's president, Steve Sexton, after the races Sunday. Sexton gave them a choice of yes or no in response to whether they intended to ride Wednesday or Thursday at Churchill.

For those who said no, "They will not be back before the end of the meet," a Churchill spokesman, John Asher, said Monday. "We're not happy about it, but they felt like they had to do what they did, and we felt like we did what we had to do."

As of Monday afternoon, about 10 jockeys had told Churchill officials that they did not intend to honor the unofficial boycott, which became known Sunday morning, when entries for the 10-race Wednesday card were taken. At that time, jockeys told their agents not to name them on horses. Among those who said they would ride are Pat Day, Larry Melancon, Eddie Martin Jr., Brice Blanc, John McKee, Joe Johnson, and apprentice Brian Hernandez Jr.

According to Day's agent, Doc Danner, Day originally was going to participate in the boycott. Danner told trainers Sunday morning that Day would honor only calls given well before the jockeys' decision to hold out. But by Sunday evening, Day had informed Churchill officials that he intended to ride through the meet.

"Nobody wants to ride any more than the guys who stood up for what we believe in," said Guidry. "It's just a shame it had to come down to this."

Asher said he expected jockeys who have been riding elsewhere to come to Churchill in the coming days to fill the void.

Earlier in the week, Sexton forwarded to the jockeys an offer from a local health-care provider that would have allowed them to purchase supplemental insurance coverage.

According to both Guidry and Asher, the insurance would have provided $300,000 to $500,000 in health coverage at premiums of about $200 a month, depending on the jockey's age. Jockey Jerry Bailey has said in published reports that he pays $10,000 a year for $2 million in additional medical coverage. Day also has said he has additional insurance.

Guidry said jockeys were "not in a position to bargain" and declined the offer. "We're leaving that up to the lawyers and Dr. G," a reference to Wayne Gertmenian, national manager of the Jockeys' Guild in California.

The Jockeys' Guild, which represents most jockeys in North America and provides them with additional insurance coverage through a group plan, has been embroiled in a number of controversies in recent years. Day, among other prominent jockeys, no longer is a Guild member.

In a Monday release, Albert Fiss, vice president of the Jockeys' Guild, cited several incidents - including an accident at Mountaineer Race Track over the summer that paralyzed Gary Birzer and a spill at Churchill on Wednesday that left Tony D'Amico with a fractured shoulder and ribs and a punctured lung - as "bitter reminders of the lack of adequate insurance provided jockeys riding in the state of Kentucky."

Shane Sellers quit riding Oct. 2, citing inadequate insurance, and Gary Stevens refused to ride in the Breeders' Cup for the same reason.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association said Monday it is forming a panel to look into the issue of insurance coverage for jockeys.

Asher said that ongoing discussions have been held with the Jockeys' Guild but that nothing new or substantive occurred Monday to change the situation at Churchill.

Sexton called the insurance situation "an extremely complicated issue. We are eager to participate in the effort to address the problem, but it would not be responsible for Churchill Downs to agree to any knee-jerk attempt to achieve a solution."

Predictably, trainers at Churchill are unhappy with the jockeys' stance. "If they have an issue, they're going about it the wrong way," said Dale Romans, the top trainer here the last several years.

Several jockeys were escorted from the track Sunday evening by security personnel. Earlier in the day, Sellers was escorted off the Churchill property in handcuffs by a Louisville Metro Police officer after being asked "several times" to leave the jockey quarters, said Asher.

Sellers has long been at the fore of health-related issues for jockeys.