More than $26 million — 7 percent of all revenue from slots in Maryland — has been pumped into racing purses at the state's tracks over the last two years.
As industry insiders work to figure out a long-range plan they believe will restore Maryland as a top state for horse racing, they also must negotiate with a group that typically has stayed quiet when it comes to discussions of how the money is doled out: jockeys.
About 20 riders appeared at the September meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission, during which Terry Meyocks of the national Jockeys' Guild requested an increase in the amount a losing rider makes for a race.
Alan M. Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, said the group is crafting a response to the request that will be presented at the commission meeting Tuesday. The horsemen agreed jockeys should share in the slots money, Foreman said.
Under the current guidelines, jockeys who finish out of the money — winners take 10 percent of the purse, while second- and third-place finishers get 5 percent each — stand to make as little as $45 per race. Neighboring states offer considerably more; major tracks in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania pay $100.
Maryland is one of only a few jurisdictions that hasn't increased so-called mount fees since 2001, Meyocks said.
The horsemen do pay for worker's compensation for the jockeys, making Maryland one of four states to offer that benefit. That payment — $1.1 million last year — has to be diverted from the purses account.
"The jockeys know that we do a lot for them there," Foreman said. "And I think they've been patient, knowing the industry has had its struggles here."
To increase mount fees, Foreman said, the horsemen's association would probably be forced to drop a year-end bonus program they have offered to jockeys who ride in Maryland 50 times in a year but earn less than $100,000. Under the program, those jockeys received $10 for every race in which they finished fourth through last. According to Meyocks, Maryland riders received $38,000 through the program last year.
Using that money and the increased funds from casinos — about $3 million per month — could allow the horsemen to come close to meeting Meyocks' request to raise losing rider funds in Maryland to $100.
Payments to losing jockeys in Maryland have been stagnant since the mid-1980s, making it difficult for some riders to make a living here. Jockeys pay 25 percent of all winnings to their agents. Another 10 percent goes to their valets. And the guild often gets a chunk, as well.
Jockeys have 146 racing days in the state to work, and often have to travel to nearby tracks for meets or individual races.
They also show up at the track early each morning, looking to build relationships with trainers by putting horses through workouts — without any payment or guarantee in return.
"If you're only making $45 and you have to pay out, you end up not even really being able to pay for the gas and tolls it took you to get to the track," said Marty Leonard, an agent for two of Maryland's top riders, Sheldon Russell and Luis Garcia. "The more established riders are OK, but you're cutting out the guys trying to build a reputation and a career."
That the horsemen and Jockeys' Guild appear ready to come to a quick agreement was something of a surprise to Meyocks, who began talking with owners in Maryland about increasing the mount fee a year and a half ago.
But leaders in Maryland's horse racing industry have been consumed by efforts to craft a long-term plan for their sport. Foreman said representatives from the horsemen's association and the Maryland Jockey Club — which owns Pimlico and Laurel — have worked to craft a multiyear deal outlining the number of race days and how they are funded.
In recent years, the horsemen and Jockey Club owner Frank Stronarch have dragged the negotiations well into December, feeding sentiment that the horse racing business in Maryland is unstable and leaving breeders, trainers, jockeys and owners reluctant to make a commitment to working in the state.
"We're making some progress," Foreman said. "We all want to come to a deal, to find some stability."
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