Jockeys’ Protest Plan Sparks a Turf War

Times Staff Writer

The agent for Rafael Bejarano, the leading jockey in the country, said Monday that he had dropped his rider because of the way Bejarano protested what some jockeys consider inadequate accident insurance at Churchill Downs.

Steve Elzey, who booked mounts that Bejarano has ridden to 418 wins this year, said he was switching to another high-profile rider, whom he declined to name. Elzey said he would announce his new jockey later this week.

“I don’t have any respect for the way [Bejarano] did this,” Elzey said. “I’ve looked out for his best interests all along, and now he’s gone ahead and done something that’s just not right. I told him we were finished if he did this.”

Bejarano is among 15 jockeys who are refusing to ride Wednesday and Thursday at Churchill Downs, where track management has told them they have been banned from the grounds. When entries were drawn Sunday for Wednesday’s races, only 65 of 122 horses had riders named.

Jockeys nationwide have been without catastrophic coverage from the Jockeys’ Guild since 2002, but many jockeys said they had not been aware of that until Gary Birzer’s spill in West Virginia in July. Birzer, who is paralyzed from the waist down, was told that the Jockeys’ Guild policy had lapsed and that he had no coverage. Without guild insurance, jockeys must either buy their own insurance, which is costly, or ride covered only by track insurance that has a limit of $100,000. Birzer’s medical costs have reached an estimated $500,000.


Other jockeys who have said they would not ride at Churchill Downs include Robby Albarado, Mark Guidry, Calvin Borel, Willie Martinez and Craig Perret. Bejarano and Albarado, whose horses have earned about $20 million this year, rank among the top 15 on the national money list.

“We believe the concern expressed by the jockeys over insurance coverage is a legitimate issue,” said Steve Sexton, president of Churchill Downs, “but we do not agree with their approach to addressing that concern. The issue of health coverage for jockeys is one that demands and deserves industry-wide study and action. We are eager to participate in the effort to address that problem, but it would not be responsible for Churchill Downs to agree to any knee-jerk attempt to achieve a solution over the space of a few days.”

Churchill, home of the Kentucky Derby, plans to continue its fall meet Wednesday. According to the Churchill condition book -- a list of coming races -- 30 jockeys planned to ride regularly in the meet. The protesting jockeys have been banned for the rest of the meet, which ends Nov. 27.

Among the jockeys who agreed to ride Wednesday are Pat Day, Larry Melancon, John McKee, Brice Blanc, Eddie Martin Jr. and Brian Hernandez Jr. Day, Churchill’s all-time leading rider, reportedly is considering joining the boycott Thursday. Attempts to reach Doc Danner, Day’s agent, were unsuccessful.

Elzey has earned an estimated $250,000 for booking Bejarano’s mounts this year. Bejarano holds a 71-win lead over Ramon Dominguez, who’s second nationally in races won. Bejarano won 260 races in 2003, his first full year in the U.S.

“Here’s a kid who is 22 years old and has the whole world in his hands,” said Elzey, whose previous clients have included Jason Lumpkins, Martinez, Kris Prather and James Bruin. “Now he’s getting bad press and a bad name for what he’s doing.”

Bejarano, a Peruvian who began riding in Ohio and Kentucky in 2002, could not be reached for comment. There was an unconfirmed report that he might be going to Aqueduct in New York to ride. At least one jockeys’ agent in California was trying to reach him, to see if he might want to ride on the West Coast during his Kentucky ban.

Since the ban is from Churchill management and not the state-appointed stewards, jockeys presumably would be free to ride at other tracks. Because of racing’s reciprocity rule, stewards’ suspensions of jockeys prohibit them from riding anywhere in the U.S.

Another Kentucky agent, Lenny Pike, said he and his client, Albarado, were willing to see what happens. Pike confirmed that Albarado would not ride Wednesday or Thursday at Churchill.

Jockeys are covered by workers’ compensation insurance in California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Idaho, but in other states, including Kentucky, they are excluded from those benefits.

“Jockeys are independent contractors, and are not employees of Churchill Downs or any other racetrack,” Sexton said. “Independent contractors in all other phases of the economy must accept the cost of their insurance coverage. We recognize the risks faced by our riders each day, but this is not an issue that Churchill Downs or any other track can settle. It is an important issue that requires the attention of the entire industry.”

The National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. announced Monday that it was forming a working group to study jockeys’ insurance. The group will be headed by Terry Meyocks, special assistant to D.G. Van Clief, the NTRA’s commissioner.

“Our members -- including racetracks, breeders, [horse] owners and other horsemen -- have asked to take on this project,” Van Clief said. “Our goal will be to expeditiously analyze the current situation regarding jockey medical coverage on a state-by-state basis and issue recommendations that strive for a common-sense industry solution to an industry-wide problem.”