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Jockeys’ Guild on Hot Seat

Times Staff Writer

Members of a congressional subcommittee investigating the Jockeys’ Guild harshly criticized guild officials Tuesday in Washington.

After listening to guild officials, former guild officials and jockeys testify, Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said: “I have the feeling I’ve walked into the middle of a Dr. Seuss novel. Where events never happened in a town that never existed.”

The subcommittee, chaired by Edward Whitfield (D-Ky.), questioned L. Wayne Gertmenian at length about the operation of the guild since he began running it in June 2001.

Chris McCarron, a retired Racing Hall of Fame jockey, told the subcommittee that he regretted having recommended Gertmenian for the job. Under Gertmenian, a professor of economics at Pepperdine University, the jockeys lost their catastrophic-accident insurance when a $1-million policy was allowed to lapse in 2002.

In July of that year, jockey Gary Birzer was told by the guild that he was uninsured after he’d been paralyzed from the waist down in a spill at Mountaineer Park in Chester, W.Va.

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Other guild members said that they were unaware their insurance had lapsed. Jockeys are covered by workers’ compensation in four states, including California, but not elsewhere, and the guild has continued to say that it can’t afford to reinsure its more than 1,200 members.

Albert Fiss, the guild’s vice president, testified that guild members were informed about the pending lapse in coverage in December 2001, but the congressional panel said the jockeys had not been properly notified.

Records submitted to the panel showed that Matrix Capital Associates, a consulting firm, had been paid $508,000 by the guild last year. Gertmenian, whose guild salary is more than $170,000 a year, testified that he is Matrix’s only employee. Subcommittee members said that Gertmenian and Matrix had been renting office space in Monrovia for $47,000 a year, and charging the guild $96,000 for the same space.

Gertmenian did not respond to phone messages left at his home and at the guild office.

“You’ve testified today that you’ve been overwhelmed with the jockeys’ problems,” Rep. Michael C. Burgess (R-Texas) said to Gertmenian. “What I’ve seen is that you’re only overwhelmed because you didn’t know how to spend all the money you’ve been getting from the guild.”

Amy Birzer, the wife of Gary Birzer, said that the guild had been unresponsive when she sought financial aid.

During a phone conversation with Fiss, she remembered saying: “You’re going to use [Gary] as a guinea pig so you can make a statement, aren’t you?” Birzer said that Fiss acknowledged that that was the plan.

In his testimony, Fiss corroborated that conversation.

“I owe [some people] an apology,” he said.


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