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California jockeys might seek new health insurance

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Special to The Times

California jockeys, concerned that their costs for health insurance will skyrocket in 2007, are organizing to perhaps buy coverage other than that being offered by the Jockeys’ Guild.

California riders were stunned last week when the guild’s national insurance plan was unveiled at the guild’s annual assembly in Las Vegas.

“My phone was ringing off the hook,” said jockey Joey Castro, who rides in Northern California. “The rates for a rider and his family would be going up, on average, about 125%. We’ve got to put a plan in place that’s better than that.”

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Castro said that under the guild’s plan, the cost of a family policy would mushroom from about $250 a month to about $600. Traditionally, California jockeys have enjoyed the most reasonable insurance, because their coverage is subsidized by the state’s uncashed-ticket fund. The jockeys’ share of that fund, which is to be used exclusively for California riders’ health and welfare benefits, amounts to about $1 million a year.

California also is one of only five states that cover jockeys with workers’ compensation insurance, should they be injured on the job.

Castro and a retired jockey, Ronnie Warren Jr., are at the forefront of the California Jockeys’ Guild, an incorporated entity that is not connected to the national Jockeys’ Guild.

The California guild was formed in 2005 when, Warren said, he signed up 95 jockeys who were interested in buying their own insurance. Of this group, 70 were riders who rode at least 100 races a year. Castro said there are about 100 full-time jockeys who ride thoroughbreds and quarter horses in California.

Said Warren: “The old signatures are still legally valid because there was no date on the sign-up forms. But we’ll try to do the proper thing and call everybody back to make sure they still want to participate.”

Warren added that he would like to make a presentation at the next California Horse Racing Board meeting, scheduled Jan. 23 in Arcadia. The racing board determines where the jockeys’ money for uncashed tickets goes.

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The board interrupted those payments to the Jockeys’ Guild when the guild’s financial affairs were being questioned during the regime of former chief executive Wayne Gertmenian, an economics professor at Pepperdine.

The financially insecure guild fired Gertmenian in November 2005, and Dwight Manley, a sports agent who has represented NBA players Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman, took over as national manager in July.

“If [Warren’s group] comes to us, we’d be happy to hear what they have to say,” said Richard Shapiro, chairman of the racing board.

Jockeys in other states have looked elsewhere for health insurance. Delaware riders, whose insurance also is subsidized by the state, formed their own association, and jockeys in Philadelphia are exploring the possibility of joining a trade union that includes blacksmiths.

Many tracks carry catastrophic insurance that pays $500,000 to $1 million per incident but one, Philadelphia Park, has been reluctant to increase jockeys’ catastrophic insurance above $100,000 an accident.

Asked by California jockeys about insurance at the Las Vegas meeting, Manley said, “The guild had been subsidizing insurance to the extreme. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether the guild will go broke subsidizing insurance.”

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