No sure thing

Special to The Times

The bad old days may be a thing of the past for the Jockeys' Guild, but the national organization for race riders is still more than a flip of the switch away from recovering respectability and earning industry respect.

"The jockeys are the redheaded stepchild of the industry again," said Eddie King, a New Jersey jockey who was removed as treasurer in 2002 when he questioned the status of the Disabled Jockeys' Fund and other guild finances.

King, invited by new guild management to rejoin and participate in the organization's annual assembly earlier this month in Las Vegas, declined the invitation. He says the guild isn't much better off than it was when Wayne Gertmenian, an economics professor at Pepperdine, was running the show, intimidating the industry and dividing his own membership.

During his four-year term, Gertmenian, without telling the jockeys, allowed their extended catastrophic insurance, which paid up to $1 million a rider, to lapse. Unknowing, hundreds of jockeys continued to ride uninsured, and the insurance issue remains the guild's primary problem.

Gertmenian was ousted in November 2005, on a day when his last act was to write checks for himself and Albert Fiss, vice president of the guild, for more than $200,000. Gertmenian has sued the guild, claiming he's still owed the balance of his contract.

In July, an unlikely savior appeared when Dwight Manley, an agent for NBA players with no ties to racing, was hired as national manager. Manley, 40, introduced the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the civil-rights lightning rod, as a consultant, which seemed as odd a choice as the tapping of Manley.

Jackson has not been publicly active in guild business and did not attend the meeting in Las Vegas, but Manley said that they talked at least weekly about guild activities.

A resident of Newport Beach, Manley says he is drawing no salary, but he has reportedly lent the cash-starved guild $500,000.

"The guild had one hiccup [Gertmenian] in its first 66 years," Manley said in Las Vegas. "What it does in the next year will determine how the guild goes in the next 66 years.

"We've been labeled as people who come along and expect something for nothing. But the truth is, the industry spends more on its horses than it does on the courageous athletes who ride them. It's very disproportionate.

"I've taken it on as a personal issue, because I don't want to see guys get picked on, and I like to support the underdog. I was dealt a difficult hand, but we're paying our bills now, and I'd like to go forward to fix the problems."

Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, says that Manley deserves a chance.

"It's going to take him awhile," Shapiro said. "There are a lot of nuances to horse racing, a lot of characteristics that you don't find in an average business. Manley's going to need some time to figure out the landscape."

Shapiro, however, found himself in an awkward position at the racing board's last meeting, in November at Hollywood Park, where Manley and an insurance broker who'd done business with the guild got into a heated public debate.

"Nothing's changed at the guild," said the broker, Chris Gibbs. "They're double-billing California jockeys [for health insurance] and they're insolvent."

Manley characterized the remarks by Gibbs as the rhetoric of a disgruntled businessman. But when Shapiro asked Manley for an accounting of the guild's finances, the national manager said that he couldn't supply that without permission from his board of directors.

Later, Shapiro said, "That wasn't the right answer. An answer like that is unacceptable."

The racing board has a special interest in the Jockeys' Guild's finances because it allocates about $1 million a year for the health and welfare of California jockeys. The money comes from uncashed winning bets on horses.

During the Gertmenian years, the racing board questioned whether the money was being used exclusively for California riders, as intended, and at one point the board suspended payments to the guild.

Under Gertmenian, "the guild turned $6 million into $6,000," Philadelphia Park jockey Tony Black said in a radio interview this year.

Two California jockeys, Joey Castro and Paul Atkinson, peppered Manley with questions at the meeting in Las Vegas, which was attended by about 80 jockeys. Manley says that membership is at 1,353, an increase of about 200 since he took over.

"I expected a hell of a turnout, and we've got this," said Castro, looking around a half-empty room. "You [the board of directors] let this happen. Why did you sign Gertmenian's contract?"

The nine-member guild board has holdovers from the Gertmenian years, including Eclipse Award-winning John Velazquez, who was reelected chairman.

Gertmenian "fooled a big university," Manley told Castro. "He was a real con man, and it's not fair to blame us" for the guild's problems.

A U.S. Congress subcommittee, investigating the Jockeys' Guild in 2005, concluded that Gertmenian had overstated his resume. Gertmenian did not respond to an interview request for this article.

"Who's to say you won't do the same thing [Gertmenian] did?" Castro said.

"That's not an intelligent thing to say," Manley replied. "Why would I take something from a company I loaned money to? I get no salary. I have no expense reports. I'm working for a company that has nothing."

Tom Kennedy, a guild attorney, said that Manley's contract calls for him to receive a percentage of the organization's revenues when they pass the $8-million mark.

Atkinson questioned the proposed increases in California jockeys' health-insurance premiums.

Castro, who said the costs are scheduled to balloon by 125% per rider in 2007, and Ron Warren Jr., a retired jockey, said Monday that they have been trying to organize the 100 or so riders in California so they can buy their own insurance, instead of subscribing to the guild's plan.

If Castro and Warren are successful, the state's $1-million subsidy probably will be managed by the California jockeys, rather than Manley's guild.

Manley was unable to put out a similar fire in Delaware, where more than 40 jockeys formed their own association for insurance reasons.

And Black is trying to enroll 30 Philadelphia Park jockeys in a trade union that includes blacksmiths.

Black, who has ridden more than 5,000 winners, resigned from the guild six months after Gertmenian was hired.

"It was a heart-wrenching decision," Black said last week. "I rode my first race in 1970, and joined the guild a few days after that. So I've been a staunch guild member for a long time. But even today, I can't see anything happening at the guild that would bring me back."

Black has been frustrated because Philadelphia Park has refused to increase its catastrophic-accident policy on jockeys. The limit there is $100,000, whereas many tracks carry insurance that pays between $500,000 and $1 million per accident.

Many of the country's tracks subsidize the jockeys' insurance, but some have stopped in recent years and the guild says the subsidy has dropped from $2.2 million to $1.5 million.

Churchill Downs quit paying after 15 jockeys refused to accept mounts there in the fall of 2004, a demonstration that was believed to have been orchestrated by Gertmenian.

One of Churchill Downs' sister tracks, Hoosier Park in Anderson, Ind., was closed down one night when jockeys walked out shortly before the first post. Manley said he has been trying to get Churchill to jump back into the insurance pool.

Insurance is the guild's major issue but it isn't the only one and based on Kennedy's report to the membership in Las Vegas, the guild's legal department is working overtime.

Gary Birzer, a West Virginia jockey who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2004 spill, and then learned he wasn't insured, reached an out-of-court settlement in his $10-million suit against the guild.

Still on the books, though, is Gertmenian's suit, and Kennedy said that the guild defaulted on a $250,000 suit in Louisiana.

In addition, the guild is suing Lloyd Ownbey, its legal counsel under Gertmenian, for not properly protecting its financial interests. Ownbey has said that the suit has no merit.

With new revenue streams hard to come by, Manley remains determined to resuscitate the guild.

"I haven't created a wonder pill, but at least we've stopped the bleeding," he said.

Jon Court, a Southern California jockey who has been elected treasurer of the guild, is a Manley supporter.

"It's amazing we've stabilized, because before this, we were crumbling," Court said.

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