Birzer's injury spotlighted insurance plight of jockeys

Former jockey Gary Birzer and his wife, Amy, have a 4-year-old daughter, Robyn.

When Robyn's friends ask her why her father rides around in a wheelchair, she says, "He fell down. He was on a horse, and he fell down."

Birzer, paralyzed from the waist down when his mount went down in a race at Mountaineer Race Track in Chester, W.Va., in July 2004, smiled as he told the story.

"Little kids," Birzer said. "They can reduce everything to simple terms, can't they?"

Birzer, 31, now lives with his family in Cincinnati. He didn't learn until after the spill that the Jockeys' Guild had allowed a $1-million accident policy to lapse in 2002.

Many jockeys didn't know they were riding unprotected, and now many tracks insure them for amounts between $500,000 and $1 million.

Dwight Manley, new national manager of the guild, says that each rider ought to be insured for $2 million.

At a 2005 congressional hearing into Jockeys' Guild affairs, Albert Fiss, who was vice president of the guild, testified that he had told Amy Birzer that the guild was using her husband as a "guinea pig" to force tracks to increase their accident policies.

Fiss and Wayne Gertmenian, chief executive of the guild, were fired in November 2005.

Estimates of Birzer's medical bills have reached $1.8 million. His $10-million suit against the cash-strapped guild was settled out of court this year and the guild has promised Birzer a job as a consultant.

Birzer has a $12-million suit pending against Mountaineer, claiming poor maintenance of the racing surface. Also named in the suit are two horsemen who owned and trained the horse Birzer rode, and a veterinarian who cared for the horse.

At the time of his injury, Birzer had won 75 races in 2004 and had earned about $100,000. The previous year, he rode in 1,202 races, won 142 and earned about $200,000.

"I have my good days and my bad days," Birzer said early this month at the Jockeys' Guild's annual assembly in Las Vegas, where his fellow riders gave him an award and a standing ovation.

"We all have those, don't we? Days when you feel like throwing something or hitting something."

Birzer says he undergoes three hours of therapy five days a week.

He also says he races his daughter in his wheelchair.

"She says, 'Let's play chase, Daddy,' " Birzer said.

-- Bill Christine

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