Congressional hearing focuses on racing turmoil
WASHINGTON -- Racetrack executives appeared before a House panel Thursday, arguing that congressional action is not necessary to solve industry problems, including a recent lapse in health insurance for jockeys that left the Jockeys' Guild in turmoil and led to the ouster this week of its president.
But U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., who chaired the hearing, said federal legislation might be necessary. "A lot of interest groups do not want their turf touched, ... [but] there are a lot of strong arguments for some uniformity and for some federal oversight and involvement," he told reporters.
Whitfield cited safety, insurance gaps and the use of medication among jockeys as primary concerns.
The House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee asked executives about gaps in safety and health insurance. In four states -- Maryland, California, New York and New Jersey -- jockeys are covered by workers' compensation insurance. But coverage plans vary in effectiveness elsewhere -- and in some cases, riders may not be covered at all.
The panel heard testimony in October from a paralyzed jockey who was left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills after an accident at West Virginia's Mountaineer Race Track. Gary Birzer testified then that he did not know he was only covered for a fraction of his medical costs at the time of the accident.
Executives on Thursday blamed the just-fired guild management for many of those problems.
"[The insurance] coverage has fallen apart as a result of the mismanagement of the Jockeys' Guild's affairs, and I think what we will see is the re-establishment of a credible body to represent jockeys within the industry," D.G. Van Clief Jr., CEO of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said after the meeting. "Once that job is complete, I think we will be able to re-establish a safety net of insurance at all of our venues and protect those riders."
Churchill Downs President Steve Sexton testified that safety regulation, too, should be left on a local level. "What safety standards should be in place are questions best left to state regulators ... in consultation with the jockeys, the racetracks and the horse owners," he said.
Rep. Joe Barton, the chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee, agreed that legislation should be a last resort. "We can do it on a voluntary basis," he said.
But the guild's freshly appointed national leader, Darrell Haire, said he favored a national solution and more power for jockeys. "We would like to have collective bargaining and have a collective agreement with these racetracks to do the right thing," Haire said.
Jockeys work as independent contractors, and as such cannot currently bargain as a group.
The guild remains embroiled in change. On Tuesday, it voted to fire President L. Wayne Gertmenian, who came under harsh criticism from the same House body in October for the alleged mismanagement of funds through the use of his consulting company, Matrix Capital Associates Inc.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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