SBJ/January 17 - 23, 2005/Labor Agents

Tape: Churchill jockey walkout ‘no accident’

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

The Jockeys’ Guild and its lawyers coached jockeys who walked out at Churchill Downs late last year in a dispute over insurance coverage, and orchestrated a much-publicized incident in which a top rider was escorted off the track in handcuffs, according to an audiotape of a Guild meeting.

Guild President Wayne Gertmenian told about 30 jockeys on a Nov. 7 conference call that the Guild had scored a public relations coup in its “war” with Churchill Downs when popular Kentucky jockey Shane Sellers was led from the track “in chains.”

“The biggest mistake that has been made so far by the other side happened today,” Gertmenian said on the tape, a copy of which was obtained by SportsBusiness Journal. “And that was no accident. Hours and hours were spent with lawyers getting Shane prepared for that mistake today. And that was huge for us.”

Sellers last week disputed that he spent hours with the Guild preparing for the incident. Sellers said he did call Gertmenian on Nov. 7 as Churchill security officers were threatening to handcuff him. “I said, ‘They are going to arrest me,’” said Sellers. “He said, ‘Well, then, let them arrest you.’”

Sellers said, however, that other jockeys who refused to ride did talk to Gertmenian days in advance.

On the Guild meeting tape, Gertmenian said that some of the jockeys who ended up boycotting Churchill, including Mark Guidry, Robby Albarado and Jeff Johnston, “spent time with me and the lawyers and [Guild vice president] Albert [Fiss]” before taking action.

Gertmenian and Guidry’s agent did not return a phone call for this story.

Johnston denied that he spoke to Guild management and lawyers before he decided to walk out at Churchill, and said he did not know why Gertmenian had said otherwise.

Albarado wouldn’t comment beyond saying, “I don’t know the legality of that and I have put that whole Churchill thing behind me.”

The Guild publicly expressed support for the walkout at Churchill last year but has not taken responsibility for it. Although jockeys’ employment status is not completely clear, many view them as independent contractors, and independent contractors are prohibited from engaging in strikes under antitrust laws.

Bob Batterman, outside labor counsel for the NHL, said that Churchill Downs could potentially sue the jockeys.

Sellers said that jockeys called Gertmenian for fear of legal action. “None of us has got any education, and the reason why [the jockeys] called is they didn’t want to be sued,” Sellers said. “And [Gertmenian] said, ‘Boys, this is a different situation. You are not striking. It’s a health and safety issue.’”

The Guild has been under fire since jockeys discovered recently that it let its catastrophic on-track accident policy lapse in 2002 without officially informing the jockeys. The walkout at Churchill was based on jockeys protesting their lack of insurance, even though the Guild was responsible for canceling it.

Churchill Downs President Steve Sexton said he has not heard the tape of the meeting but has heard about it, as it has been circulating in racing circles in the last few weeks.

“It is unfortunate that it occurred,” he said, “and, yes, we are offended and, yes, we are hurt by the fact the whole incident took place.”

Sexton said he is aware the action raised legal issues, but he would not comment on the company’s legal options.

The 15 jockeys who refused to ride at Churchill last November did not stop the races from being held, as the Louisville, Ky., track was able to find replacement riders. But the track did suffer a public relations black eye, because the treatment of Sellers was unpopular with fans and with many in the industry.

Gertmenian told jockeys on the conference call that Sellers’ removal gave the Guild a great story to tell. Since then he has publicly compared Churchill Downs to “plantation owners” and jockeys to “slaves.”

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