SBJ/August 8 - 14, 2005/Labor Agents

Guild CEO: Board dropped coverage

The CEO of the Jockeys’ Guild stated in a legal document that he was “not aware” of how the roughly 1,200 jockeys in the Guild were notified that their insurance coverage for catastrophic racetrack accidents had expired.

Guild CEO Wayne Gertmenian also stated under oath that it was the organization’s nine-member board of directors that decided in 2002 to discontinue the policy, which provided $1 million of coverage.

Following a racing accident, jockey Gary Birzer found out he had no insurance coverage.
But six of those jockey board members disputed Gertmenian’s contention, saying they do not remember voting, or even discussing, a decision to cancel the policy. “I can guarantee there is not one person on the board who would have allowed that,” said Robbie Davis, a retired jockey who was a board member in late 2001 and early 2002.

Hall of Fame retired jockey Chris McCarron, also a board member at that time, said last week, “I do not recall it even being put to the board for a vote.”

Gertmenian and his attorney did not return phone calls. Attempts to reach the three other jockeys who were board members at the time — Kent Desormeaux, Tomey Jean Swan and Nicky Wilson — were unsuccessful.

Many jockeys told SportsBusiness Journal last year that they thought they were covered for $1 million, and only found out differently after jockey Gary Birzer was paralyzed in a July 2004 racing accident at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia.

“This tragic accident has left Gary Birzer in a desperate situation, with steadily mounting medical bills that approach $800,000 and no insurance coverage,” said Paul Koczkur, Birzer’s attorney, in a statement. “If he had been properly notified that the Guild had decided to stop protecting its membership in this crucial way, then Gary would have purchased such insurance on his own.”

Koczkur added that Gertmenian’s lack of awareness of how members were notified that the insurance had lapsed “gives tremendous credence to all those jockeys who maintain that no such notice was ever given.”

Gertmenian gave the answers to legal questions, called interrogatories, as part of a lawsuit brought against the Guild by Eddie King, a New Jersey jockey who was removed from the Guild’s board of directors after he publicly expressed concerns about the organization.

Alan Milstein, King’s attorney, commenting on Gertmenian’s responses, said, “Considering that the whole reason for the Guild’s existence was to provide these kinds of benefits to its members, it strains credulity that no one from the Guild has a recollection about this important issue.”

The Jockeys’ Guild was formed in about 1940 to provide benefits to jockeys injured on the track or to the families of riders killed on the racetrack. “When a jockey got hurt, before we had any coverage, the way they were taken care of was they passed the hat,” said John Giovanni, who was the Guild’s national manager from 1987 until he was replaced by Gertmenian in 2001.

The Guild started covering its members for on-track accidents in the 1950s. Jockeys had $1 million of coverage, through various policies, from the mid-1980s until April 1, 2002, when the last policy was allowed to lapse, Giovanni said.

Most racetracks in North America provide up to $100,000 of coverage, but jockeys who suffer severe spinal and head injuries quickly run through that. Five states — including California and New York — cover jockeys for racetrack accidents through workers’ compensation plans.

Since the lack of adequate coverage was discovered, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher has convened a panel to study providing workers’ compensation in that state. Additionally, some tracks, including six owned by Churchill Downs Inc., have secured $1 million worth of coverage. But there are still hundreds of jockeys with just $100,000 of coverage, including Shannon Campbell, who was paralyzed in an accident at Charles Town Races in West Virginia last month.

Meanwhile, five jockeys or former jockeys who were board members when the insurance lapsed, including McCarron, Davis, Larry Reynolds, Ray Sibille and Mike McCarthy, said last week they do not remember being involved in that decision. Former board member Robert Colton would not comment last week but told SportsBusiness Journal last year that he was not involved in the decision to allow the insurance to lapse.

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