Not just a ride in the park, jockeys' work has dangers

Horse Racing

May 11, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

FROM THE romantic nostalgia of Seabiscuit and Funny Cide, we move on to a new and decidedly less feel-good theme this racing season. Forget underdog, crooked-legged colts and yellow school buses carrying drunkenly happy high school buddies to Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont.

This is the year of the jockey.

"There's been a lack of respect for jockeys by many in racing," Chris McCarron, retired Hall of Fame jockey and Santa Anita general manager, said yesterday.

"The platform and the issues have been the same for many years. It's just that a few of the high-profile jockeys have stepped up."

Jose Santos has just sued The Miami Herald for $48 million over a bogus story that erroneously posited that Santos might have been carrying an illegal buzzer during last year's Kentucky Derby.

Call it a publicity stunt to help sell more Funny Cide books this Preakness week if you like, but Santos is angry. The best day of his professional life and he was attacked and defamed, he charges, and he'll fight in court to make it right.

Jerry Bailey, John Velazquez, Santos and four other jockeys sued to be allowed to wear advertisements on their pants during this year's Kentucky Derby. A day before the race, a judge granted an injunction allowing the jockeys to wear advertisements, along with a Jockeys' Guild patch that one year ago drew $500 fines for riders who dared wear them at Churchill Downs.

Shane Sellers and Randy Romero are the quasi-tragic stars of Jockey, a recent HBO film about the brutal reality of jockeys trying to make weight.

McCarron has been advocating a new, three-pronged weight policy to improve the health and well-being of jockeys, boosting their maximum weights to 118 and mandating at least 5 percent body fat for jockeys to be eligible to ride.

Saturday afternoon, veteran rider Rick Wilson was flipped by his mount and trampled at the gate at Pimlico, sending him to intensive care with critical head injuries, although doctors are reporting Wilson is lucky. He won't be one of the two jockeys who, on average since 1960, have been killed each year in track accidents, according to The Jockeys' Guild.

Yesterday, The Jockeys' Guild announced it has extended the contract of a California management and consulting firm to continue the guild's effort to bolster its clout and negotiating power, particularly in the areas of insurance benefits and advertising rights.

Good job, ladies and gentlemen with 2 percent body fat who have never tasted a potato chip - or at least kept one down. You have seized the stage.

"Jockeys have always been highly regarded and appreciated by racing as superb athletes and recognized by the fans," Keith Chamblin, vice president of marketing for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, said yesterday in a clearly conciliatory tone.

"What's happened in the last couple of years is that the interest generated by horses competing for the Triple Crown has catapulted our premier riders into the stratosphere," Chamblin said.

In other words, when thoroughbred racing starts shelling out $5 million bonuses to undefeated Kentucky Derby winners, when Visa offers a $5 million bonus for winning the Triple Crown, when television ratings rise and horse racing lands on the tabloid back pages with baseball, the NFL, NBA and NHL, that's about the time that the formerly disorganized band of underweight, independent contractors called jockeys stands up and says, "We're not going to take it anymore. Deal us in, now."

In this age of disclosure, the jockeys are here to show us the "heaving bowl," standard track equipment where bulimia becomes a jockey's best mode of professional survival. It's either that or the sweatbox.

They're here to talk about damaged livers, malfunctioning kidneys, corroded teeth from rivers of stomach acid.

They're here to battle trainers and owners and railbirds who like to minimize a jockey's positive impact on a win and rip him to shreds for mishandling a trip.

They're here to broadcast that their career earnings have nothing to do with what they actually take home, because the average non-winning mount pays about $57.

They're here to say: "This space is for rent so I can pay mine."

Indeed, jockeys have seized this Triple Crown season by demanding their rights, leveraging their financial stakes in this big-money romp through Louisville, Baltimore and New York. They've threatened boycotts, filed lawsuits, asked for and received restraining orders, taken to the airwaves of National Public Radio and generally used every opportunity to educate the world about the gritty underbelly of racing, which is their domain.

Go ahead. Try to find other racing issues that have more legs than the plight of the jockeys.

Extol the virtue of two consecutive Derby winners as horses of the people. Funny Cide and Smarty Jones have earned their place on sports' center stage - only to find they're being pushed aside by the 113-pound riders who steered them to the winner's circle.

Debate slots and the impact they will - or won't - have in thoroughbred racing states like Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Those issues don't stack up to the full-court press jockeys are waging to bolster their standing and their revenues in an industry that has paid lip service to their work.

The sound you hear coming from Old Hilltop this Preakness week won't be the blare of the bugle or the whinnying of horses or the call of the track announcer. It will be the sound of the jockeys flexing their small but mighty muscles.

The jockeys are at the gate. They're off.

129th Preakness Stakes

What: Second leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown

Where, when: Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, post time 6:04 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4. Coverage begins at 5 p.m.

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