Jockeys ride with risk

As the Breeders' Cup puts a national spotlight on horse racing, Gary Birzer's catastrophic fall and uncovered medical bills raise a widening debate over the lack of jockeys' insurance.

Horse Racing

October 27, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

INSTITUTE, W.Va. - Little Robyn Birzer, 2 years old, sat upright in her chair when the horses entered the starting gate, as if she were a jockey getting ready to race. Then, as she watched the horses on TV run around the track, she said, "Go daddy, go daddy, go daddy."

Her father, Gary Birzer, couldn't help but smile as his little girl rooted him on, even though he wasn't riding in the race. He watched on TV, too, from his wheelchair at the West Virginia Rehabilitation Hospital in the tiny town of Institute, just outside Charleston.

Birzer, 29, a jockey since 1997, suffered catastrophic injuries in July when Lil Bit of Rouge, the 3-year-old filly he was riding at Mountaineer Park, fell, and Birzer crashed to the ground. Two vertebrae high in his back were crushed, causing severe injury to his spinal cord and paralyzing Birzer from the chest down.

His case sparked a national debate over jockeys' insurance. Although Birzer's initial hospital bills have reached about $600,000, a policy provided by Mountaineer, a track in northwestern West Virginia, covered only $100,000. Birzer was shocked to discover that The Jockeys' Guild, which represents about 1,200 riders, provides no insurance for jockeys injured on the job.

More than a dozen jockeys and jockeys' agents have pledged to donate 5 percent of their earnings on Breeders' Cup day to Birzer, and the owners of two Breeders' Cup horses, Ashado and Funny Cide, have promised donations. More jockeys and horse owners are expected to pledge donations as race day approaches. The Breeders' Cup, eight major races worth $14 million, takes place Saturday at Lone Star Park in Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth.

Because of publicity about the Birzer case, Lone Star Park, the Breeders' Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association purchased a policy to cover jockeys' injuries up to $500,000 during Breeders' Cup week. D.G. Van Clief Jr., president of the Breeders' Cup and commissioner of the NTRA, pledged to address the issue on an industry-wide basis.

Still, Gary Stevens, who starred in the movie Seabiscuit, refused to ride at Lone Star. He said he won't ride in states where jockeys aren't covered by workers' compensation insurance, which pays for all work-related injuries.

Jockeys in five states, including Maryland and California, Stevens' base, are covered by workers' compensation policies. Tracks in other states provide coverage up to $100,000, as Mountaineer does and Lone Star Park normally does.

Last month, nationally known jockey Shane Sellers quit because of the insurance issue. He said he won't ride again until racing provides jockeys with complete coverage. Sellers, 37, has three children, ages 8, 12 and 14.

"I'm not playing Russian roulette with my kids' future," Sellers said. "If I go out and fall, I lose everything I've worked the last 23 years for. ... It's just a matter of time until there's another Gary Birzer."

`Gary went down'

Birzer wasn't lucky like Stewart Elliott, a little-known jockey from Pennsylvania who gained sudden fame by riding Smarty Jones to eight straight victories, including the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and just missing the Triple Crown. A winner of 765 races in seven years, including five minor stakes, Birzer garnered national attention by becoming paralyzed.

As the seventh race began July 20 at Mountaineer Park, Birzer's wife, Amy, 26, and their daughter, Robyn, stood at a track concession stand. Amy was eating a Popsicle. Another jockey's wife rushed up and said, "Gary went down."

Amy had seen Gary go down before, and she'd always seen him get back up. This was different.

"It was the panic on everybody's face," Amy said.

She dashed for her car in the parking lot, drove around to the far turn, ducked under the rail and ran to Gary, who was lying on the track. She heard him say, "Where's my wife?"

She rode in the front seat as the ambulance took her husband to the hospital. She heard him say something else: "No, sir, I can't feel that."

After a couple of hours at the local hospital, he was flown by helicopter to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in nearby Pittsburgh. A day and a half later, he underwent surgery in which a rod and plate were inserted to stabilize his neck.

"The way the doctor explained it to us, so we could understand it," Amy said, "was they did the surgery so Gary could hold his neck up again."

Birzer spent one month at the UPMC Rehabilitation Hospital before traveling by ambulance to the rehab center near Charleston. He is learning how to function while being able to move only his shoulders. He suffered no brain damage and speaks normally.

"I'm getting stronger," Birzer said. "I'm just looking forward to getting home and doing stuff with Amy and Robyn I couldn't do before, like go to the movies more often, like go have a picnic."

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