Jockeys tell Hill panel of plight

Paralyzed Birzer, others push for help on insurance

October 19, 2005|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Through the poignant testimony of a paralyzed jockey and others, a House panel was told yesterday that most thoroughbred jockeys are being let down by government - and their own guild - in not being afforded adequate insurance for life-altering track accidents.

Second-generation jockey Gary Birzer told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that he never doubted he was covered by a Jockeys Guild insurance plan for his catastrophic injuries after the filly he was riding at West Virginia's Mountaineer Park fell in July 2004.

He was paralyzed from the chest down and appeared at yesterday's hearing in a wheelchair. Fighting back tears, his wife, Amy, who is his sole caregiver, testified the couple owes $500,000 in medical bills.

"When I received my [guild] handbook, it read, `We take care of our own,'" the former jockey, 30, testified in a soft voice. "And that included insurance for on-track injuries."

It turned out that the guild had allowed the insurance plan, which would have paid up to $1 million of Birzer's medical expenses, to expire in 2002 - apparently because it was too expensive.

"He had paid the dues, he had paid the per-mount fees and he thought he had insurance," said Rep. Ed Whitfield, chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. "It's a dangerous sport. There's no reason we should have people falling through the cracks," the Kentucky Republican said.

While jockeys can still opt into a guild insurance plan for non-track injuries, the catastrophic track coverage has not been restored by guild managers.

Of 38 states permitting thoroughbred racing, only Maryland, New York, California and New Jersey require jockeys to be covered by workers' compensation.

"Under the ruse that jockeys are independent contractors, most states allow the riders to bear the risks and the costs that are borne by virtually all other employers in this country," said subcommittee member Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat.

The subcommittee is exploring a number of possible remedies. Some members want Congress to mandate workmen's compensation for jockeys in all states, or for track owners to increase their $100,000 liability for on-the-job injuries.

Others want to allow the guild to collectively bargain as a union, which is now denied because the jockeys are technically "not anyone's employees," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat who says riders should be treated "like other professional athletes."

The hearing was attended by a handful of well-known current and former jockeys, including Pat Day, Chris McCarron and Jerry Bailey.

Said Bailey: "A national workmen's compensation plan would be a godsend. I have broken 21 bones in my career and I consider myself fortunate."

Whatever action Congress takes, it can't undo what happened to Birzer, who said he attended guild meetings and "not once during any of those meetings was anything said about the catastrophic insurance being cancelled."

L. Wayne Gertmenian, the guild's president, testified that the plan had to be dropped because there was no money for it. He said guild members - there are about 1,200 - were more interested in insurance to cover themselves and their families for such ailments as cancer.

Several jockeys testified that the decision to discontinue the plan was made without a meeting of the Guild's board of directors and with little or no notice.

After learning her husband was not covered by the policy, Amy Birzer testified that guild leaders didn't live up to promises to pay for his continuing care at a top-notch rehabilitation facility and that he was transferred to another West Virginia facility, where he incurred bed sores.

She said she was told by guild vice president Albert Fiss: "Jockeys should not be paying for their own insurance and we are using your husband as a guinea pig to make a statement."

Asked by the committee if he indeed made such a statement, Fiss replied, "Yes, I did," He said he owed several people an apology for making it.

The Birzers now live in a Cincinnati apartment, where they are near relatives.

After the Birzers' testimony, the committee spent much of the nearly seven-hour hearing seeking to determine whether there was mismanagement of guild funds.

John Giovanni, the guild's former national manager, was ousted in June 2001. Some jockeys believed the guild needed a better negotiator to deal with track owners. Gertmenian, a Pepperdine University economics professor, was named by the guild's executive committee to take Giovanni's place.

The committee has been requesting documents from the guild to determine whether money was spent appropriately.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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