Jerry Bailey can look back on a Hall of Fame jockey career that featured 5,892 victories but also the searing memory of 17 fractures, including a broken back, jaw and collarbone, and several busted ribs.
Yet Bailey considers himself lucky. He never sustained an injury that kept him off the track more than several months. And unlike many jockeys, he could afford disability insurance designed to fill the gap between what riders need after life-altering accidents and what they receive from racetrack policies.
Midway through another Triple Crown season, some facts haven't changed since Bailey retired in 2006 after two wins apiece in the Preakness, Belmont Stakes and Kentucky Derby. One in five jockeys still gets injured and misses work in a given year, according to the Kentucky-based Jockeys' Guild. And many jockeys harbor anxiety about whether the system is adequate to cover their medical bills should they take a nightmarish spill.
"Jockeys are in desperate need of a safety net," riders John Velazquez and Ramon Dominguez said in a joint statement provided by the Jockeys' Guild.
Velazquez is riding Itsmyluckyday in Saturday's Preakness. He recently returned after fracturing a rib and wrist in an April accident at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York City.
Velazquez pays more than $10,000 a year in premiums for his own disability insurance, he said Monday. "But 80 to 85 percent of the guys can't afford that," he said.
Said Bailey: "I think we're categorized in terms of risk at slightly behind test-fighter pilots."
Dominquez has been recovering from a fractured skull sustained in January at Aqueduct.
"Though the racetracks have on-track insurance policies, they do not provide long-term care in the event of catastrophic injuries," the jockeys' statement said. "And remember — if we do not ride, we do not earn a living."
The parent companies of some track operators — including the Stronach Group, which oversees Pimlico, Laurel and other tracks — contribute to the guild fund that pays benefits to jockeys, according to Velazquez and Dominguez's statement. The guild also provides life and accidental death and dismembership insurance to jockeys.
Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, which operates Pimlico and Laurel Park, was unavailable to comment on those tracks' insurance policies for jockeys.
According to the Jockeys' Guild, most tracks' coverage is limited to $500,000 to $1 million per event.
That wouldn't be enough to cover costs in the event of injuries such as those sustained by Gary Birzer after the filly he was riding at West Virginia's Mountaineer Park fell in July 2004. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
"I had a lot of sleepless nights thinking, 'How am I going to pay for these bills?'" Birzer said Monday. "There's probably times [today's jockeys] sit back and think, 'If I'm not able to ride anymore, is my family not going to be taken care of?'"
Fighting back tears, his wife, Amy, told a congressional committee in 2005 that the couple owed $500,000 in medical bills. In 2006, Birzer settled a lawsuit for an undisclosed amount against the Jockeys' Guild and two former officials. He claimed the guild — then under different management — had allowed an insurance plan that would have paid up to $1 million of Birzer's medical expenses to expire in 2002.
Birzer, who lives near Cincinnati, said the settlement has helped him make ends meet.
The track coverage was not restored by the guild — it's too expensive, it said. The guild advocates for jockeys and does provides a temporary benefit — at least $200 per week — for up to two years from the date of the accident.
"It's been a constant issue with racetracks trying to make them understand the vulnerability of jockeys if they're injured. And they're sure to be injured," said Bailey, a former guild president. "It's the only sport that I know of where the ambulance follows you when you do your job."
Jockey agent Tom Stift said the public may not appreciate racing's hazards.
"Football players are wearing pads," said Stift, the agent for 21-year-old Yomar Ortiz, a regular Pimlico Race Course jockey who missed two days of racing last month after he was stepped on by a horse, suffering a badly bruised hip.
"The jocks, there's not much protection," Stift said. "It's actually crazy when you think about it. They go down with the horse, and sometimes it's amazing they get up."
In addition to on-track policies, jockeys riding in Maryland also are covered by workmen's compensation.
The money comes from the Maryland Jockey Injury Compensation Fund. A portion of the funding comes from purses. The balance is from an assessment charged to each owner and trainer at the time they receive their license.
"For years, I have tried to get this coverage throughout the United States," said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horseman's Association.
But only three other states — California, New York and New Jersey — cover jockeys' accidents under workmen's compensation. And Foreman said the reality is that jockeys in other states can be left partially unprotected.
"The average journeyman jockey – who sits in the jockey room every day and may get a $75 to $100 mount fee – will make less than $100,000 a year and may struggle to buy his own coverage" Foreman said.