In 1940, a small group of jockeys that included Red Pollard, Eddie Arcaro, and Charlie Kurtsinger (rider of the legendary War Admiral) banded together to form the Jockeys' Guild. It was intended to be a labor organization dedicated to sustaining jockeys injured on the track. It became one of the greatest failures in horseracing-- an ugly stain upon the fabric of our industry. On October 13, 2007, the Guild filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in Lexington.
The ongoing saga of the Guild has been well-documented in the press, and it is no secret that the Guild as we knew it is ineffective. What we need most in our industry is strong reform that would give us an organization more akin to the NFLPA and labor groups in other major sports. Let me tell you a brief story and ask a very pertinent question.
On July 13, 1978, a jockey led a horse named Flag of Leyte Gulf into the gates at Belmont Park. He was 36 years old and regarded as among the best in the business. 20,281 races. 3,032 wins. His mounts earned over two million dollars (he received only a small portion of those winnings), and just four years before, he had loaded into this very gate at Belmont Park and rode his way into the history books. On that day, the horse Ron rode won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, a record some say will stand forever. The horse was the legendary Secretariat. The jockey I speak of is Ron Turcotte.
Ron had no way of knowing that Flag of Leyte Gulf would unseat him in the race that day. He had no way of knowing the race would be his last. He had no way of knowing that he would leave the track a paraplegic for the remainder of his life.
This is the jockey who rode "Big Red", arguably the greatest racehorse of all time. The question I want to ask you is, "Who weeps for Ron Turcotte?"
Ron is living out the remainder of his life on what he managed to save during his racing days and his inheritance to his children is a field of timber which will begin to yield trees in another 15 years.
After my first blog on AccessAthletes, I received a copy of an email which mentioned horseracing's image crisis. It is true. Recent government hearings on the sport demonstrate that we are under close scrutiny. The industry wants the controversy to go away. If that is to happen we must begin to address areas where we have failed and pledge ourselves to recovery. It is the only way to renew public trust. One way to begin doing that is to address the issue of disabled jockeys.
Because of the failure of the Guild,jockeys have zero options for short and long term disability. If a rider is injured on the track, medical insurance is provided to cover medical expenses only, but while the jockey is sidelined, the bills keep coming in and living expenses don't vanish. I have personally known jockeys who have had their vehicles repossessed and face foreclosure while recuperating. This creates numerous problems, one of which is the tendency to "ride sore". That's what we call it when a jockey returns to race riding before he is completely healed. When this happens, the jockey can reinjure himself or lose mounts because trainers are worried that he cannot perform.
Because our athletes operate without a contract or collective bargaining agreement of any kind, the only salary they are guaranteed comes from the last horse they rode. Bottom line: if they cannot ride, they do not get paid.
It's an issue that needs to be addressed very soon. My own thoughts on the subject involve setting aside 1% of the takeout (the amount deducted from wagering pools by the track to cover purses, expenses, taxes, etc.) at every racetrack for the sole purpose of short/long term disability, and the creation of new labor organization is a good idea. I have seen a mass exodus from the Guild's membership ranks and the trust in that institution has suffered a major blow. For years, jockeys were forced to contribute a portion of their earnings from every horse they rode to the Guild. When they became disabled, there was little or no money to pay them. It's a sad fact that disabled jockeys receive more in collections from their fellow riders than they do from the Guild.
I support third-party involvement from other professionals who have experience in labor relations and the involvement of those in other sports as we try to reform the Guild. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and ask for help. If we don't fix this problem, the alternative scenario is not a pretty one. I would hate to see jockeys call a strike on the eve of the Kentucky Derby, and something like that is a very real possibility.
Scotty Rushing is a licensed/certified Jockey Agent who has represented numerous riders including David Elston, Rico Flores, Amanda Crandall, and Beverly Burress. He continues to rep for riders on the Louisiana circuit.