For years, jockey Gary Birzer spent more time trying to snare mounts and win races than being concerned about his financial future and jockey’s insurance. Then in 1998 he became engaged and realised that he should look at his monetary affairs.
Statistics show that jockeys have a 60% chance of being injured in any given year and need jockey’s insurance. Gary joined the Jockeys’ Guild. It provided insurance coverage up to $1 million for medical expenses in the event of an on-track accident.
On 20 July 2004, Birzer’s horse fell at West Virginia’s Mountaineer Race Track. The jockey’s back was broken, paralyzing him from the waist down. Then he learnt of the bad news. The guild had quietly cancelled its $1 million policy more than 2 years earlier. They had let it lapse and failed to inform any of the riders. In 2006 Birzer agreed to settle a $10 million lawsuit against the California-based Jockeys’ Guild and the two officials who allowed his health insurance to lapse.
A “Fund” was established by State Legislation in 1998 to provide jockeys’ insurance for active, disabled and retired Delaware jockeys as well as their families.
Recently, the Jockey Guild has been making a strong push for someone to provide health insurance for riders and their families. In New York, the Governor’s office has convened a Task Force on Jockey Health and Safety to consider the issue, among others.
A major item of discussion at the Task Force meetings has been: Who should pay for health insurance for jockeys and their families? Its that either the race tracks or the owners and trainers should bear this cost, and not the jockeys themselves. This does seem reasonable. After all, owners, trainers and track executives are not the ones taking the risks of riding a 1, 200 pound animal at 40 miles per hour in close company and under sometimes less than perfect conditions. Jockeys literally put their lives on the line every time they ride, so should they not get help?
Is financing health insurance for jockeys and their families really the best use of money from tracks’ budgets? Is taking yet another slice off the top of owners’ purses to pay for jockeys’ insurance wise at a time, when despite slots-enhanced purses, most race horse owners still lose money?
Why provide health insurance for jockeys when trainers, many of whom own less than jockeys, have no insurance plan from the track and have to buy their own personal and family coverage?
In some racing jurisdictions, where purses are low, jockeys do not have coverage for on-the-job injuries. A jockey’s income flirts with the poverty line. Perhaps here there is an argument to be made for assisting jockeys with health insurance premiums. However, in New York, that argument does not apply. Here is why:
First, jockeys in New York already have two forms of insurance coverage for work-related injuries. The Jockey Injury Compensation Fund provides workers compensation coverage. This includes ongoing medical care, for on-the-job injuries to jockeys and exercise riders. The Fund is financed by owners, through a deduction of purses. Also by trainers, through a per-stall fee.
In addition, the New York Racing Association (NYRA) pays for an accidental death and injury policy. This pays those jockeys who sign a waiver (agreeing not to sue NYRA). Those payments are on top of the workers’ compensation payments through The Jockey Injury Compensation Fund.
Secondly, jockeys in New York make a pretty good living. Using statistics available from Equibase, it is possible to calculate the gross earnings of most regular New York riders. In New York, jockeys generally get 9.17% of a win purse, 5% of second-place money and 7.5% of third place money. Because win purses are the major element in any jockey’s income, this works out to a blended rate of about 8% of total purse money won.
According to the latest figures, 24 riders earned over $100, 000 each per annum just in New York. These are many riders with incomes that the majority of racegoers would not mind earning. It is true that jockeys generally pay their agents 15-25% of their earnings. Furthermore their valets get 5-10%, but still these are solid, middle-class incomes, and well above the national average.
In the past, jockeys had a strong argument for having the tracks and/or owners supply health insurance, because most riders would have “pre-existing conditions” that insurance companies would cite in order to deny coverage. However, under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), insurance companies can no longer use that excuse; they must make standard policies available, regardless of the pre-existing conditions.
Jockeys are independent contractors, with rare exceptions, they are not employees of a particular trainer or owner. Like solo practice lawyers, freelance writers or, for that matter, horse trainers, they are responsible for themselves. Unlike those other categories, they have jockeys’ insurance for work-related injuries.
The New York Task Force on Jockey Health and Safety can do a lot of good things. Improving vests, helmets and other professional equipment would help. So would stiffer standards for licensing riders to make sure they are up to the level of competition in New York, and ongoing continuing education programs
In addition providing nutrition advice so that riders can keep their weight down without destroying their bodies. So would tougher penalties for dangerous riding.