Monday, October 09, 2006

Surviving the System

When you land face-first in the dirt at forty miles per hour, the momentum of your butt and legs will supply the force necessary to snap your spine in two. Afterwards, life will never be the same. Jockeys go to work with this knowledge every day.

Sadly, they also know that catastrophic injury can leave them destitute. Track managements have traditionally, and with great success until recently, sought to dodge any responsibility with catch phrases ranging from "racing luck" to "assumed responsibility". In "Seabiscuit" (the book, not the movie), author Laura Hildenbrand devotes an eye-opening chapter to the working environment endured by jockeys in the 1930's, and it's safe to say that the gains jocks have made since then have come with the speed of your average glacier. To add insult to injury, the recent well-publicized looting of the Jockey Guild's treasury resulted in the cancellation of the insurance which the jocks thought they paid for when they elected to pay the Guild $10 per mount instead of the basic dues assessment of $3.

Imagine yourself a quadriplegic, abandoned by management and labor alike, facing an initial medical bill of around a million dollars, with much more to come throughout your lifetime, and little or no prospect of being able to support yourself or your family. Could it be any worse?

In recent times, two jockeys who found themselves in exactly this predicament were able to buck the trend and find some measure of accommodation for themselves. Their stories are worth telling.

On December 1, 1998, jockey Linda Hughes found herself aboard an inexperienced maiden filly in a six furlong race at Calder Race Course in Miami. Her mount was sandwiched between two others going into the turn, all three horses eyeball to eyeball when, inexplicably, the outside horse drifted in. Linda took a hard hold of her horse, pulling it up in an attempt to avoid what seemed like a certain collision, but when the other horse got in front of her, her mount clipped heels and stumbled. When a 1,000 pound horse stumbles and drops its head abruptly, a 110 pound jock with a death grip on the reins instantly becomes the payload of a giant slingshot. Linda hit the ground face first, probably at a velocity greater than the horse was running, say around 40 mph. It was the last time she ever rode a race. Or walked.

The events immediately following the race, while demonstrating tons of ineptitude, probably were all for the best, as they doubtless gave Linda's attorney something to exploit later on. The horse and rider who "bothered" Linda's horse won the race. There was no claim of foul from the unconscious jockey or bumbling trainer, nor was there a steward's inquiry, nor was the winning jock even invited by the stews to review a film of the race later on. (There is this friend of a friend who claims to have access to the race tape. If I get my hands on it, I will post a video here. We'll play a little game called: "What would you do if YOU were a steward?")

I never saw mention in any media of the lawsuit that followed. Churchill Downs, Inc., in a 10-Q filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, mentioned briefly that Calder, which had been acquired by Churchill after Linda's wreck, was found 85% liable for damages in an August, 2003, trial. It wouldn't be unreasonable to guess that Linda's total damages, including lifetime medical care and loss of income, could be six million or more. If you like that number, it puts Calder's liability at about 5.1 mil.

But before a court could determine the actual dollar amount of the damages, Calder settled. There was, of course, a non-disclosure agreement. Industry media politely cooperated by not even acknowledging the existence of the suit.

Jockey Gary Birzer's lawsuit against the Jockey Guild was a different story. The disasterous results of the takeover and subsequent trashing of the Guild by L. Wayne Gertmanian had been gleefully detailed week after week by all the racing media, egged on by race track managements everywhere who knew in their hearts that collective bargaining for jockeys could only come to a bad end. Gary's lawsuit, while meritorius in the extreme, was icing on the cake of a media feeding frenzy.

The mechanics of the wreck that changed Gary Birzer's life were much the same as Linda's. Gary came off his horse in a race at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, and hit the ground head first at an estimated 40 mph, breaking his neck instantly.

Gary has long had a reputation as one of the truly nice guys in this sport, somebody you could trust to do the right thing. He would, in turn, trust that whatever coverage Mountaineer carried, and the Guild insurance he was paying $10 per mount for, would surely take care of his loss in the event of a catastrophe.

Not so. Buried by unpaid medical bills and struggling to pay for food and groceries, Gary and his wife Amy soon found themselves on Medicaid and living on charity. Mountaineer's "contribution" was likely spent in the first few days of intensive care. The sleazeballs who ran the Guild at the time not only had let their insurance coverage lapse, but were determined to exploit Gary by making him the poster boy for the callous indifference of racktrack managements, a red herring so big it should be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame.

Eventually, and I'm guessing, reluctantly, Gary sued the Guild, Gertmanian, and Gertmanian's right hand man, Albert Fiss, for $10 million. The suit was settled two months ago, and, once again, the terms of the settlement (i.e., the measurable costs of the malfeasance of those in charge) are confidential. As part of the settlement, Gary Birzer will represent the Guild as a public advocate for disabled jockeys.

What shines about this story is that two disabled jockeys navigated past the greed and indifference of people who should have done the right thing, but didn't, and arrived at a point where they can cope with the medical and financial consequences of their injuries.

Oh, and West Viginia's two racetracks, Mountaineer and Charles Town, have reportedly upped the coverage which they carry for jocks from $100,000 to $1 million. The higher amount is probably less than twenty percent of the total cost of one of these catastrophies, but give them credit for doing something. At other tracks, jockeys have been ejected from the grounds for suggesting that jocks should bring collective pressure for more coverage.

Meanwhile, jockey advocate Gary Birzer will be looking past his life-changing injuries to contribute something more to the game that almost took everything from him. Is he a hero, or what?