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NEED FOR COMMON GROUND.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI Horse Racing

INGLEWOOD - Suppose a horse-racing fan reported to his local track Thursday expecting to hear of a quick, rational and permanent solution to the jockeys' insurance controversy in Kentucky, where protesting riders were banned from Churchill Downs and one was taken off the grounds in handcuffs last weekend.

A tour of the Hollywood Park barns, with ears open to the morning chatter, would have restored the fan's natural cynicism about the ability of racing leaders to put out the fire.

In front of the Hollywood Park backstretch racing office, Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux was reminding a little group of horsemen what happened after the sport realized in the early 1990s that horses' numbers were hard to read on the little television screens used by off-track bettors.

``It took 10 years before you got every track in the country using color-coded saddlecloths,'' Desormeaux said, and everybody laughed at the memory. ``If they try to do something nationally (about the jockeys' demand for increased accident-insurance coverage), it's going to take 10 years. It's going to have to be done individually, track by track. We'll find out who has a heart and who doesn't.''

One of Desormeaux's listeners, horse owner Steve Taub, suggested a simple answer in which everybody with a finger in racing's economic pie would share the cost of a raise in the $100,000 in medical coverage provided to jockeys by tracks in states where - unlike California - riders don't have workers' compensation protection.

``We run 100,000 races in the United States each year,'' said Taub, who had a Kentucky Derby runner with Imperialism last May. ``What if we took $100 out of every race to go to an insurance fund? That'd give the jockeys $10 million. I'd support that.''

Mike Smith, the Hall of Fame rider, listened and smiled as if he'd like to think it's that easy.

``I'm sure there's some technicality that would come up,'' Smith said, ``where they'd say, 'You can't do that.'''

Trainer and TV commentator Simon Bray heard that and noted it's just not in racing's nature to find common ground.

``Our sport's too diversified, that's the problem,'' Bray said. ``Too many factions.''

At Hollywood Park, they've watched the flareup in Kentucky with the knowledge that the problem could touch on California someday if trainers here succeed in knocking jockeys off of their costly workers' compensation policies.

They saw jockeys at Churchill Downs frightened into action by accidents last week at the Louisville track that left veteran rider Tony D'Amico with shoulder and rib fractures and a lung puncture, and at Mountaineer racetrack in West Virginia in July that left Gary Birzer paralyzed.

They saw more than a dozen Churchill riders back up their demand for increased insurance by refusing to be named on horses for Wednesday's card, including Rafael Bejarano, the national wins leader, and Craig Perret, pilot of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled.

They saw Churchill officials respond by banning the boycotters through the Nov. 27 close of the meet. And they saw Louisville police lead ex-rider Shane Sellers, an organizer of the protest, out of the track in handcuffs.

Those watching from a safe distance at Hollywood Park have three viewpoints.

There are those who say the tracks, owners and trainers - and fans - owe the jockeys the security of multimillion-dollar insurance policies, and point out that only the most successful fraction of the nation's riders can afford to pay their own premiums. There are those who blame the jockeys for canceling an earlier insurance policy through the Jockeys' Guild, failing to anticipate the current crisis and inflaming the Kentucky situation. And there are those who wonder why everybody can't get along.

A trainer went so far Thursday as to say jockeys are ``parasites'' who make no financial investment in the game but expect to reap its rewards.

Another trainer, Hall of Famer Ron McAnally, said at his barn that he's sympathetic to the jockeys' cause but wonders whose pocket the money should come out of: ``Do they take it out of (race) purses? Or out of each betting dollar? ...''

In 1998, racing's factions teamed up to form the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. It was intended as a ``league office'' for a sport divided by multiple jurisdictions, associations and economic interests. It has made some impact, particularly in the areas of marketing and TV exposure.

For the NTRA to be worthwhile, it must be able to bring the industry together to solve problems like the jockeys' insurance squeeze.

So far, the NTRA's lone move has been the announcement Monday of the formation of a panel to study the issue.

At the racetrack, capitol of cynicism, few expect a fast agreement.

``The message here is that the fabulous horse-racing industry that we're all involved in should develop consistency through all 50 states,'' Taub said.

``That goes for everything from organization to (equine) medication to jockeys' insurance. The attitude of selfishness keeps us from the major- league level.

If owners would contribute a little bit of the purse money, and the trainers and the jockeys, they would have coverage. This is a rare opportunity for the industry to screw its head on straight and come together.''

It's a test for the whole sport.

Said Bray, walking to the parking lot: ``It's not a jockeys' problem, it's a how-can-the-racing-industry-come-together-and-solve-this problem.''
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 12, 2004
Words:891
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