Chris Isidore Commentary:
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Jockey abuse: Low pay, high risk, weak union
Jockeys face great risks, poor pay, and uphill battle to improve condition as their battered union tries to recover from recent woes.
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - As you watch the Kentucky Derby this Saturday, consider this ... most of the guys hanging by their fingers and toes to those charging 40-mph thoroughbreds are going to walk away with only $50 for their risk.

And that's just because it's a high-profile race. Usually they'd walk away with less than $25.

Jockeys have shockingly low pay despite having the most dangerous job in professional sports.
Jockeys have shockingly low pay despite having the most dangerous job in professional sports.
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And of course, there's a good chance, 1 in 20 for the average jockey, they'll get injured. Or worse. Two jockeys have died since the last Kentucky Derby ... one of those only 16-years old.

Add to the mix that many jockeys, Kentucky Derby riders for instance, aren't covered by state workers' compensation laws.

Yup. No group of athletes needs a strong union more than jockeys. But no union in sports has had more trouble recently than the Jockeys' Guild.

Congressional hearings

Their union was the subject of congressional investigations last year, which led to revelations about its leadership's financial compensation at that time and the eventual ouster of its two top officers.

The union has since sued former CEO L. Wayne Gertmenian and former Chief Operating Officer Albert Fiss to try to recover money they were paid out of the Guild's meager resources. The union was left with about $6,000 in the bank after the two were forced from office, according to current Guild leadership. Another Congressional hearing is scheduled for next Tuesday.

Gertmenian, who was eager to talk to me about the plight of jockeys a year ago, was not available for comment for this column.

The new leadership, led by interim national manager Darrell Haire, has won some improvements, including getting most tracks to agree to provide between $500,000 to $1 million in insurance to cover medical bills of jockeys seriously injured in accidents on the track.

"The scandal hurt us, no doubt about it," said Haire. "The [congressional] hearing was just a fiasco; it was so embarrassing. But the board we have now is very well respected. I think we're getting our integrity back. We had to raise dues and we didn't see a drop off in membership."

Still the Guild has an uphill battle just to win basics for its membership. Only four states - New York, New Jersey, Maryland and California - give jockeys the basic protection of workers' compensation coverage that the overwhelming majority of American workers take for granted and get at no cost at far less dangerous jobs.

A very dangerous job

Workers' compensation is an important improvement over insurance because it provides living expenses and lifetime medical care for those who are permanently disabled as well as death benefits for survivors of those who are killed.

Riders in this year's Kentucky Derby do not have workers comp coverage, although riders in the next two Triple Crown races do. The effort to pass workers compensation coverage in Kentucky failed earlier this year amid demands from critics of the legislation that jockeys help pay for the coverage out of their relatively meager incomes.

The Guild's proposal that the coverage come out of the winnings of race fans' wagers - about 10 cents out of every $100 in winnings - was rejected.

About 60 living jockeys have been permanently disabled from on-track accidents, and about two a year are killed. Since last year's Kentucky Derby, Josh Radosevich, a 16-year old jockey who had just gotten his license, and Michel Lapensee, a 58-year old jockey with about four decades experience, died from such accidents.

Another jockey on temporary disability committed suicide and two others died from medical problems brought on by their near desperate efforts to keep their weight low.

Workers' comp would help care for jockeys who are temporarily disabled, about 60 to 80 riders a year. Riders with 100 or more rides a year face a better than one-in-twenty chance of serious injury during a year, an injury rate that would make most Americans think twice about before working at much better paid jobs.

About $15 billion a year is wagered on racing and while 80 percent of that goes to the winning betters, those wagers produce about $1 billion a year for the tracks and nearly that much for horse owners and trainers.

Meager pay

While the jockeys whose horses finish in the money in the Kentucky Derby Saturday will see a nice pay day, most of the jockeys in the sports' premier race will get only $100 for what is known as a "mount fee."

Out of that, they have to pay 25 to 30 percent to their agents, and another 5 to 10 percent to their valet who helps them with their equipment. Those payments, as well as insurance and union dues, leave most riders with only about $50 of their Derby mount fee, not enough to buy a ticket for Churchill Downs this Saturday.

And of course that's what the jockeys get for the Derby. Mount fees for a typical race are only $35 to $55, leaving the jockeys between $12 to $25 per race after making the payments. Those mount fees are paid by the horse owners.

"Nobody is telling the jockey they have to be a rider," said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the group that represents horse owners, trainers, tracks and breeders but not jockeys. "Like many of other professions, there are a number of jockeys who make a decent living, then there are those at a lower level as well. The horse owners would tell you they spend $2 billion chasing $1 billion in purse money. If you're going to pay the jockeys and trainers more, where would the money come from?"

There are some well-paid jockeys. John Velazquez, who is now chairman of the Guild's board of directors, was the top earner last year, receiving a share of purses worth about $2.1 million. Of course he paid out about a third of those purses to agents and valets.

And he'll miss this year's Derby, and as much as five months of racing and earnings, with a broken shoulder blade and cracked ribs suffered when his horse fractured a leg during a race two weeks ago.

The riders who live below the poverty line are far more common than those who pull down six-figure or better salaries. The top 100 jockeys received about 57 percent of the purse money that went to riders last year, leaving the typical pay for other active jockeys to be about $35,000 to $40,000 for a job that requires frequent travel and other expenses.

Haire was a jockey for 15 years. He said that while exercise riders and those who ride the ponies that take the races horses to the gate can make more than the jockeys, most jockeys choose the lower pay and greater danger for the excitement.

"There's nothing like riding a race. You can't describe what it's like to be out there on an animal going 40 mph racing against each other," he said.

That's no excuse for the jockeys getting such meager pay in such a lucrative industry. But given the sports' history, it's a real long shot that even the new Guild leadership will be able to flex the muscle necessary to significantly improve pay and benefits for riders any time soon.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.