Omaha Beach and jockey Mike Smith win the Grade I $300,000 Runhappy Malibu Stakes Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019 at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, CA©Benoit Photo
More than one top jockey has moved tack away from California in recent months — and a subcommittee of the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB) is willing to think outside the box to try to stop the exodus.
The CHRB’s Jockey and Driver Welfare Committee met May 18 to discuss a number of proposals related to rider and driver welfare. One of the ideas up for discussion would be an extra incentive for riders in graded stakes races in California. Oscar Gonzales, vice-chairman of the CHRB, detailed a proposal that would award a single breeding right or season to the rider of colts or horses that win certain stakes races in California.
“About a year and a half ago, Dr. [Greg] Ferraro and I met, and I brought up the issue of, what is it going to take to make sure that jockeys are at the table in a meaningful and equitable way?” said Gonzales. “We now are at a point, I believe, where we need to look at what more we can be doing for riders.
“I believe asking for a one-time breeding right — not a lifetime breeding right, but a one-time breeding right — for a graded stakes win is not too much to ask.”
Fellow subcommittee members were a little skeptical of the concept. For one thing, they weren’t sure whether the CHRB could legally require an owner to give a breeding right to a horse’s former jockey upon retirement. While some colts, like those on the Kentucky Derby trail, have stud deals completed early in their careers, others may not have this done until much later — which could mean the farm or ownership group in legal charge of the stallion’s breeding rights may inherit a requirement from a previous win in the horse’s record.
Scott Chaney, executive director of the CHRB, had collected a few comments from industry stakeholders who voiced concern about whether such a requirement would disincentivize owners to send horses to stakes races in California.
Commissioner Thomas Hudnut questioned whether the measure would improve the California rider base unless it could somehow be limited to California-based riders — but this may prove difficult in higher-level races, where a horse and rider may ship in from another state to compete.
“I like the idea of wanting to do something for the riders, and wanting to do something to incentivize riders to come to California and stay in California,” said Hudnut. “I’m not sure this is the best way to do that.”
Hudnut pointed out that a proposed rule stated the CHRB would require the gift of these breeding rights, although Gonzales framed it in his verbal presentation more as a request of the horse’s owner.
“After reading the vagueness of what we have in our packet, it leaves more questions than answers for me,” echoed CHRB commissioner Damascus Castellanos. “I agree with [commissioner Gonzales] and commissioner Hudnut and everyone else that we need to do something. Purses and everything else are a piece of it, but this is something I think needs a lot more discussion and needs to evolve into something that’s more understandable than what we have in front of us right now.”
Gonzales said the mechanism could also go toward better compensating riders for the risky work they do.
“Maybe the public doesn’t know, but anyone who thinks jockeys are well-compensated for what they do is off the mark,” said Gonzales. “A rider is entitled to 10% of winnings. So when you take a look at a purse, that’s 55% [to the winner], so they get 10% of that 55%. They then are responsible for giving 25% to their agent, and in most cases 5% goes to their valet. If they’re jockeys, and most are, who will provide a monetary tip to the exercise rider, the groom, and sometimes the hot walker … we’re also talking about riders who are 1099 workers, which means they’re also giving what’s left over, 18 to 20% [of it] back to the government. I also believe when you take a look at that, and they have no retirement plan, it really makes you wonder how we as an industry will continue to support jockeys across the country but how we are going to be doing our share here in California to set the tone that jockeys matter.”
Gonzales said in his discussions with former CHRB commissioner and Hall of Fame jockey Alex Solis could only recall receiving one or two breeding rights in his career.
Ultimately, the subcommittee agreed to proceed with inquiries about whether it would be legal to make such a regulation before continuing further discussion on whether the idea is a good one.