New York jockeys are talking about joining the AFL-CIO. If they do, they will become members of the International Union of Dolls, Toys. Playthings, Novelties and Allied Products of the United States and Canada.
No wise-cracks, please. The riders are serious. Many of them make only $100,000 a year or more - in many instances much, much more - but they apparently believe they are underpaid, and, compared to the athletes signing the big, multi-year contracts in other sports, they are. A jockey risks life and limb every time he is given a leg-up on a thoroughbred.
There is however, one compelling difference today between their sport and baseball, football or basketball. Those games are fantastically healthy, financially, compared to the steady decline in popularity racing has suffered the last 20 years.
Owners and trainers, the people who really put on the racing show, find themselves in an economic crunch. Many have had to cut back sharply on the size of their stables. Hundreds of marginal owners have been forced out. The cost of maintaining a horse has risen to $30 a day at New York tracks, and many other areas are not far behind.
And now the New York jockeys, the fat cats of their trade, want a big raise in pay. They say that's not their main concern, when they talk of bolting the Jockeys' Guild in favor of Dolls. Toys, Playthings, Novelties and Allied Products. They talk of "security," but money is what their discontent is all about.
They want a 10 per cent share of the purse, across the board, for finishing second and third in a race in addition to the 10 per cent they receive for winning.
New York riders currently earn $55 for second, $45 for third and $35 after losing. In a $10,000 race, 10 per cent across would mean $220 for second and $120 for third. It would also mean the trainers would meet them in the unsaddling area with whips.
Horsemen can not afford to give up anything they receive until purse money is increased, and purses at most tracks are not about to go up because the sources for such extra money already have been tapped. The only obvious solution to the problem would be for the states, which invest nothing, to start surrendering part of their share of the pari-mutuel tax. But most states are not ready to get off the bettor's or the horsemen's backs.
What is disturbing about the New York movement is that these elitists, these members of the $200,000 to $500,000-a-year club, are bemoaning the fact that they must pay up to $5,000 a year in fees to the Guild even though they know, by so doing, they make it possible for the Guild to take care of hundreds of less-fortunate members.
There are approximately 1,700 professional riders in the United States. One-third have it made. Another one-third make a good living. The final one-third are struggling. Thirty-five others are permanently disabled but beautifully cared for by the Guild. Some 200 retired members receive excellent benefits if they contributed as the Guild urged, to a pension plan the Guild administers.
This is not to say that the New York jockeys do not have some legitimate complaints. They do. And so do the jockeys who ride for $15 a race at say, Coeure D'Alene, Idaho, where the purse might be $400 or smaller and the mounts they have to ride are cripples.
Several of the nation's most famous jockeys are incorporated, for tax purposes. They are independent contractors, not about to join any union. I can see it now, a "closed shop" in New York for jockeys: join pay your dues, or beat it back to the bushes.
The jockeys with the greatest need for a union are those in the bull-rings, where they ride for nickels and dimes. But labor shows no interest in these low-income riders. Instead, the organizers for Dolls, Toys. Playthings, Novelties and Allied Products are interested in the big money boys.
The union knows, if it can organize the jocks, New York's mutuel clerks might follow. Mutuel clerks can not shut down a race track, not with automation coming on so strongly through the stretch of the 1970s. But 30 jockeys respecting a picket line would give any union clout.
The nation's jockeys must decide, of course, what is best for their future. The leaders, including those from New York, will gather to talk things over shortly. The date: Dec. 5. The site: Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Now there's a great place to discuss "security."