Sunday, April 25, 2004

Adding to family's grief are the debts

Life insurance, health coverage lacking for jockeys

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Even after insurance payouts and numerous benefits that were staged for her, when Tammy Rowland is asked how she's faring with hospital bills left by her late husband, Michael, she exhales deeply.

"Getting there," she says.

An under-reported aspect of horse racing's dangers is the relative lack of insurance available to jockeys.

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When Michael Rowland died Feb. 9 after falling in a race five days earlier at Turfway Park, his widow was awarded the maximum $100,000 that a track can provide for an accident.

The Rowlands also had a modest life-insurance policy.

"Being young, you don't think you need any of those things," Tammy said.

Compared to other professional sports, jockeys have far inferior representation and health coverage. Three years ago, the entire staff of the Jockeys' Guild was fired and insurance policies were dropped after premiums shot up 43 percent.

Under new management, the guild is gaining strength. In 2001, it represented about 610 members who rode about 53 percent of all the mounts, said Albert Fiss, guild vice president. Now it has 1,146 members who account for 93 percent of all mounts.

The guild seeks comprehensive health care for its members, yet the 38 states with pari-mutuel racing operate independently.

"To try to corral all the various stakeholders to come up with a uniform plan is difficult," Fiss said.

On average, one jockey in the United States and three internationally die each year from horse-racing injuries, Fiss said, and an average of 1.5 jockeys suffer injuries serious enough to leave them permanently disabled.

Injured jockeys receive a disability income of $200 a week from the track. Fiss said the guild tries to match that.

Jockeys can purchase coverage individually, but the nature of their job makes it expensive. Shane Sellers, for instance, said he pays $10,000 annually.

Tammy Rowland, a trainer, had some horses moved to other barns as she grieved.

"She's trying to get her life back in order, but it's tough," said Burlington jockey Bill Troilo, a family friend. "People make business decisions, and they don't care what you've gone through."

Meanwhile, Tammy looks for encouraging signs.

On April 8, opening day at Thistledown, near her home in Cleveland, the track dedicated a tree in the paddock to her late husband. Then Uncle Vic, a 5-year-old gelding she trains, won a claiming race in her first race back in business.

"Everybody was cheering this horse on," she said. "There were people crying. It was awesome."

More recognition of Michael, who was among the 50 winning-est jockeys ever with 3,998 career victories, has followed.

Thistledown has renamed a stakes race for him. The five tracks at which Rowland regularly rode, including Turfway and River Downs, have established an annual award in his name for the jockey who best embodies his spirit. Guild members have made nameplates for Rowland that jockeys will install in empty lockers at each track in the nation. The inaugural Jockeys Gala, to be held Saturday, has been dedicated to Rowland.

"It's all been very overwhelming," Tammy said.

Despite the tragedy, 8-year-old Sara Rowland wants to be a jockey like her dad.

"Something good is going to come out of (Michael's death)," Tammy said. "Maybe it's to make it a safer game. Because in about 10 years, it'll be my daughter out there riding."



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