Paralysed jockey's plight shines light on racing's dark side

Allen G. Breed
Canadian Press

Thursday, November 25, 2004

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INSTITUTE, W.Va. (AP) - Gary Birzer had two rituals before climbing into the saddle each night. First, he'd watch tapes of his idol, Pat Day, thoroughbred racing's top purse winner. Then he'd say a prayer.

"Our Father," he would say. "Keep your angels watching over us. If anybody falls, help them back up on their feet."

The 29-year-old jockey fell during a race at West Virginia's Mountaineer Park this summer. But unlike so many times before in his seven-year career, he didn't get back up.

Birzer awoke in a hospital to find himself paralysed from the chest down. It was only then that he learned the catastrophic injury insurance he thought he had through the Jockeys' Guild had lapsed two years earlier, leaving only a $100,000 US track policy to cover bills already topping $600,000.

Birzer's case has shined a light on a dark side of the "sport of kings" - that the majority of the riders who wear the silks and drive this $18 billion-a-year industry have no safety net if they suffer a career-ending injury.

The controversy has sparked a jockey revolt over health care that has led to the ejection of riders from the hallowed twin-spired grounds of Churchill Downs where the Kentucky Derby is run. Some of the sport's biggest names have refused to ride in states that don't cover jockeys under worker's compensation.