Two-time leading Tampa Bay Downs jockey Heriberto Rivera, Jr. considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Rivera rode full-time from 1977-99, winning 3,183 races with purse earnings of more than $24 million. He won riding titles at Tampa Bay Downs in both the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons.
Although he managed to stay injury-free for most of his career, Rivera knew he had something to fall back on in the form of his Jockeys’ Guild membership should he become disabled.
Now an East Coast Regional Manager for the Jockeys’ Guild, the Tampa resident represents riders at 22 tracks, including those in Florida, Colonial Downs, Delaware Park, PARX Racing, Pimlico, Presque Isle Downs and Thistledown. His duties include representing jockeys in dealings with track management and assuring the financial needs of injured and disabled Guild members are met.
Rivera – a steward at Tampa Bay Downs for three seasons before his appointment with the Guild – hopes to increase the Guild membership at Tampa Bay Downs from its current 65-70 percent level through common-sense reasoning. Nationwide, close to 1,000 jockeys are members of the Guild.
“I rode for 23 years, I paid the Guild $110,000 in my life (for insurance) and I never used it that much,” Rivera said Friday. “I was healthy when I retired, and I never broke too many bones. But I was glad to do it, because when I broke a bone and was hurt, I had a paycheck. That is what insurance is all about.
“Some of these young guys don’t see it that way. They go out there and play Russian roulette, with no coverage whatsoever,” Rivera said. “I’ve had guys who joined the Guild come to me and say they didn’t get anything back. I tell them, if you want something back, break a leg. Do you buy car insurance hoping you’ll get in an accident so you get paid?
“When you’re a jockey, it’s not a matter of if you’re going to get hurt – it’s when you’re going to get hurt, because it is part of the job,” Rivera said. “A lot of these guys are so under-covered with insurance, it’s amazing.”
Currently, there are about 60 riders in North America who are permanently disabled, including nine women. Most of them are covered under the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which was created as part of National Thoroughbred Racing Association Charities.
The Jockeys’ Guild, which has been in existence since 1940, suffered major blows to its reputation and finances during the 2001-05 tenure of Wayne Gertmenian, who was removed as president a month after a Congressional hearing on the Guild. The organization was forced into bankruptcy and has struggled to restore its former prestige, but strides are being made.
Guild leaders, including retired and active jockeys, have rallied to keep the membership strong. Top rider John Velazquez, who won the 2011 Kentucky Derby on Animal Kingdom, is the Guild president and chairman. Ramon Dominguez and Robby Albarado are among those riders on the Board of Directors. Former New York Racing Association President Terry Meyocks is the Guild’s National Manager.
“John Velazquez, Ramon Dominguez and Robby Albarado serve on the board because they feel it is their duty and they owe it to the game,” Rivera said. “They want to show that to the kids coming up, because this game gives you so much.”
The Guild achieved a major victory earlier this year when it negotiated an agreement with Churchill Downs Inc. to resume annual payments to the group totaling $330,000, in return for jockey media rights.
Guild members pay $100 to join and subsequently pay $4 per mount. Once a member has ridden 100 races, he or she is eligible for temporary disability payments for up to two years.
Rivera made far less money than today’s riders, but he always had peace of mind knowing he was covered by the Guild brotherhood. “When I was active, I always looked at the Guild as having my back,” he said.
“I knew if the jockeys had issues with the track and we didn’t feel we were being treated fairly, the Guild was there to represent us. Jockeys have enough to worry about with riding races, keeping their weight down and dealing with trainers and owners.
“I always tell jockeys who are thinking about joining that they have to look in the mirror and decide what is best for themselves and their family,” Rivera said. “A lot of these jockeys live paycheck to paycheck, and they don’t prepare themselves for when they are finished riding.”
Leading Tampa Bay Downs trainer Jamie Ness was 2-for-2 Friday, raising his victory total for the meeting to 57 from 128 starters. Ness is well within range of the track record of 68 victories he established during the 2007-08 meet.
In the second race, a six-furlong claiming event, the Ness-trained 7-year-old gelding Dazzlin Dr Cologne improved his Tampa Bay Downs record to 8-for-15 under jockey Daniel Centeno.
Ness also won the sixth race, another six-furlong claiming affair, with his 5-year-old mare Suzanne. She was ridden by Huber Villa-Gomez.
Both Ness horses are owned by Richard Papiese’s Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc., which leads the track owner standings with 57 victories.
Live racing resumes at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday with a first-race post time of 12:25 p.m. The feature is the $50,000 Wayward Lass Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile-and-a-sixteenth. The William Mott-trained 5-year-old mare Arena Elvira, owned by Carolyn Wilson of Tampa, is gunning for her fifth consecutive stakes victory.
The Wayward Lass is the ninth race on an 11-race card.
Tampa Bay Downs is open every day for simulcast wagering, no-limits poker action in The Silks Poker Room and golf fun and instruction at the Downs Golf Practice Facility.
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