California's 'Lens of Equity' Could Benefit Jockeys

Justify & Mike SmithSarah Andrew


As part of a mandate that flows from the governor on down to the commissioners he has appointed to the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), the “lens of equity” may soon be focused squarely on the state's jockey colony.

Fear not, California riders: This initiative means the owners of male horses that you pilot to victory in certain graded stakes might soon be compelled to award you a one-time breeding right if that winner goes on to become a stallion. That's a practice that was once a “gentleman's agreement” type of custom, but is believed never to have been codified in any American racing jurisdiction.

The renewed focus on fairness could also mean that the state's jockeys might also be getting some everyday weight breaks in the foreseeable future.

These items were both discussed–but not voted upon–during Thursday's monthly CHRB meeting, one day after a subcommittee that deals with jockey welfare first broached those subjects in a public forum.

“It has to do with embracing the tradition of California racing, which has always had the pre-eminent jockey colony in the world,” said vice chair Oscar Gonzales, who is advocating the stallion share concept but noted that the idea still needs legal analysis and fine-tuning via public commentary before it resurfaces as an actual rule proposal.

Gonzales said that attracting and retaining top riders is vital to the health of racing in the state, calling jockeys “the best ambassadors” of the sport.

“The other thing I believe this has to do with is about fairness and equity,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales pointed out that to his understanding, neither Victor Espinoza nor Mike Smith were awarded breeding shares in American Pharoah and Justify after their respective Triple Crown championships, even though both stallions had won Grade I stakes in California along the way.

“So I question that fairness,” Gonzales continued. “I believe that there's a lack of consistency. And this board, being as reform-minded as we strive to be, are always looking for disparities and things that we can fix.”

Commissioner Wendy Mitchell expressed support for the concept.

“I read one press report that it's a 'radical idea,'” Mitchell said. “And I appreciate that we're making changes; this board is going in new directions that have not been seen in horse racing. And we see other states and other jurisdictions following suit.”

Mitchell continued: “As far as the breeding rights for jockeys, I think [that policy] is a brilliant idea, because it goes to the 'equity lens' that every commission in the state of California is looking at policies through… It's the governor's directive. It's what everyone is talking about and what we should be looking at.”

The concept of an “equity lens” has been increasingly championed over the past several years by Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose “California for All” message underscores that state government must strive to serve all citizens and advance all forms of diversity, fairness and inclusion, especially among marginalized populations. It encompasses everything from policing to road-building to public health and housing-and now horse racing, too.

As commissioner Thomas Hudnut put it, one of the ways this concept applies to racing regulation is via making sure jockeys are getting adequately compensated for the professional risks they take.

“We really need to take a holistic approach to the whole question of jockeys and jockey welfare, because relatively few jockeys ride stakes-winning horses,” Hudnut said. “It's the food-chain matter of the jockeys who don't get the chance, who are chronically underpaid and frequently overworked. And we need to keep them in our sights as well. Because if we're talking about the 'lens of equity,' those are the guys who are more often than not getting the short end of the stick.”

Gonzales added that it will be the board's responsibility not to make decisions (like on breeding shares) without understanding the wider socio-economic implications.

“We should also, at some point when we take up this issue, have a very thorough and comprehensive understanding of what it is that the industry does to support jockeys on the one hand, and how they make a living…. Because jockeys remain important to what we do in this industry, it's time for this board to have a fuller understanding of how we can be supportive of jockeys.”

No commissioners publicly expressed opposition to the stallion-share concept during the May 19 meeting. There was no public commentary either for or against the idea, but that is expected to come at a later stage once an actual proposal is brought before the CHRB for voting.

At a different point in the meeting, Gonzales updated commissioners on work-in-progress proposals to give jockeys weight breaks that are more in line with 21st Century human physiology.

Currently, Gonzales explained, California gives a 10-pound weight break to new apprentices to incentivize trainers to employ them. But some trainers will insist on the jockey weighing out right at the 10-pound max allowance, which is a weight some jockeys can't easily achieve.

“The way things currently are is that a beginning rider will have to weigh about 110 pounds or so, which is pretty difficult these days, ” Gonzales said. “This low-weight threshold can be a barrier.”

Gonzales said the way the scale is now, an apprentice gets a 10-pound “bug” until win No. 5, when it drops to seven pounds. The allowance then drops to five after win No. 40.

Gonzales said the rule that is likely to be proposed will instead start with a seven-pound base, then drop to five after win No. 10, “which can make a huge difference,” Gonzales said.

“Typically, after a certain milestone, the public is pretty familiar with that five-pound allowance, which is really the number that we ought to concentrate on,” Gonzales said. “But what we're trying to do is eliminate a barrier of entry to young riders coming up.”

In addition, Gonzales said, the CHRB is likely to consider a proposed rule that would raise the minimum weight for established riders from 112 pounds to 114 pounds, and to reduce the maximum amount of overweight from seven pounds to five.

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