by Terry Conway
After seven years away from the jock's room Robert Colton is back in the saddle this year at age 50, chasing a career milestone of 4000 victories.
But he's also got a much bigger goal. Colton is trying to make amends for the unwitting part he played in a Jockey Guild scandal several years ago.
The Guild came under fire after many of its jockeys learned that Guild management had quietly cancelled $1 million insurance policy for catastrophic racetrack accidents and never officially notified the jockeys.
Wayne Gertmenian, the Guild CEO, was charged with drying up the disabled jockey fund and pocketing approximately $2 million. It prompted a congressional hearing.
Colton, who worked in accounting under Gertmenian, claimed he was caught in a web of deception before quitting.
"It was the biggest mistake of his career," Colton said in an early July conversation at Delaware Park.
Early this spring Colton brokered a landmark deal that gives riders at Delaware Park the most comprehensive insurance coverage of any racetrack in North America.
"It will more than double the current policy for jockeys, sending a strong statement to the horse racing industry," explained Colton, the Delaware Park Jockey Association president. "It sets a precedent for jockey insurance coverage."
Jockeys at Delaware Park are now entitled to $2 million in on-track accident insurance and the coverage length has increased from 24 months to 60 months.
In addition, the policy provides riders $500 per week in disability pay and $100,000 in accidental death and dismemberment benefits, both double what the original policy offered. The program is voluntary; currently 50 jockeys have signed up.
"It's an IQ test for jockeys and some fail it," Colton said with a laugh. "That blows me away with the type of injuries that we sustain."
Along with jockey Tony Black, Colton helped Philadelphia Park riders obtain $500,000 in catastrophic insurance for on-track accidents, as well as personal health insurance in 2007.
During a 35-year career Colton rode 3,982 winners from 24,933 mounts, with 3,565 seconds and 3,392 thirds. During that period, his mounts earned $40 million. Colton was leading rider three years in a row and established a single-season record for number of wins (225) at Philadelphia Park that stood for several years.
Colton turned up at Oaklawn Park in mid-March to ride for trainer Tim Ritchey, who convinced Colton to make a run at 4,000 wins. Just 52 jockeys have achieved it. Colton still needs 15 victories.
"I've gotten a couple more wins, but I'm not riding that many horses," Colton acknowledged. "I'm hopeful I'll get there. I just don't know when."
Small in stature, large in heart, jockeys are arguably the world's bravest athletes. Try steering a high-spirited and unpredictable animal more than ten times your weight. Helmets and flak jackets are their sole protection. Despite the constant threat of injury, jockey's competitive instincts thrust them repeatedly back in the saddle.
Consider this scene: a jockey falling off a horse going about 35 mph hits the ground at roughly 37.5 mph. You would have to fall straight down from 47 feet to reach the same speed.
Like all jockeys, Colton has a litany of traumatic injuries. His most serious wreck came when he was dropped in a race and trampled. Several bones were broken, including in his neck. That particular incident left him temporarily paralyzed. Thankfully the paralysis was brief, but nonetheless terrifying.
"We're racing in tight quarters, and everybody wants to win, so nobody is looking to give anybody a break," Colton said. "We're so competitive against each other that it's hard to shut that off and work together for the common good. It took a philosophical change in our approach."
In the past the Jockeys Guild held that the jockeys were employees of the track.
"We're not. We're independent contractors and as riders, we know that there is an inherent risk involved. Each Delaware Park rider pays $4 per mount to offset a portion of the policy. The remainder of the cost will be paid for by the Delaware Park health and welfare board.
"The jockeys needed to stand up and take part of the financial responsibility for the coverage," he said. "For the first time ever, we were willing to agree on that.
"I don't see why it can't happen anywhere in the country. It's a level of insurance riders have never seen before."
A native of La Puente, Calif., Colton and his family moved to Fort Richardson in northern Idaho. His older brother wrestled for a high school teacher who also trained quarter horses on the side.
"He galloped horses for this guy and I followed my brother to the track in Spokane," Colton recalled. "It was such a huge adrenaline rush. There were a lot of smaller people there, so I fit right in."
The next year (1976) he took up galloping thoroughbreds in the morning. He shifted his tack to this region in the early 1980s where he experienced great success riding primarily at Penn National, Delaware Park and Philadelphia Park.
He counts his 1999 ride aboard Goodfellas Stables' Smart Guy in the $300,000 Pennsylvania Derby as his biggest win. Smart Guy's trainer, Tim Ritchey, has worked with Colton for 15 years.
"I started with Tim at Penn National and eventually moved down to Delaware Park when the slots really started upping their purses," Colton noted. "Tim saw me galloping horses late last year at Delaware Park and asked me to come back as an exercise rider for him."
Prior to his win this March, Colton's last winner came on Aug. 28, 2002. The next day Colton hung up his tack to become one of the ten stunt riders used in the acclaimed film "Seabiscuit: an American Legend," based on author Laura Hillenbrand's best selling book.
A longtime friend of the movie's technical advisor and former jockey Chris McCarron, Colton, and fellow Delaware Park jockeys William Hollick, and Joe Rocco Jr. spent three months at Universal Studios in Hollywood filming the movie.
"The film spent 95 days in production, and I was there for maybe 60," Colton recalled. "It was the most fun I ever had, but I learned so much as well. There is so much organization and detail involved in getting the filming done on schedule. Gary Ross (the director) was able to stay loyal to the book, visualize it and then capture it. He was an absolute genius."
During the filming, he ballooned to 140 pounds. "That's when I decided, at the age of 45, that my riding career was over," Colton noted. "Since I've always been involved in the safety and welfare of my colleagues, I went to work for the Jockey Guild."
Through McCarron, Colton joined the Jockey Guild at the end of 2002. Colton stepped into a hornet's nest. CEO Gertmenian was in overdrive, manipulating the membership and lining his pockets. His contract reportedly paid him $650,000 annually between his salary, expenses and fees to his consultant company that had no employees or other clients.
His contract protected him from prosecution, but Gertmenian met his match in the halls of Congress. Colton was a featured speaker at the hearing in 2005.
"I was being trained to manage the Guild's finances," Colton told the House subcommittee. "In audits I was preparing, Gertmenian instructed me to double bill the states of California and Delaware for benefits which the Guild had already been reimbursed for by the Disabled Jockeys Fund.
"I believed the billing was unethical. What I witnessed led me to quit my job in frustration. After my departure, the Guild immediately started a vicious campaign against me. I was eventually expelled from the Guild, falsely accused of theft and vandalism."
No criminal charges were ever filed against Colton, and today he is still working at clearing his name.
After he left the Guild Colton headed to Lone Star, Retama and Sam Houston racetracks where he worked as an exercise rider to stay in the game.
His girlfriend suggested they return to Delaware Park last year. Riding in the morning and negotiating the rest of the day, he cobbled together the most comprehensive insurance coverage in America. Colton also has been at the forefront of safety issues at Delaware that could be a model for all U. S. tracks. Padded riding crops are now in use and Colton has designed a medical ID that jockeys can wear in a lanyard around their necks.
"You arrive at a hospital with broken ribs or your brains have scrambled, the last thing you want to do is have an extended conversation," he said. "You may have a serious allergy to a particular drug. It gives all the pertinent information, and could possibly save a life."
In mid-June Colton also attended, as an interested party, the Congressional hearings on "Breeding, Drugs, and Breakdowns" that put the sport under intense scrutiny. He says the racing industry has talked issues to death for decades.
"Look, the only innocent party here is the horse," he said. "We're all part of the problem. There is a pattern of non-action by the industry. Congress needs to enforce new safety regulations to protect the equine athletes. It's past due, and hopefully this was a good start."
The jockeys had no representation at the recent Congressional hearings. To be fair it was only one 3-hour hearing, so a lot of factions were left out.
"Those in the industry who suffer the greatest should have a voice," Colton insisted. "Not to be treated as a viable part of the industry, it's very frustrating. But that just makes us more determined to get our voices heard."