Hawthorne Racecourse (10/23/10)
Contact: Ron Uchman
JERRY AND NANCY LASALA: A DYNAMIC DUO
Jerry LaSala started his career as a jockey in much the same way that many riders did, through a friend. When he was in high school, a friend of his dad's was involved in the horse business. “They wanted me to come around and learn because I was small. I wasn’t interested. I wanted to be a hockey player. But I never grew. So after I graduated, I started coming out here and learning. Spanky Broussard and Jimmy Fedor helped me out. I was doing various things for them, from cleaning stalls to galloping horses. Three years later, I started riding.
“I’ve been riding 29 years and I’ve been a Jockey Guild member since I was an apprentice. When I first came around, riders like Pat Day, Earlie Fires, and Randy Meier convinced me to join. But, I never got involved. I did the minimum. I paid my dues, went to occasional meetings, whatever. But, as I got older, I started to think that I should be getting some benefits from all the money that I put in.
“In 2004, Earlie keep pushing me to run for the Board. He kept saying that I was smart and educated, that I should be more involved. I was still reluctant. Then in 2005, I finally relented. I saw how hard Randy Meier and Earlie Fires fought for the concessions we have gotten over the years. I marveled at them growing up. I thought somebody had to step into their shoes.
I’ve been on the Board of Directors for five years. We have a nine-member board. The board members are from all over the country. The last three years I’ve been the Treasurer.
“So, after I ran and got elected, I learned where the money went, what the costs for the organization were. I was amazed. I was even more amazed when I found out we had no money.
“We had hired someone to run our organization from 2001 to 2005, but we found a lot missing over that time period. In November of 2005, there was like $6500 in the Guild account. We couldn’t pay the bills. We lost our health insurance, we had to file bankruptcy. It was a rough period. But, we got through it.
“Right now, if a rider in Illinois gets hurt, he (or she) gets $200 a week from our Guild and the insurance from the racetrack must match that, so they get $400 a week. If a rider gets seriously hurt and is out for a long period of time, it gets hard to pay the bills. That was why we fought so hard to get an increase on the mount fees jockeys get for riding in a race. It had been over 20 years since we had gotten an increase and the price of everything around us had gone up dramatically. The horsemen didn’t appreciate the increase. We understood that. Times are tough. Purses are down. But we had to do it to survive. That probably hasn’t made me very popular.
“This is a dangerous game. Riders get hurt all the time and riders get killed every year. I need to do everything I can to ensure our safety and ensure fair compensation. The Carey family and Jim Miller have been very good to us. They listen when we have concerns and do their best to make sure everything is as safe as possible.
“My wife Nancy is the Chairwoman and Executive Director of the Permanent Disabled Jockey Fund. My wife has nothing to do with horse racing. She doesn’t know a thing about it. In 2005, after I got elected to the Board, we went to Florida to an industry meeting. John Velasquez, a few other riders that were on the board at that time, our attorneys, and me. We were there to renegotiate the funds we receive from the racetracks every year.
“At that time, we weren’t consistently getting the money that was due and that made it difficult to run our organization. While we were “negotiating” I brought up the 60 disabled riders that we were taking care of. Every time Guild jockeys ride a race, a piece of the purse goes into a fund that takes care of the disabled riders. Their rep asked, “Your group takes care of the disabled riders”?
“Who do you think does it?
They wanted proof.
“That’s how my wife got involved. I brought all the information home. She put a presentation together. We let her sell it to them.
“We went back down to Florida. Nancy presented to Magna, Churchill, and a lot of other big racing organizations. Three months later, they created the Permanent Disabled Jockey Fund. Now’s it’s been running almost five years.
“My wife has been a Project Manager for 29 years. Now, along with her job, she administrates the PDJF from our home. There are rules and regulations that must be followed. She’s on a Board, another Board, that is populated by some pretty famous people, including William Farish and actress Bo Derek. Every month she sends the checks to our disabled members. It’s unbelievable how much she does by herself. The rules for disbursement are so strict. The injury has to be catastrophic.
“I’ve been getting more involved in what my wife does. I see what these disabled riders go through. They used to get only $260 a month. Now they get a nice check. Plus they get their Medicare B and D paid for. When my wife was selling the idea to the industry, she brought up the Medicare D and told them how much they would save if they participated. For only $89 a month, they could easily save $12000 a year on prescriptions alone. They were blown away.
“I often think about hanging it up. They want to ride the younger kids now. It’s hard to stay fit, to stay keen, when you seldom ride in a race. But, I’d like to stay involved somehow. I don’t think I could continue working with the Guild. I was instrumental in them making a lot of cuts and getting us back to even. We had to let some people go to make sure we balanced the books. It wouldn’t be fair for me to take a spot after these people were let go.
“I’d like to help the kids. I tell them like it is. Sometimes they want to hear it, sometimes they don’t. I often have to explain the whole concept of their health insurance to them. I try to explain that they aren’t invulnerable. I try to get them involved. Most of the riders here are in the Guild but I try to get them more active.
“I have plenty of ideas. I would love to find ways to help promote this sport.
Through Friday, LaSala had a total of only 80 mounts for the year. He won with 14 of them, giving him a very respectable win percentage of 18%. That’s the kind of success that would normally draw a lot of attention.
When asked if his activism had affected his business, Jerry just shrugged.
You be the judge.
Hawthorne Race Course is in its 101st year of racing under Carey family ownership. Hawthorne offers the only traditional dirt track for thoroughbred racing in Northern Illinois. Live racing at Hawthorne runs Wednesday – Saturday through December 31. Post time daily is 1:35 PM with late post on Fridays of 2:35 PM through November 19. Club Hawthorne membership is Free and available at Guest Services at Hawthorne Race Course. For more information, visit www.Hawthorneracecourse.com.