April 29, 2008

On Media: Former jock Sellers channels outrage into new book

Shane Sellers spent 26 years as a jockey and won more than 4,000 races. But it’s a good bet that the book he just released will have a bigger impact on horseracing than anything he did in the saddle.Sellers stopped riding four years ago at the peak of his career. He was the primary rider for Steve Asmussen, the trainer who has two entries in this year’s big race. He rode in the Derby 10 straight years (1993-2002), his best finish a third in 1994.Today the Louisiana native is breaking horses on his farm in Coteau, and feels like an outsider in the sport he loves. He thinks he’s been blackballed by the game, by friends who turned their back on him for speaking out about its injustices. Instead of walking away quietly, Sellers is shouting his story to anyone who will listen and doing a book tour to promote “Freedom’s Rein” — the just-released book that tells his story.Sellers has been outspoken on many issues — fighting for changes in the weight jockeys carry, for better insurance and the right to wear advertising. He was a talented, well-spoken athlete trying to change the status quo. Speaking out is neither expected nor tolerated.“Kids are dying in this game trying to make weight,” he says, explaining just one of the major issues he addresses in the book. Sellers led the fight to get adequate health insurance in the sport, staging a one-man protest by announcing in October 2004 that he wouldn’t ride until tracks provided adequate insurance. He continues to speak out on the topic of body weight, armed with information on the damaging aspects of having less than 5 percent body fat.Sellers also appeared in the 2004 HBO documentary “Jockey,” which exposed the dangers jockeys face. There’s always been a financial imbalance in racing, as far as jockeys go. There’s no hazard pay. A Derby mount on a horse that finishes out of the money is worth less than $100, Sellers said.On the issue of his own retirement, some of Sellers’ Cajun bitterness comes out. He was a major player in the jockey walkout in 2004, when Churchill Downs management threw him out of the jockey room and banned him from the track. Sellers says he was sitting out because of an injury at the time, but members of the Jockeys’ Guild called and asked him to come to the track. He didn’t know why they wanted him there.“I was just eating a bowl of soup, and they came and told me to get my tack. They put me in handcuffs,” he says. He would never ride again.“People think I retired, but I was thrown out of the game,” he says. It’s not a story you’ll see the marketing machine over at Churchill Downs touting. Yes, it’s Derby Week, and everything’s roses in Louisville. For years, though, jockeys have struggled for benefits and better working conditions. For the most part, the racing establishment has done its best to ignore their concerns.That’s why Sellers is coming out with his book, though he knows it won’t be too popular among racing industry insiders. He wants to see changes in the industry. “Integrity needs to be put back in the sport of kings,” he says. Sellers is taking another risk now. As he attempts to make a second career in racing as a horse owner, he’s lashing out at those who forced him from the game. He claims nearly everyone in racing in a position to help him has turned his back. He has harsh words for the Jockeys’ Guild, the riders’ organization that fights for jockey benefits. In our interview, he mentions talks with Churchill Downs president Steve Sexton, retired jockey Jerry Bailey and trainer Nick Zito, none of whom offered any support for his cause.“The Jockeys’ Guild won’t even call me, I can’t get insurance for my kids,” he says. It remains to be seen if Sellers’ rebellious nature will affect him in his new career, although he says he’s getting no favors from fellow owners. It’s a heavy price to pay, but Sellers is just as determined now as he was as a rider.“I’m mad, I’m angry,” he says. “I had no income for two years. I cost myself a Hall-of-Fame career.”Sellers’ book, co-written by Tricia Psarreas, is available online at www.freedomsrein.com. Rick Redding, Louisville’s media critic, writes frequently about media and politics on his website, http://thevillevoice.com