June 6, 2006

Haire apparent: Darrell Haire helped the Jockeys’ Guild avert disaster. Now he’d like the job full time

BY RICK REDDINGDarrell Haire didn’t know what hit him. Last Nov. 15, he and a group of jockeys were inside the Jockeys’ Guild office in Monrovia, Calif. They had just taken control of the organization, voting to fire the administration of one Dr. Wayne Gertmenian, aka Dr. Evil in the eyes of the racing world.Haire, a former jockey who had just been installed as the organization’s interim national manager, describes how Dr. G, as he prefers to be called, and his henchman Albert Fiss, the former vice president who was also fired that day by the Guild, barged into the office, screaming at the half-dozen jockeys to “get the hell out of here.”The blow to his back took Haire completely by surprise; the shove was hard enough to knock him to the floor. When he got up, he saw it was the 66-year-old Gertmenian who’d applied the force. So Haire did what comes naturally to a competitive man who spent 15 years in hand-to-hand combat with jockeys at the racetrack.“I nailed him right between the eyes,” he says. “Then I turned around and just missed Albert by an inch. I’m lucky he didn’t throw me through the window.”A moment later, the 300-pound Fiss was holding Haire up by his armpits. Soon the police arrived in response to a 911 call from jockey Kent Desormeaux and kept the scrum from escalating further. It may have been a symbolic moment for the Jockeys’ Guild, which was left with just $6,000 in the bank and piles of bills due after Gertmenian’s four-year tenure as president. The Guild, which represents more than 1,300 active jockeys in the United States, had also seen its relationships with racetrack management and other racing organizations deteriorate, primarily over its failure to provide a detailed report of how it had used funds provided by numerous racetracks. Churchill Downs officials barred Guild representatives from the jockey room last year, citing the Guild’s refusal to answer questions about monies that tracks had been paying the Guild for insurance. Last month, appearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, headed by U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), Haire detailed the struggle to avoid bankruptcy. “We have had to make some very tough decisions, but we are moving forward and we are getting the job done. On the day Wayne Gertmenian and the Matrix team was terminated, we were left with $6,000 in the bank, nearly a half million dollars in unpaid medical bills, disabled jockeys who needed to be paid and an accounting system that was in disarray.”All of the previous management’s missteps were clearly detailed during Congressional hearings last fall and this spring. For example, on the day of the termination — Nov. 15, 2005 — Gertmenian and Fiss wrote checks to themselves and their companies totaling more than $200,000. Other accounts had been drained, and Gertmenian had been collecting a $160,000 annual salary and paying his company, Matrix Associates, of which he was the only employee, additional thousands of dollars in consulting fees, according to the Congressional record.Guild attorney Barry Broad testified in Congress on May 9 that Gertmenian had been behind a “systematic effort to mislead the Board of Directors … about the financial state of the Guild. Up to the day he was fired, Gertmenian maintained that the Guild had a $3.5 million war chest, that in truth, the Guild’s assets were nearly totally depleted.”Gertmenian refused to provide details to Congress about the additional payments, which Whitfield called “a calculated effort to mislead people for personal monetary gain.” In February, the Guild filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the Central District of California against Gertmenian, Fiss and Matrix. The FBI is also investigating the case, according to The Blood-Horse magazine.Gary Birzer was one of the first jockeys to learn the hard way about the alleged malfeasance. A horrible July 2004 spill at Mountaineer Park in West Virginia left him paralyzed from the chest down, and the catastrophic insurance he thought he’d paid for didn’t exist because the Guild hadn’t paid the premiums. His story received national attention, including a report on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. In November, Birzer filed a $10 million lawsuit against the Guild, Gertmenian and Fiss in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, according to The Blood-Horse. The suit alleges fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.With the previous administration booted, Haire is rightly credited with leading the Guild out of near-bankruptcy and helping restore its tattered reputation. The organization cut expenses immediately by eliminating the salaries of the deposed management team and moving to a smaller and less expensive office. Also, Haire says, many tracks began paying fees that had been withheld from the previous administration. He’s also earned the trust of riders and helped repair relationships with racetracks and insurers.None of it has been easy, and big challenges remain. What’s nextThis week the Jockeys’ Guild elected a new Senate, consisting of nine members each from three areas of the United States. When that group meets later this month, it will choose an executive board of nine of those members, who will be charged with re-organizing the Guild’s leadership.The new Board’s toughest decision may be what to do with Darrell Haire. Haire, 50, was born in Lexington but soon moved with his large Irish-Catholic family (five sisters and a brother) to New England. His father and brother were jockeys, so he naturally began riding at age 17, joining the Guild just before his first race. After 15 years, he quit riding in 1989, saying he no longer cared to endure the daily battles with weight or the physical demands of the sport. He won more than 1,500 races, including the 1980 Arkansas Derby and the 1982 Derby Trial. He never had a Derby mount, although he says he turned down the ride on Great Redeemer in 1979 because the horse had no chance to win. The horse finished last and is considered among the worst Derby starters of all time.Haire became a successful securities dealers and investment adviser in California with the Independent Order of Foresters. He kept ties to racing by exercising horses near his southern California home for trainers such as Bobby Frankel and Richard Mandella. After 10 years, he was recruited to become the Jockeys’ Guild West Coast Regional Manager, traveling to various tracks and helping jockeys with questions and concerns about safety and insurance and anything else they wanted to know about.He was one of only two Guild staff members asked to return after the 2001 management coup that put Gertmenian in charge and longtime national manager John Giovanni out of a job. Gertmenian moved the Guild offices from Lexington to southern California, but Haire didn’t spend much time there — he was on the road two-thirds of the time working with jockeys at tracks.Last year, Haire was in the middle of several controversial jockey activities, including the aftermath of a 2004 jockey walkout at Churchill Downs, the discovery that Gertmenian had let the insurance lapse and the Guild’s banishment from Churchill Downs during Derby Week 2005. He’s been first on the scene many times with jockeys who have been injured, and he’s spent countless hours in jockey rooms at tracks talking to Guild members.Given that track record, it would seem plausible for the new Board to remove the word “interim” from his title and give him the reins, but he’s not the odds-on favorite. Word in the racing community is that the job will be filled this summer, and the Guild has received resumes from interested candidates but is still undecided how the new leadership will be organized.Haire believes he’s earned the top spot or at least a share of it. But the organization understands that senior management must know the ins and outs of business negotiation, since it must reach agreements with racetracks, insurance companies, owners, trainers, labor groups and media. That’s the skill set it sought when it went outside the industry to hire Gertmenian in 2001.Mark Guidry, a Louisville-based jockey and currently vice chairman of the Guild, said that however the new leadership is structured, the person in the top spot must demonstrate both knowledge of racing and business acumen. Guidry was elected to the Guild’s new Senate Monday, and therefore will be involved in choosing new leadership.“Darrell is doing a good job,” Guidry says, but acknowledges the Guild has sought applicants for the job as any organization would. “He’s opened some doors and is on top of what’s going on in our organization. We need somebody that knows racing. It’s hard for somebody to come in and see how we’ve been treated — they can’t believe it.”But  Guidry says the organization needs specific skills in its leadership that Haire may not possess. “There are some things he’s not familiar with; his expertise is not in the field.”Haire believes the jockeys have confidence in him, and that the organization learned a difficult lesson in bringing in an outsider to run the show. Maybe the Guild was right about picking a professional manager with good negotiating skills from outside the jockey group but just chose the wrong guy.“Darrell is as hardworking and dedicated as anyone I’ve ever met,” says Chris McCarron, the two-time Derby winner who brought Gertmenian into the organization in 2001, a move he now calls his biggest regret.It could certainly be argued that nothing could prepare someone for the top spot better than what Haire has experienced. He’s represented the Guild in negotiations with tracks, insurers, disgruntled jockeys and financial organizations, handled countless media inquiries and led the way for jockeys to be recognized for their accomplishments. For example, he developed a relationship with the Galt House and persuaded the downtown hotel to recognize jockeys’ accomplishments with a “Gallop to Glory” exhibit. And he’s even testified before Congress. No one in racing doubts Haire’s passion for riders.“I’ve always tried to be professional and encourage them to be better and get what they deserve. It’s tough to do when the Guild’s integrity is in question,” Haire said.His first challenge on taking over last November was to raise funds to meet a stack of obligations that the previous administration had simply ignored, including an insurance policy with Metropolitan Life that was four months behind schedule. Haire convinced the California Horse Racing Board to write a $300,000 check, money it owed but had not paid the previous Guild administration, which got the organization through the weekend. More recently, Haire helped organize an initiative by racetracks and racing organizations to raise $1 million to fund payments to permanently disabled jocks.“I feel good that I’ve kept it together,” Haire says. At any rate, if he’s asked to stick around, he says he can’t work under anyone’s thumb, a reference to the Gertmenian administration. “The Board will decide who’s going to run it, but I’m not gonna have anybody tell me what to do anymore,” he says. “I won’t be told what to do except by the Board.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com