Labor Rights and Economic Justice

Countervailing Power

Independent Contractors’ Concerted Fight for the Future

Luke Hinrichs

June 10, 2024

A jockey’s profession exists at the precipice of calamity—perched on a 1,400-pound racehorse sprinting at 55 miles per hour under the ever-present threat of being thrown to the ground with as much as 3,000 pounds of force. The average jockey is sidelined by injuries roughly three times per year. 

In Puerto Rico, there is only one place to enter this grueling, dangerous profession: the Camarero Racetrack in Canóvanas. Despite the risk endured, entertainment provided, and profit created, unless a jockey finishes a race in the top five, they only earn a mount fee. Thus, the majority of Puerto Rican jockeys only receive the mount fee, or wage, of $20 per race. 

Since 1987, jockeys at the Camarero Racetrack have been paid this poverty wage of $20, a fifth of what jockeys earn in the continental United States. According to the jockeys, the “payment scheme on the island has had the effect of keeping this oppressed working class under poverty levels, unable to count on a decent income to support their respective families.”

For years, the jockeys’ association, the Confederación de Jinetes Puertorriqueños (CJP), a non-profit labor organization established for the purpose of defending and procuring Puerto Rico’s jockeys rights, has demanded “pay and benefits that do justice to their dangerous profession.” And for years, the only racetrack in Puerto Rico, the corporation created to represent horse owners (CHPR), and the Puerto Rico Horse Owners Association (PRHOA) collectively denied the jockeys’ demands. 

In June 2016, the jockeys demanded higher pay and threatened to exercise their “right to refuse to ride and/or to strike.” The racetrack and horse owners responded with a letter reminding the workers that “they are independent contractors and as such, they are not a union and therefore they cannot go on strike as that would violate antitrust laws, in particular the Sherman Antitrust Act.” 

As negotiations continued to stall, the Puerto Rico Labor Department intervened and called a special mediation session. The racetrack and horse owners refused to attend the meeting. 

“payment scheme on the island has had the effect of keeping this oppressed working class under poverty levels, unable to count on a decent income to support their respective families.”

In response to the racetrack and horse owners’ boycott of negotiations, on June 30, 2016, 37 jockeys went on strike to compel an increase in their pay and improvement of their treatment. Despite the resilience of the jockeys, the strike proved short-lived, only causing the track to cancel three days of races. 

The racetrack and horse owners filed suit under the Sherman Antitrust Act against not only the association of jockeys, but also the individual jockeys and each jockey’s spouse or domestic partner. The Sherman Act prohibits “every contract, combination, or conspiracy in restraint of trade,” and any “monopolization, attempted monopolization, or conspiracy or combination to monopolize.” The suit alleged that the jockeys’ collective strike was an illegal concerted activity refusing to deal and restraining trade. The suit sought an injunction to end the strike, curb future strike capacity, and recover damages. 

Attorneys Peter J. Porrata and Axel A. Vizcarra Pellot represented the defendant-jockeys against the claims. For Vizcarra Pellot, the suit was personal. He raced on the Camarero track as a jockey himself before he experienced a career ending injury in 1986. He experienced the abuse that the jockeys were protesting and understood the stakes of defiance.

At this racetrack, “if you open your mouth, you don’t ride. If you open your mouth, you get suspended,” said Vizcarra Pellot.