Owner-Driven Racing Series a Long-Haul Challenge

The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association hopes to launch a for-profit, televised racing series with the assistance of Breeders' Cup and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, but much work remains to be done, officials said.

The proposal, the groundwork for which was laid earlier this year, comes at a time when more Thoroughbred racing than ever is on television, and broadcasts have posted viewership gains of about 50% this summer. The proposed Thoroughbred Championship Tour series wouldn't compete with, but instead complement, existing coverage, organizers said.

Darby Dan Farm's John Phillips, who co-chairs a TOBA committee along with Thoroughbred owner Robert McNair, said a business plan is being prepared. The goal is to determine whether the series makes financial sense for owners.

"The primary goal is to improve owner economics," Phillips said. "The philosophic underpinning, as Bob McNair has said, is that a rising tide raises all boats. This is not an effort to invade anybody else's turf, but rather create new turf to enhance the NTRA and Breeders' Cup."

The NTRA and Breeders' Cup have been involved in some discussions, but representatives of both organizations could offer no information on potential involvement given the fact there is no business plan.

"I really am aware of few of the details, but anything that increases the involvement of the leading owners and their horses in world-class, televised racing is potentially a positive," NTRA commissioner Tim Smith said.

"I'm aware of the general concept to develop a series of committed races much along the lines of the NTRA's divisional approach to racing," Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief Jr. said. "All of it will be a lot clearer when they complete the business plan."

Dr. Richard Thalheimer, an economist, has been hired to help put together the business plan at a cost organizers would not divulge. Bloodstock agent Reynolds Bell Jr., a member of the TOBA committee, said if organizers are satisfied with the first phase of the business plan, a second phase would begin.

Next year has been mentioned as a possible start-up date for the series, though 2004 is more likely should the business plan work.

TOBA chairman Gary Biszantz said the proposal can be a "win-win" for the industry.

"The opportunity, if presented right, would benefit the Breeders' Cup, the NTRA, and horse owners," Biszantz said. "It could move the sport forward in the eyes of the fans, and elevate the industry as a whole."

Details as to specific races, funding, and racetrack participation have not been finalized, though the general idea is to link the top races in the country as lead-ins to the World Thoroughbred Championships. The series would focus on older horses at participating racetracks.

Phillips acknowledged the importance of racetrack cooperation.

"The concept needs to be such that it not compete with racetracks, but serve them well also," Phillips said. "We're very cognizant of their part in the industry."

Should the series run from late spring through early fall, it would seem California tracks (Hollywood Park, Del Mar, and Oak Tree Racing Association at Santa Anita Park), and New York tracks (Belmont Park and Saratoga) would figure in the mix.

Alan Foreman, chief executive officer of the Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and founder of the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships series (MATCH), said coordinating stakes at various racetracks "is no easy task," even on a regional level. He said he has heard of the Thoroughbred Championship Tour proposal, and believes it might be easier with fewer races and fewer tracks.

"There are a lot of considerations involving MATCH and races in other states," Foreman said. "You really have to look at the larger picture. They're going to have a lot of issues. It's a tall order."

Many ideas for long-term funding have been bandied about, including revenue based on pari-mutuel handle. Multiple funding sources are likely, Phillips said, even though owners might provide the primary investment.

"We're not looking to create an entity that would be subsidized by owners again," Phillips said.

Other members of the committee are owners John Amerman, John Ed Anthony, Bill Condren, Don Dizney, Steven Duncker, Eugene Melnyk, Kenny Trout, Tom Van Meter, and TOBA president Dan Metzger. The group already has had a casualty: Barry Weisbord, who in the past was instrumental in organizing televised championship series for Thoroughbred and Standardbred racing.

Weisbord, who owns the Thoroughbred Daily News as well as horses, said he was asked to serve on the committee to help investigate economic opportunities for owners, not recreate the American Championship Racing Series, which was developed in the pre-NTRA years. Biszantz later asked him to resign, Weisbord said, so he also stepped down from the TOBA board of trustees.

"I was told the project had a far better chance to succeed if I was not involved," Weisbord said. "I took it a step further and resigned from TOBA."

Weisbord wouldn't comment further, but said he supports the endeavor even though he no longer is a member of the committee. He wouldn't confirm speculation that he was the impetus for the latest TOBA project.

"I have to praise the leadership of John Phillips and Robert McNair," Weisbord said. "It was a pleasure to work with both of them. But I wrote a letter and accepted Mr. Biszantz's wishes. I'm very disappointed I'm not going to be able to fulfill my pledge to other committee members to make this project happen."

Biszantz said he has "high personal regard" for Weisbord, and that he "didn't have an easy job in making the decision" to ask him to resign from the committee. He said it stemmed from Weisbord's involvement in the ACRS.

"He might not be the best spokesman to move our plan forward," Biszantz said. "It's nothing to defer from his ability. I know he wants to see the sport get better."

In an interview with The Blood-Horse in 1993, Weisbord said the demise of the ACRS was caused by racetracks wanting to pursue their own initiatives. Under the ACRS, horsemen and host tracks surrendered simulcast revenue to support bonuses.

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