At the 45th Annual Jockey Club Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Aug. 10, 1997, Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps, then and now chairman of The Jockey Club, proclaimed that the "National Thoroughbred Racing Association is an idea whose time has come."
Phipps played a strong hand in the NTRA's formation, earlier that year bringing together an alliance of industry leaders representing owners, breeders, and racetracks. The alliance effectively derailed a fledgling owner-led initiative, the National Thoroughbred Association, and replaced it with a broader-based NTRA, whose board of director seats were split equally between horsemen and tracks.
That 1997 Jockey Club Round Table outlined the challenges the industry faced in trying to create a "league office" in a sport fragmented by disparate state regulations, competitive rivalries among racetracks, and bickering among horsemen's organizations.
"You know the story chapter and verse," Phipps said, "shrinking attendance; an aging fan base; a simulcasting boom that has all but reached its peak and will no longer camouflage our lack of growth and need for new distribution systems; the need to turn around the demographics and increase the size of our fan base; expand our markets and bring our products into the home; the need to reverse the situation for owners whose total horse expenses far exceed their revenues."
In his closing remarks that day, The Jockey Club chairman was blunt and to the point in his support of this new endeavor: "If we don't form a national cooperative structure; if we don't have a national television strategy, including cable and interactive capability; if we don't promote the sport at the same level of professionalism as other sports, then I will guarantee you racing will be stuck in the same rut it is in now; other sports will continue to pass us; there will be fewer racetracks, and those that are around will not be near as healthy...If the NTRA doesn't become a reality, 10 years from now, those who are still around will rue the day we let this opportunity slip away. I guarantee it."
In 1998, and for seven subsequent years, NTRA activities were a significant part of the Round Table, where new initiatives were unveiled, providing some optimism that racing, by working together, could increase its exposure on television; attract new fans, horse owners, and corporate sponsors; exploit emerging technologies; and increase the industry's influence on important legislative issues in Washington, D.C.
Apart from a promising report on synthetic racing surfaces, optimism was missing from the 2006 Jockey Club Round Table Aug. 20, despite an admonition from chairman Phipps in his opening remarks that the industry's best days are not in the past. Also missing, other than a brief reference to the organization's lobbying efforts, was any mention of or participation by the NTRA.
The slight, whether by intention or coincidence, comes at a critical time for the NTRA, which, without a champion among key industry leaders, will continue its spiral toward irrelevancy as an underfunded, underappreciated, and, on occasion, underachieving organization. One of the unforeseen challenges that has burdened the NTRA almost from the outset is the inordinate amount of time its management has had to spend nurturing fragile industry alliances and securing membership renewals -- time that could have been spent working on programs to fulfill its mission. Those efforts hamstring the organization to this day.
This year's Round Table dealt with important subjects such as drug testing, wagering integrity, racetrack safety, and the future of racing in New York. But few of the challenges that led Phipps and others to see the necessity of a strong national office for racing nine years ago have gone away.
Is the NTRA an idea whose time is already gone?