The National Thoroughbred Racing Association has made tangible progress over the past year, but the goal of becoming a national office for a major league sport is still dangling like a carrot, commissioner Tim Smith said Sept. 22 during the organization's Annual Meeting and Marketing Summit.
Smith, who spoke during the opening session of the two-day meeting in Las Vegas, Nev., took the opportunity to dispel a few myths: that horse racing has one foot in the casket, and that the NTRA in only five years has succeeded and can rest on its laurels. The two may be contradictory, but they show the difference in opinion between non-racing people and those entrenched in the business.
Smith pointed to numbers -- handle in August was up 5.5% this year compared with last year, total handle on televised races is up 18% from 2002, and attendance on Belmont Stakes day this year far surpassed the numbers in the 1970s when Triple Crowns were on the line -- to suggest the notion that racing is dying is folly.
"The glass-half-empty crowd is fiercely tenacious and highly skeptical," Smith said. "They read somewhere that racing is on its last legs, so they assume it's partly right."
On the other hand, Smith said that despite strong growth in the sponsorship ranks and group purchasing, horse racing is only on the way toward a true national office. For example, with just three months remaining in 2003, the NTRA can't definitively tell its sponsors where the sport will be next year as far as television coverage is concerned.
Smith indicated there will be a focus on shoring up the period between the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, but he didn't offer specifics. He also said an emphasis would be placed on giving members more benefits, some of which go to non-members strictly by the nature of the business. He used the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, Penn National Gaming Inc., and Greenwood Racing as examples.
"The sad fact is we haven't done enough to discourage free-riders," Smith said. "Free-riders clearly share in the positive benefits but don't pay a dollar. On one level their behavior is completely rational. Of course it's unfair, but a certain part of it makes sense. Let the other guy invest in the future. Shame on them, but shame also on us."
The latest ESPN Sports Poll shows that overall, interest in sports is up so far this year, with horse racing more than holding its own. Tracy Schoenadel, who presented poll numbers at the meeting, said racing's fan base in the United States had grown 6.4% in the first seven months of 2003 compared with last year. Also, the opinion of horse racing went from 48.4% favorable in July 2002 to 52.5% favorable in July 2003.
"A lot of sports would love to slap their logo (on the numbers) and take it to sponsors," Schoenadel said.
National consumer research done by Schneiders Della Volpe Schulman showed that 18% of the target fan base in surveys had an improved overall view of horse racing in 2003, while only 3% had a less-favorable view. The 34.8-million fan base represents 37% of the 94 million adults who live within a 50-mile radius of a racetrack.
Meanwhile, group purchasing has grown substantially in only a year. Joe Morris, president of NTRA Purchasing, said he expects there to be $27 million in sales this year, with a goal of $40 million to $50 million in the future. Organizations such as the American Quarter Horse Association, National Steeplechase Association, and United States Equestrian Foundation have added to the numbers.
NTRA executives have said sponsorship and group purchasing are closely linked and would continue to be as the sport attempts to take the league-office concept to the next level.