Earlier this year, when the U.S. House of Representatives was debating whether the horse racing industry should be given an exemption within the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan stood up and asked his colleagues why they would even consider treating the horse industry any different from other types of gambling. "Why?" Conyers asked. "Because the horse racing lobbyists told you to."
It was a seminal moment. Though critical of its position on the bill, Conyers was actually paying the horse industry a compliment merely by recognizing its lobbying presence in Washington, D.C.
That presence was made possible by owners, breeders, and many others in the industry who have supported the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's legislative activities by contributing 0.25% of the hammer price of a horse they bought or sold at public auction. The unsung hero of the program was Ben Haggin, who recently left his post as NTRA vice president of industry relations to join Reynolds Bell Jr. Thoroughbred Services.
For five years, Haggin was an important liaison between the NTRA and horsemen, walking the sales grounds at auctions throughout the country and explaining why it was so important to financially support the organization's lobbying efforts in Washington. As a result, millions of dollars have been raised, and important legislative battles have been won, including the vote on the Internet bill. Much to the dismay of Conyers, a lobbyist for horse racing was present and spelled out why the industry deserved the exemption. Ten years ago when the underfunded American Horse Council was the horse industry's only contact in Washington, that vote may have gone the other way.
Haggin, with family seeds deeply planted in Thoroughbred racing and breeding, sold the benefits of the NTRA and its legislative program with a passion. As the NTRA's man on the front lines in an industry that is known to form its firing squads in the shape of a circle, Haggin had to dodge more than a few bullets from critics.
"Nobody on the NTRA staff has had a more positive impact on the creation and increasing strength of the NTRA over the past five years," said the organization's deputy commissioner, Greg Avioli, who spearheads legislative activities in Washington.
Over the next year, contributions from auction buyers and consignors will pay for lobbyists, provide much-needed funding to the American Horse Council, and support events and educational seminars involving the recently formed Congressional Horse Caucus.
For decades, the horse racing and breeding industry was not on the radar map of most federal legislators, despite its significant job force and sizable economic impact. Funds raised by Haggin and from a new political action committee have made a big difference. But the financial support and commitment from people throughout the industry must be sustained to fend off looming attacks from gambling opponents like the Coalition Against Gambling Expansion, which recently bought a full-page advertisement in Roll Call, a Washington publication widely read by legislators. The ad called for a complete ban on Internet wagering.
There are other legislative issues, including a bill to repeal the federal withholding tax on winning foreign wagers that has been a stumbling block for growth in international simulcasts.
It is unfortunate that support for the NTRA and its legislative activities is not universal. Racetrack operators with account wagering businesses in Pennsylvania, for example, stand to gain the most from a boom in international wagering, but the tracks aren't even members of the NTRA. Support from auction companies and their buyers and consignors could be stronger, especially in regional markets.
Lobbying dollars are making a difference for the horse industry. Just ask John Conyers.