Despite the recent announcement that 22 racetracks intended to defect from the organization at the end of this year, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association said Thursday it maintains a solid core and will proceed with programs it considers key to the future success of the industry.
The scene was the NTRA's Western Conference on Racing, held in California where, despite the announced defection of three Magna Entertainment-owned racetracks, industry officials appear committed to the NTRA. The conference, attended by about 60 people, was held in the Gold Cup Room at Churchill Downs-owned Hollywood Park in Inglewood.
Hollywood Park president Rick Baedeker kicked off the conference with a pointed remark aimed at the defectors. "I have an observation that if you were a part of (the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup), and watched the courage and stamina of Tiznow, and the artful athleticism of Chris McCarron, I don't know how you can say, 'What's in it for me,' " he said. "It's easy to quit. It's tougher to stay committed."
"I feel like the officials with the Florida board of elections," NTRA commissioner Tim Smith said in reference to the ongoing conflict over votes in Tuesday's presidential election. "I can't give an account of the ones that have left or are leaving whether they will come back. But I can tell you the NTRA will proceed in a serious way whatever happens. The board is strongly committed to continuing its current mission."
After the about two-hour conference, NTRA board member Bob Lewis, a Thoroughbred owner and chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, said the TOC intends to continue its NTRA affiliation even if Magna's three California tracks-Santa Anita Park, Bay Meadows, and Golden Gate Fields-do leave Dec. 31. The split between tracks and horsemen, at least in regard to NTRA dues, has posed some interesting questions.
"At this point, the TOC is interested in developing language that will give us latitude to continue our support of the NTRA," Lewis said. "But many things can come about. I'm sure (Magna chairman) Frank Stronach is interested in bringing about harmony in the industry. The industry is stronger when we stand together."
The focal point of this year's Western Conference on Racing was owner recruitment, in this case the new "TheGreatestGame.com" program that will be headed now by Reed Farley, senior vice president of industry development and technology for the NTRA. Farley said the "economic impact of incremental ownership is very significant."
Tom Nelson of MARC Research released findings of a survey of 18 Thoroughbred owners that showed, among other things, that owners see the "challenge" of racing to be their own education of the business; a desire to make money, but the more realistic goal of covering losses and expenses; and the belief that ownership is an excellent way to build friendships. The surveyed owners generally don't wager much; in fact, they believe "picking the right horse is enough of a gamble."
Nelson also said the owners, despite the plethora of data and other information available in the industry, indicated information on horse ownership is in short supply. They said purses are down, when in fact they have risen in many markets over the past five years.
"There is a clear disconnect here," he said. "(The challenge) is how we package and deliver resources available to owners."
Phase one of the research project is complete. Phase two will feature interviews with people who left the business for reasons other than dispersals, or because they simply went bust.
California is considered a key to TheGreatestGame.com endeavor. TOC president John Van de Kamp said that even though the number of licensed owners in the state has gone from 11,000 to 8,500 and back up to 9,000 in recent years, there is serious work to be done.
The NTRA said it will use existing resources-Keeneland Association and the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association among them-to support and staff TheGreatestGame.com project.
The centerpiece of the conference was the presentation of the Commissioner's Cup to former Hollywood Park owner R.D. Hubbard, who sat on the original NTRA board of directors. Hubbard, in accepting the award, touched on several issues, including the relationship between the NTRA and the TV Games Network.
"A lot of people trying to destroy the NTRA are taking money from other states on a semi-legal basis and not returning anything to owners, racetracks, and the industry itself," Hubbard said in a direct slap at other account-wagering providers. "They want to see TVG fail."
As for Stronach, Hubbard said he "joined up with (Philadelphia Park) owner Bob Green and the boys (in the Mid-Atlantic region) in trying to destroy the industry. Magna has made a major investment, but I wonder if he was investing his own money instead of his shareholders if he'd be making these decisions today."
Stronach on Tuesday night said he isn't "in cahoots" with the Mid-Atlantic racing associations. But he has joined them in the contention that the NTRA shouldn't be involved in ventures that compete with those of its dues-paying members.
In closing, Hubbard said the industry would be better off with Magna on board, but if not, so be it. "We must make these decisions in the next few days," he said. "The board of directors of the NTRA can't just sit back and wait for them. If they're in, they're in. But if they're out, they're out."
In other news, Thoroughbred owner Gary Biszantz and Dr. Jack Robbins, a California-based veterinarian, have been named to the NTRA Racing Integrity and Drug Testing Task Force. They replace Hubbard and the late Ken Maddy.