by Kelsey Riley
The changing climate of the Thoroughbred industry and key areas of improvement were prominent topics of discussion by trainers Jonathan Sheppard and Christophe Clement at the monthly Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Club meeting April 7 in Lexington.
Sheppard discussed how racing today has taken a greater focus on financial benefits over sportsmanship. A Hall of Fame trainer, Sheppard has conditioned eight Eclipse Award winners, including Forever Together and Informed Decision.
“It seems to me when it first came it was more of a sport,” Sheppard said. “As time goes by, people seem to be more and more attracted to the economic side, which is fine, but I think we have to be very careful to remember that we’re not dealing with the commodity market. We’re breeding live animals.”
Sheppard noted that a growing number of equine rescue organizations in the industry is a step in the right direction.
“I think it’s a positive thing that there’s so much going on in the racing industry now to do something about that,” he said. “The Jockey Club, (National Thoroughbred Racing Association), different racetracks—I think they’re all looking to help find second careers for horses off the racetrack, and I think that’s very encouraging.”
Clement, trainer of 2009 dual Eclipse champion Gio Ponti , identified five areas of growth that may help revive the industry: greater synergy between farms, trainers, and racetracks; boutique meets like Saratoga and Keeneland; a better balance between the commercial and racing sides of the industry; more international racing events; and a balance in racing surfaces.
“There is not one perfect surface,” Clement said. “I believe a racetrack should have three surfaces: dirt, turf, and (synthetic). As a trainer, when you wake up in the morning and you’ve had two or three days of rain, it’s very difficult sometimes to train on the slop.
“It’s a great thing to be able to train on the Polytrack because you can keep your horses sound on it. I think it’s sad to see what has happened in California. Everything is good so long as it’s well-maintained.”
Sheppard and Clement also shared their views on the implementation of video lottery terminals at racetracks in Kentucky, a movement that has hit a political brick wall in the state legislature. Both said they would support VLTs but cautioned that gaming may not be the sole solution to increased revenue for the industry.
“I think it is important to create a budget without the VLT money, and use it as an extra,” Clement said. “But in order to increase purses, do we need VLT money, or at the end of the day do we just have too much racing?”
“There are definitely two sides to the question of whether we need VLTs or not,” Sheppard said. “Of course it’s a quick fix and a nice way to make more money, but by the same token, they’ve already taken some of the money away in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and I’m not sure it’s necessarily the very best thing at all.”
Earlier in the evening, KTFMC past president Matt Koch and Jill Stone, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky, discussed the Kentucky equine industry survey, a study planned to determine the size, scope, and economic impact of the equine industry in Kentucky.
The goal of the study, which will cover all breeds and disciplines, is to determine the impact of the state’s equine industry and create a benchmark for future development. Stone noted that the survey could begin in late 2011 or early 2012.