By Lenny Shulman and Eric Mitchell
On Aug. 11, 1961, after reluctantly taking the helm of the freshly formed Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, Christopher Tompkins Chenery, who would be better known to the current generation as the father of Penny Chenery, announced the organization’s first major initiative: “to make an investigation of the impact of a horse running at full speed on different kinds of tracks with varying amounts of cushion and with different moisture content” because of the increased incidents of injuries to equine athletes.
The fact that 50 years later we continue to study the effect of racing surfaces on injuries points out the difficulty of fulfilling the ambitious mission of TOBA. The Blood-Horse, in covering that initial meeting, said Chenery “accepted difficulties as routine considerations, not as impassable obstacles.” Today, TOBA continues the work started by its pioneers in Saratoga half a century ago.
TOBA’s origins trace to several earlier organizations, the first of which, the Thoroughbred Horse Association, was formed by Kentucky breeder Hal Price Headley in 1916, along with The Blood-Horse. The THA later split to form separate groups for owners and breeders. The American Thoroughbred Breeders Association appeared on the scene in 1934, followed in 1958 by the American Thoroughbred Owners Association. Those two entities then merged to form TOBA.
In the absence of centralized leadership, the Thoroughbred industry lurches about pulled by dozens of different organizations each with its own agenda, making it difficult to accomplish even the most straightforward of tasks such as creating a national license for horsemen. It is through that prism that progress must be judged as it relates to TOBA or to any other national organization. While it may take another 50 years to reach consensus on certain issues, today’s TOBA manages a portfolio of various committees and programs of importance to the industry as a whole.
Paramount among those groups is the American Graded Stakes Committee, responsible for grading races and also establishing rules, such as medication guidelines, for those events. North America began grading races in 1975. Then-TOBA president Jacques D. Wimpfheimer pulled together the panel of prominent racing secretaries, breeders, and owners that created the classification system for assigning grades to stakes. The system was modeled after Europe’s Pattern Races, which put the richest and most important races into groups. The authority to monitor and assess the graded status of races has remained with TOBA ever since.
“The Graded Stakes Committee is really important, not only in figuring out the most important races but is crucial in figuring out what we do with medication and how we become more uniform going forward,” said Stuart Janney III, who began serving as a TOBA trustee in 1994 and became chairman in 1997. “TOBA has done a good job of insulating the Graded Stakes Committee from outside political influences. I can assure you without the leadership of TOBA consistently defending what’s been done, it would be very different today.”
Other responsibilities include managing the Sales Integrity Program, which has made progress over the last decade in increasing transparency in Thoroughbred auctions and their conditions of sale; and, TOBA now runs Thoroughbred Charities of America. The non-profit organization raises money for Thoroughbred rescue, retirement, retraining, research, education, and therapeutic riding programs. TOBA is also a founding member of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, runs seminars for new and prospective horse owners, and, of course, honors the leading state and national breeders and owners of the year at its annual awards dinner.
“That TOBA has made 50 years is a testament to the people that were here before us, and to our board and its leadership,” said Dan Metzger, who has helmed TOBA for the past 12 years as president. “We’re realistic; we know we’re a little brother to some of the bigger organizations. But I think most people recognize the role TOBA plays and would like to see an increased role. It’s stood the test of time, and that’s not easy in this industry.”
In a decentralized industry with dozens of moving parts, achieving significant progress can be as difficult as herding cats, and TOBA has received its fair share of criticism for not being able to accomplish great things.
“We’ve taken our lumps at times for swinging for the fences and missing, as opposed to hitting singles,” noted Metzger. “But we think the concepts we try to promote are correct. We don’t carry a motive. Everything TOBA does is for the betterment of the industry, and people want us to be bold and try because the industry needs a game-changer.”
Current TOBA chairman Reynolds Bell Jr. agrees the association has been the most effective over the years as an idea incubator. For example, the association’s efforts to create a national organization called the National Thoroughbred Association later morphed into what became the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. Concerns voiced by trustee Satish Sanan led to the Sales Integrity Task Force in 2007.
“If you have an issue you can create some synergy around, the owners will find a reason to participate,” Bell said. “That is one of TOBA’s missions. The economics are pretty upside down right now, and everyone is looking for ways to create opportunities. That is something TOBA will always be looking to do. I would love to see TOBA do more to benefit the industry through the owners’ leadership and participation.”
Sanan and others led another major TOBA initiative last year, which they hoped would dramatically improve the economics of the industry for owners. They had worked toward the establishment of an industry-owned Advance Deposit Wagering entity, new technology, and a revised formula for distributing money back to racetracks and horsemen. The Jockey Club and major racetracks were involved but ultimately the proposal collapsed when horsemen’s groups and racetracks jumped off the bus, the latter more concerned with their stockholders than with industry stakeholders.
Similarly, TOBA tried to put together a new racing series several years ago, taking its lead from the American Championship Racing Series of the ’90s. The plan, which would have improved opportunities for owners to recoup their investment, ran aground, and hastened the departure from the game of such respected owners as Robert McNair, one of the driving forces behind the new series.
Metzger urges owners to get more involved in the economics and business aspect of racing, though he understands why many don’t.
“Owners want to join the country club; they don’t want to cut the grass,” he noted. “If we had the vision to jump into ADW five years ago, we could have gone a long way toward changing it. Now we’re playing catch-up. In the old days you bet ontrack and the cut was close to 50-50 and everybody went home happy. It’s gotten much more involved now, and most owners don’t understand how the economics work even though it has such an impact on their investment, from purses to the economic health of the industry. You need to be more involved in this business beyond racing and breeding and bringing your horses to the paddock to run on race day.”
Helen Alexander, who served as chairperson of TOBA in the early 1990s, remembers working on the same issue 15 years ago.
“We tried to figure out how to protect owners’ rights as they pertained to simulcast signals,” said Alexander, who owns Middlebrook Farm near Lexington. “New technologies were coming on the scene so quickly we didn’t know how to react, so we didn’t react and lost out. And I think that’s still the case today. We’re losing part of what we should be getting in terms of income from these ADW platforms.”
Ron Kirk, who runs an equine insurance agency in Lexington, served as chairman following Alexander. After developing a campaign that radically increased TOBA’s membership, Kirk admittedly fell short in moving the ball forward for owners.
“I brought up the idea of a not-for-profit, industry-owned wagering hub, but the consensus was that racetracks wouldn’t let us do that. It was a defeatist attitude before we even started. I’m disappointed that I didn’t fight harder for issues like that I believe in. TOBA has moved the ball forward, but there are powerful people in the industry who are closer to the racetracks’ point of view than what owners need.”
Penny Chenery served as chairperson of TOBA for eight years, from the late 1970s through mid-1980s, and also encountered resistance to getting things done.
“We were trying to corral the state breeding associations and bring them together into one overall agency,” she noted. “But peoples’ attitude was, ‘Why do we need you?’ We were working out of the Belmont Park backstretch at the time, and the state organizations thought we were just one more regional headquarters. Since then, TOBA started the state-by-state annual winners and the awards dinner and the new owner seminars, and that gave the organization some impetus, but when times are tough it’s a tough sell.”
Metzger confirmed that. Since the economic crisis of 2008, TOBA membership, which requires annual dues of $275, is off by some 400. Today there are 2,200 members.
“We’ll pick up 200-300 new members a year,” said Metzger, “but we’ll lose a like amount through attrition as small people have to tighten their belts. There’s a tendency to let the bigger guy pay the freight.”
Yet TOBA can point to significant recent successes. The Graded Stakes Committee has taken an enhanced role in setting medication policy for the races it grades. When Pennsylvania refused to comply with guidelines for TCO2 testing in 2007, the committee stripped the state of all its graded stakes, and eventually Pennsylvania agreed to the drug-testing protocol.
“Now that we’re more active in stating that anabolic steroids are not permitted in graded races, racing commissions are under more pressure to continue that policy for all their races,” Metzger said. “It’s been a significant factor in the betterment of the sport.”
Running the Thoroughbred Charities of America, which distributes money to retirement and rehabilitation facilities throughout North America, will also increase TOBA’s influence, especially given the fact taking care of horses after their racing careers is a hot-button issue today. And the Sales Industry Task Force, while not going as far as critics of the industry’s sales companies would have liked, has heightened awareness of issues such as dual agency and finding out from consignors where the horses in their barns were raised.
But TOBA is foremost concerned with the economic plight of the owners and breeders it represents.
“I think it’s important to be a realist and address things we can do rather than pursue great ideas that can’t be done,” said Metzger. “I think the best thing owners can do is get all the owners’ groups organized and working together—the HBPAs, The Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup, and TOBA. Let’s leverage our assets and figure out how to pull this together. My greatest hope is that owners will get more involved in the business of the sport.
“As for TOBA, we don’t have the regulatory rights that the HBPAs have; we don’t have the financial resources of some of the other organizations. We’re idea rich and cash poor. But we try to pull some of those ideas through the industry.”