Talkin' Horses - Live Discussions

Remi Bellocq CEO, National Horsemen�s Benevolent and Protective Association

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The son of acclaimed equine cartoonist Pierre �Peb� Bellocq, Remi Bellocq has spent a lifetime around the horse industry. Raised in New York and New Jersey, Bellocq had an opportunity to witness some of racing�s greats on the New York racing circuit. He also has traveled extensively throughout the world as an amateur jockey having ridden throughout north America and Europe. He and his father founded the Amateur Riders Club and Bellocq most recently scored a win in the 2007 Coolmore Challenge at High Hope in Lexington, KY.

In addition to his family background and hobby interests in horses, Bellocq has extensive experience in racetrack management, including executive positions at Garden State Park, Longacres, Turf Paradise and Santa Anita Park. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona Race Track Industry Program.

Continuing the family tradition, Bellocq relaxes by cartooning and has had work appear in racing industry publications and with the Lexington Herald-Leader �cartoons to the editor� feature.

The HBPA, which represents owners and trainers, is involved with many important facets within the industry, including licensing, ownership, and medication. Bellocq is available to discuss those areas, as well as his ideas on marketing and promotion of the horses industry, and his personal experiences within racing.

Encinitas, CA:
One problem I see regarding trainers who have positive drug tests is with the media, TV and print. The day they come back to work off a suspension they are treated like royalty like nothing ever happened. This is a FAR cry from what is going on in the sports world. Why is cheating Ok in horse racing and not in other sports?

Bellocq:
First, I respectfully disagree that cheating is o.k. in horse racing and not in other sports. I would agree that if a high profile racing licensee has had � overall - a clean record and is coming off of his/her first suspension, the media and the fans do tend to give them some leeway as opposed to repeat offenders like a Darryl Strawberry (baseball) or a Patrick Valenzuela (racing). Take Patriots� coach Bill Belichick. Many feel that he hasn�t been kicked around as much as many feel he should have over the �Spygate� scandal only because he�s won so many games and Super Bowls.

Plowville, PA:
For decades I was under impression race commission labs were testing for Cobra Venom which is 1,000 times stronger than morphine. Well there is NO test for it. When are you going to push for 'pre-race' security detention barns? I have already asked Congressman Whitfield to include it in his bill.

Bellocq:
Many horsemen I have spoken to don�t necessarily think having a pre-race detention barn is wrong and I believe NYRA implemented a pre-race detention barn in the past few years. The problem in many cases is how that pre-race barn is set-up and the conditions that the horses will face in that barn, leading up to their race. Like many of you, I�ve worked around race horses and we all know how high-strung they are. If you take them from the comfort and security of their own stall to a new location, they�ll tend to get nervous and, in some cases, will �wash-out�.

So it�s a balance between protecting the public (pre-race testing) and hurting the public (if a 1-5 shot comes to the paddock and has already lost its race due to pre-race jitters). If every track could afford to build a nice state-of-the-art detention barn there might be less concern� but many tracks can�t.

Perhaps, an interim step could be a process which would focus on a more rigorous pre-race vet inspection program which is done at/in the horse�s own barn or stall. In most states, a pre-race vet inspection is done the morning of the race. Perhaps the pre-race inspection or monitoring process could begin earlier or at random?

Harrisburg, PA:
Can you explain why your organization is so opposed to steroid testing in Pennsylvania. Recent testing showed that 98% of the horses racing in the state are free of steroids. By opposing the April 1 testing date aren't you turning your back on the 98% of your members who want to run without steroids and have stopped using them?

Bellocq:
Statistics aside let me be clear: The National HBPA is NOT opposed to the regulation of Anabolic-Androgenic Steroids (AAS).

In fact, we (and other horsemen�s groups) basically agree with a national model rule to regulate the use of steroids which has been approved by both the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium (RMTC) and the Association of Racing Commissioners International (ARCI). To again be clear, the proposed model rule would ban ALL steroids and only allow the measured use of four FDA approved steroids - stanozolol, boldenone, nandrolone and testosterone. The latter three, in fact, naturally occur in most horses unless they are gelded.

Steroids are listed by the ARCI as a Class 4 medication (same as Bute or Banamine). Class 4 medications are generally considered therapeutic and the model rule recommends specific threshold levels tied to the usage of these four types of steroids. It also recommends a set of penalty guidelines which, again, were approved by the RMTC and ARCI. Horsemen�s only concerns with the rule are: a.) Threshold levels should be based on plasma and not just urine (plasma based testing is much more accurate and less expensive for racing commissions) and; b.) An on-going RMTC sponsored University of Florida study to establish threshold levels in blood needs to run its course and be published/peer reviewed. The study is expected to be completed by the end of 2008 if not sooner.

In most cases, state regulatory bodies which have passed or are passing the proposed model rule and recommended penalties, have agreed to not implement the penalties (or at least the most stringent of these penalties) until the University of Florida study results are published.

While we support PA�s use of plasma testing, we disagree with their decision to immediately impose penalties that are even more stringent that those recommended by the RMTC / ARCI guidelines. Why then have a national body working on a national uniform set of medication and testing guidelines if states won�t follow their recommendations? As it now is, in the mid-Atlantic region horsemen will be faced with one set of rules regulating steroid use in New York and Maryland (who�ve sided with the RMTC / ARCI approach) and another set of rules in PA and Delaware. And all these states share many of the same horsemen.

Why not pass the rule, hold off on implementing the penalties until the University of Florida study is completed and published as many other states are doing.

Our position, again, is YES to AAS regulation, but let�s allow the on-going study to dictate the plasma thresholds on which penalties are based.

Lexington, KY:
I bet my friend $20 on you last year at the high hope steeplechase---looks like you pulled him up --what happened?

Bellocq:
It�s nice to hear from a fellow steeplechase fan. First, if anyone out there has never been to a National Steeplechase hunt meet� try to go. It�s a great country fair atmosphere to introduce the kids to flat and jump racing. As to your $20 � first I�m assuming it was a �fun� wager because readers need to know that pari-mutuel wagering is not offered at most steeplechase hunt meets.

I rode two races that day and, unfortunately, you picked the wrong one to bet! In my first race, my left stirrup broke (hard to see from the stands because the horse is blocking your view) and it�s all I could do to stay on and which is why it looked like I was pulling-up. Had you bet my next race, you would have cashed because I won that one. Sorry about that.

Winder, GA:
Why are so many horses bred year after year, when there are already so many homeless horses that need to be rescued? I guess it's the all American dollar, agree?

Bellocq:
I learned to ride on a "backyard horse" ... an ex-racehorse who was donated by a wonderful horseman named John Russell. John passed away not long ago, but he always found a way to balance the business aspects of training a string of horses with his ability to find suitable homes for them when their careers came to an end. To him � and I believe most horsepeople � the American dollar or Japanese Yen or Euro are secondary.

I believe that education is key and I�m proud that the National HBPA is a founding member of the Unwanted Horses Coalition, which has brought together all the major equine horsemen�s groups and breed registries to work on possible long-term solutions to responsibly horse ownership and breeding through education.

The issue of unwanted horses is a very difficult one and is getting more alarming. The issue of slaughter for human consumption aside, we agree that, long-term, education is key. Horse owners need to know what they are "getting into" when buying a horse � whether a racehorse or a pleasure horse � and they need to know what options when that horse becomes unwanted due to illness, financial problems, etc�

Springfield, PA:
Remi, Do you think a handicapping tournament on ESPN or some other channel could catch on like World Series Of Poker?

Bellocq:
Yes. But the key will be how the show is produced and how the participants are presented. In my opinion, it shouldn�t be a handicapping tourney trying to be the WSOP. I know this goes contrary to what many think, but during my track management years, I always believed that we often tried to be something we�re not. The beauty of our sport and our players is what I call the �Guys and Dolls� ambiance in the grandstand on a big day. That�s what makes pari-mutuel wagering so fun� you�re betting against the person next to you and not the house. There are rivalries and teasing between horseplayers when one wins and the other loses. We need to embrace the colorful characters we see at the track each day and present them in a uniquely "racing" way. Only then would a televised handicapping tourney be worth watching.

Saratoga Springs, NY:
How soon will anabolic steroids be abolished from racing? Why has the HBPA called it a therapeutic drug?

Bellocq:
We call it therapeutic because that�s how it is defined by the ARCI. Anabolic Androgenic Steroids are an ARCI Class 4 medication (therapeutic).

Yes, the use of steroids needs to be regulated and tested for � absolutely. But there are occasions when legitimate therapeutic use of a steroid is needed. For instance, a horse that is recovering from a stress (i.e. due to too over training, racing, shipping or is recovering from illness or injury) will have a loss of appetite. The resulting weight loss then can lead to tissue breakdown. Proper regulated use of one of the four approved steroids can reverse that process and bring a horse back to its normal condition.

There are those who would prefer that racing in the U.S. be more like England, Ireland or France � where a handful of owners and trainers dominate the entire sport (and can afford to do so). Nothing wrong with that, but our racing industry in the U.S. is built differently. Tracks and bettors demand a lot of racing from horsemen. National HBPA horsemen started over 300,000 horses last year. That demand takes a toll on horses. Trainers are being asked to fill races that perhaps they�d skip, because they fear losing stall space. There is a clear need for the proper, regulated use of therapeutic medications in our sport. That�s just the reality.

Rancho Santa Fe, CA:
Wouldn't it be better if the TOBA represented owners across the country, instead of the HBPA? Their board consists of much more powerful people who have built businesses, instead of trainers who can't win races.

Bellocq:
Training a racehorse to win a race and running a racing stable requires a fairly "powerful" type of man or woman.

That said, over half of National HBPA�s membership consists of owners and/or owner � trainers. The owners and trainers who sit on our board of directors have a varied background, including several lawyers, doctors, and our National President who is a CPA and who teaches college level accounting. So the National HBPA is not what many folks think it is. We�re a very diverse group � like racing.

Now, I won�t take the bait and call them "trainers who can�t win"! But our good friends at TOBA will, I�m sure, agree that between TOBA and National HBPA, there is ample opportunity for owners to find the representation they seek.

Louisville, KY:
One controversial subject in horseracing is whipping. Where do you stand on it? Do you think it should be outlawed or limited?

Bellocq:
Yes, I do think there is a place for tighter uniform whip rules. At the same time, young riders need to learn HOW to use a whip properly in a race. Years ago, I rode a few races in Sweden where, at that time, riders could not "cock" their whip. In other words, you could only hit a horse underhanded (with your whip pointing down) and you could not bring your whipping hand above your head. This technique allows a rider to be aggressive within limits. Might be a bit extreme for U.S. racing, but this approach, I found, was a great policy for two-year-old races.

Many young riders are too busy riding short and trying to look stylish that they can�t finish on a horse using "hands and heels". So they just go to the whip and that tends to end up slowing a horse down.

The bottom line: I�m a big supporter of a national racing school and sit on the Board of the North American Racing Academy that is being run by Chris McCarron. Jockeys need to carry a whip...the question is teaching them how to use it and putting sensible, measurable limits.

Chicago, IL:
Given all of the recent talk of host track fees how do you feel that the Industry can reconcile itself to 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 fee sharing when there appears to be at least 4 parties of importance (host track, horsemen, wagering outlet operator, player) involved? Which of these 4 does the Industry find of no value; the wagering outlet/track, the host track, the better/player or the horsemen?

Bellocq:
Good question, not a simple answer unfortunately.

First off, the existing model for the distribution of wagering revenues to purses, etc...is broken and very hard to verify what with configuring a 25 mile radius, source market fees and so on. We have been trying to develop a model that is simple, fair and, most importantly, verifiable.

Now, at the outset, I won�t go down the path of finding any party of "no value". All racing industry stakeholders have a part to play. And not to take away the vital importance of the other stakeholders, I�ll point out that horsemen spend roughly $2 billion a year to race for around $1.2 billion. So, I�d argue that this represents the largest investment sector of our industry.

The National HBPA supports the newly created Thoroughbred Horsemen�s Group, LLC. (THG) which is a coalition made up of nearly a dozen horsemen�s groups � including many of the National HBPA�s key affiliates, the Thorougbred Owners of California and the Thoroughbred Horsemen�s Association. THG�s mission is to tackle the economic problem inherent with over 80% of wagering coming off-track and what an equitable share of that amount (for purses) should be.

Already, in most markets, horsemen�s purses will receive roughly half of the takeout revenues from live and simulcast wagers placed on-track. The issue is off-track wagers and the THG proposes a new interstate simulcasting model which would allocate a minimum of 1/3 of the takeout revenue (which would go to purses) from gross wagers placed through any advanced deposit wagering company and/or non-Thoroughbred outlets. How the remaining 2/3 of the takeout is divided would be the responsibility of the other stakeholders (tracks, states, wagering operators, etc.).

It is important to note that this model WOULD NOT affect the cost of the bet to the bettor � we are simply advocating a more equitable re-alignment of the existing takeout structure. We also strongly feel that any outlet taking off-track wagers that does not directly support live racing and does not bear the costs of operating a live racing facility, ought to contribute more to support our sport.

Keep in mind that approximately $5 billion is wagered off-track through non-Thoroughbred track outlets (i.e. ADWs, Traditional and Tribal Casinos, non-TB tracks, Rebate shops, etc�). Of that amount, around 40% or $2 billion is bet through Advanced Deposit Wagering outlets.

Again, without devaluing any of the other parties you mention, remember that horsemen are, in effect, the industry �content providers� and should be fairly rewarded as such.

New Orleans, LA:
The industry pays state governments more than $1 billion a year LESS (inflation adjusted) than they did before OTB. What do you think about that? Where is the money going to come from?

Bellocq:
The tax structure(s) that state regulatory agencies rely on in many regions are still based on on-track wagering and don�t compensate for the fact that most wagering is now off-track. So there�s a structural problem. Plus, in many cases, states have agreed to reduce their share of the takeout so that the racing industry could remain competitive in the face of increased competition. In many cases, states have agreed to take as little as 0.5 % of handle.

They have, rightly, seen that a healthy racing industry represents a much greater economic impact than other forms of gambling such as lotteries or other forms of gaming. Racing employs a large workforce (many unskilled), rents more hotel rooms, buys more tack and feed and farmland, then there are the taxes paid on equipment, feed and even sales taxes on the claiming price of a horse in some states and so on... So, in many ways, the $1 billion you cite has generated a multi-billion dollar economic benefit.

San Jose, CA:
We are now less than 2 months from the Kentucky Derby and the ADW signal wars live on. The recent Hawthorne deal with TVG is promising in that it is similar to the California model, but do you see any realistic way that Tracknet and TVG/Youbet can settle these signal issues in the next several weeks so that all fans of the sport can play on their ADW of choice? It is quite obvious that no one has benefitted from these signal issues, and revenues for tracks, owners and horsemen have suffered. What specifically can the National HBPA do to resolve this? Words alone have done precious little to resolve it. When will there be concrete action to force the issue. CA did it. Why not the horsemen that control the signal?

Bellocq:
Ever since our 2007 summer convention when we put the representatives of TrackNet, TVG and Youbet on the �hot seat� we�ve been working hard to settle the signal issues you cite.

Our position is and has been simple: we are for non-exclusivity on the wagering rights of signals.

Television rights are another matter and if a signal distributor feels it needs to charge a reasonable fee for the use of its images (they do after all incur production costs, etc�) that�s understandable. So long as wagering rights are shared.

We are very heartened by the agreements that have been reached in California, at Hawthorne Park and in New Jersey. Hopefully the trend toward content sharing will keep going. There are still many hurdles, but we�re hopeful that the impact of the Thoroughbred Horsemen�s Group coalition (see above) will bring dividends.

In the end, though, it may take the threat that states will simply pass legislation requiring the sharing of wagering content before this issue gets fully resolved. But, hopefully, we�re all �rowing in the same direction� now and it won�t come to that.

Newark, DE:
When you were an amateur rider. Where were some of your favorite places around the world to ride?

Bellocq:
"When" I was an amateur rider?
Be careful, I�ve still got a few races left in me � although pretty soon I�ll have to use a cane to get to my horse!

Top Five:
1.) Epsom (England) � I had the chance to ride over the Epsom Derby course.
2.) San Siro (Milan, Italy) � Great track with so much history. Home course of Nearco and Ribot. Plus I won a big race there.
3.) Belmont Park (Long Island, NY) � Rode a few races there, and can say I rode over the track where I saw Affirmed and Alydar in the Belmont and good old Forego.
4.) Moscow Hippodrome (Russia, not Idaho) � In 1991 we were invited to ride against a team or Russian and German riders. A beautiful country with wonderful people.
5.) Maisons-Laffitte (France) � Because that�s where my family is from and I got to ride in front of my uncle Louis (a former top jockey himself).

Charles Town, WV:
What is the National HBPA doing to protect horsemen from race track owners who use the private property rule when they do not like someone? Charles Town Races and Slots has barred members who are in good standing because they do not like them or they speak out against them.

Bellocq:
Since 2001 when I began with the National HBPA, we�ve had several instances where track management has either barred a horseman or denied them stalls. The key, of course, is whether their exists �just or due cause� (in a few cases there clearly was just cause and National HBPA did not intervene). However, when the case is clearly motivated by retribution and just cause is not proven, National HBPA will act.

We are aware of the issues that have arisen at Charles Town and because this is an on-going situation, I prefer to not comment publicly at this time.

Lexington, KY:
Is Fab Oak your favorite soccer team in the world?

Bellocq:
Certainly my favorite team in Lexington. We�re 7 and 0.
�Nuff said!

Seattle, WA:
We hear you became quite a shrimp fisherman the two years you spent out in Washington. Can you expand on that please?

Bellocq:
Clearly, the Talkin� Horses screening process is not up to snuff.

I came away from my two year stint at great old Longacres Race Course with my wonderful wife Bridget, some wonderful memories, plenty of wonderful friends but, alas, I had to leave the shrimp behind.

Nicholasville, KY:
Who was the best boss you ever worked for in your career? What did you learn from them?

Bellocq:
That would have to be Bob Quigley, whom I worked for during my first job out of college (at Garden State Park).

Oh, and yes, there was this other guy I worked for � I think his last name was Powell. Yeah, he was pretty good to work for also. I think he lives in Nicholasville, KY now. From him, I learned to lease apartments for no more than a year at a time or month to month if possible (7 moves in 9 years).

Lexington, KY:
As both a former member of racetrack management and now someone who represents horsemen, what do you think of recent (legal) moves by tracks to exclude riders and horsemen without cause?

Bellocq:
Hypothetical questions like this are always tough to answer. Again, each case may be different but it all comes down to whether just cause has been clearly and legally proven. While the track is private property, we are still a nation of laws.

The Federal Interstate Horseracing Act clearly stipulates that there must exist a "regular contractual process" between the track and the representative horsemen�s group (or its elected leader). This puts an additional legal burden, in my view, on management to show that they haven�t excluded a horseman for reasons that could be related to difficult contract negotiations.

During my track management years, I was lucky to work with real pros, who always kept things professional and rarely if ever used their exclusion powers � even though I can say they might have been tempted to on a few occasions.

Albuquerque, NM:
I truly enjoy your cartoons. Other than your father, who is your favorite cartoonist? contemporary cartoonist?

Bellocq:
Thanks for a great question!

I'm a big fan of political cartoonists and It�s a two way tie:
1. Jeff MacNelly. A great cartoonist who passed away a few years ago. His political cartoons were fantastic but most readers will remember him for creating the comic strip �Shoe� (the Chicago Cub loving bird).
2. Ann Telnaes. A Pulitzer prize winning political cartoonist who�s style is minimal, with "Pixar"-like animation look. Probably the most original cartoonist.

Lexington, KY:
Is the Thoroughbred Horsemen�s Group formed in December making any progress? If so, how?

Bellocq:
Yes, the Thoroughbred Horsemen�s Group is alive and well. Additional horsemen�s representative groups have signed on since December and more are encouraged to do so. The THG�s President is Bob Reeves who is an Ohio based horse owner and is a member of the board of the Ohio HBPA.

The THG has been meeting on a regular basis and has developed a novel business model which I alluded to in an earlier question, but the work continues.

Santa Rosa, CA:
Will there ever be a horsemen�s summit involving all the major horsemen�s groups in the country?

Bellocq:
Interesting you should ask. Through our common issues and through new alliances like the THG, the major horsemen�s groups have come closer together. National HBPA has, in fact, floated the idea of a horsemen�s summit and it may very well happen.

We�ll just have to figure out who�ll feed the horses when we meet (just kidding of course).

East Hanover, New Jersey:
Dear Remi...There are obviously myriad of problems confronting the industry. However one I want to couch to you today is that of how you personally or through the HBPA organization are contemplating..if @ all.. in promoting the industry and spawning new and younger fans to attend the races. Need your thoughts and ooking forward to your input and ideas.

Bellocq:
During my track management years, I spent quite a bit of time considering the challenges we face in marketing our sport and raising its awareness level. We face a multitude of challenges but two that I see as critical today as 20 years ago, are:

1. Emotional Tie-In. Good marketing will try to attach a product or experience to a customer emotionally. Compared to football, baseball, basketball or even NASCAR � horse racing is not a �participatory� sport. We all grew up playing these sports (or driving) so there�s an emotional attachment when we go to a ball game or car race (we envision being part of it). Like I�ve always said, if every 10 year old kid could get the chance to ride in a horse race � we�d by far have the most popular sport in the world. The participatory angle to our sport is wagering and the excitement of winning a bet. We have to focus on that.
2. Too Much. The economics of our sport requires that we race as much as we do (tracks cost money to operate and finance). And I don�t know how we get around that. The analogy I always use is � if you bring in Bruce Springsteen for one show, you�ll have 40,000 people in the stadium. If you bring him in for 190 shows, you�ll have 1,500 people per show. It�s supply and demand. Keeneland generates their revenue from sales so they can afford to only race six weeks per year. If they had to race 100 days, there would certainly be less �immediacy� in fans decision to go to the track.
3. Consistency / Customer Service. Another problem is the experience a newcomer will have with his/her first track experience. If you decide to go to a basketball game, the comfort, customer service level, seats, etc� will be pretty consistent whether you�re in Phoenix or New Jersey. Not true with racetracks. If you decide to bring the family to the local track, you�ll have a different experience (and that�s not always a good thing) depending on the where you live.
4. Competition Between Tracks. One reason we can�t create a unified approach to marketing our sport is that each track (even tracks within one ownership group like MEC or CD) competes with each other. Each has its own marketing budget and will often card races to weaken the track across town. In other sports, team owners actually own the stadiums (tracks) and work more closely on a consistent marketing approach. They can also limit how many new teams are allowed in to the league. In racing, there�s no league or owners� group that will prevent someone from building a track right across the street from me.

Well, these are just a few of the critical issues I can think of.

Unfortunately, I don�t see how a horsemen�s group is either capable to or has the means to tackle these issues. We have our hands full buying horses and getting them ready to fill races.

I do think that the NTRA has accomplished a lot. The problem for them over the years has probably been �mission creep� where they�ve tried to tackle more than they could or should have - and the industry is partly to blame for that. They are very good at making the big days in racing bigger (which is important to us all). I give the NTRA straight A�s in how they are able to jump on a big event day like the Belmont Stakes when a Triple Crown was on the line (i.e. Smarty Jones). Imagine how big the Secretariat or Affirmed Belmont Stakes would have been if we were able to leverage all the TV time and sponsorships like we do today? They also do important work behind the scenes, such as critical lobbying work in Washington, D.C. and as a convening authority for what can be a fractured industry sometimes.

Lots of thoughts but, unfortunately, no �silver bullet�. I�ll leave you with one thought though. My dad lived through the occupation of France during WWII and tells the story of how racing continued at tracks like Longchamp. He tells of one day during a bombing raid, an errant bomb hit close to the track causing a lot of damage. After the all clear sounded, the fans walked back out on the apron�. And the horses for the next race came out on to the track. As long as there are horses and people who love to own, train, ride or bet on them� racing will live on.

LAST UPDATED: Thursday, March 13 @ 1:02 p.m. (ET)

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