Bob Elliston

Bob Elliston

Anne M. Eberhardt

Elliston: 'Major League' Mindset Needed

Horse racing needs to spur economic opportunities and investment, Bob Elliston said.

Horse racing needs to take a “major league” approach in order to increase economic opportunities and spur investment, National Thoroughbred Racing Association executive chairman Bob Elliston said May 4.

Elliston, also president of Turfway Park in Kentucky, was the luncheon speaker during the first day of the University of Kentucky Equine Law Conference in Lexington. He also spoke about the challenges faced by Turfway, which accounts for five months of the state’s year-round racing circuit.

Elliston said the foundation for an expansion of major league racing exists with the Triple Crown races in the spring and the Breeders’ Cup World Championships in the fall. He said there must be better alignment of the racing schedule, though he acknowledged the difficulties.

“We need a series leading up the Breeders’ Cup,” Elliston said. “We need a crescendo heading into the fall.”

Elliston said tracks like Turfway also need some “major league” days to be part of the overall scheme. Turfway offers the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III) in the spring, but last year suspended the September Kentucky Cup Day of Champions so it could use purse money for overnight races.

“Kentucky Cup is a fantastic day, and I hope we can reinstate it this fall,” Elliston said.

The lack of network television coverage for racing hasn’t gone unnoticed, though Elliston said the new contract between NBC and the Triple Crown tracks is a good starting point for growth. He noted Versus, an NBC sports channel, has a deal with the New York Racing Association to televise eight days of horse racing this year.

“It looks like (networks) are looking for more content from the horse business,” Elliston said. “We need to play on that connection.”

Elliston said he considers horse racing a major league sport but in many cases its facilities aren’t on par with those for major league football and baseball, for instance. Such stadiums are publicly financed.

“We would love to have what they have at Keeneland, but we don’t,” Elliston said of the Lexington association that owns half of Turfway. “You make do with what you have. You’ve got to be a good (community) citizen, and you’ve got to create good will. I think the people in Northern Kentucky are rooting for us.”

Elliston noted Churchill Downs Inc. reported pre-tax earnings for racing in 2010 were down 40% from 2006, but total earnings were up 15% during the same period. He said it therefore makes sense for CDI, a publicly traded company, to use its resources accordingly.

“What we need to do is make the racing segment more attractive for capital investment,” said Elliston, a former banker.

As for the fan base, Elliston said opportunities remain for the industry. On May 5, he was on the backstretch at Churchill Downs with some young racing fans who wanted to experience Derby week.

One of them was Conner Hempel, an all-star quarterback at Ryle High School in Boone County, Ky., who will be attending Harvard University in the fall. He was introduced to racing at Turfway and had expressed interest in a trip to Churchill.

Also on hand were his friend, Matt Gorbandt, and his father, Rich Hempel, a Northern Kentucky businessman.

“They’re huge racing fans,” Elliston said. “So yes, I do have hope. Opportunities exist for us to do something. The question is, ‘Does the will and leadership needed to transform the business remain?' ”