TOC Chairman Owens Responds to Critics

He says divisiveness from rival horsemen group hurting California's racing industry.

Divisiveness among horsemen’s groups in California “seems to me a terrible waste of industry resources,” said Jack Owens, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, during an interview April 2 with The Blood-Horse.

Responding to the recent formation of a rival organization, the California Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, Owens said the industry should instead be focusing on upcoming issues such as the expansion of betting via the Internet.

“We should be concentrating on moving forward,” Owens said. “What concerns me is if we get into redrawing the organizational boxes and burn up a lot of energy on that, we’re going to miss an opportunity because Sacramento won’t deal with a divided industry.”

The CTHA was formed because some owners and trainers believe the TOC does not properly represent California horsemen. The new group has said it will seek decertification of the TOC as the official horsemen’s representative in the state if several issues are not addressed, including what the CTHA believes is the disenfranchising of trainers who are also owners.

“Yes, TOC was created as an owners’ organization,” Owens said. “But in 2002, it was adjusted to become a hybrid organization.”

That legislation, which Owens said was “fully supported by TOC,” allowed owner/trainers to be TOC members and created three seats on the board specifically for owner/trainers. The TOC board consists of 15 members.

“In 2006, that was broadened so that owner/trainers were given unrestricted voting rights for all board seats, and three seats were reserved for them,” Owens said. “I guarantee you (the owner/trainer board members) have a lot of impact on board deliberations.”

Owens, who is based in Northern California, noted that the same bylaw changes broadened representation from Northern California. One of the complaints from the rival group is that TOC has a “lack of support for Northern California racing.”

A minimum of three board members must be from Northern California, including one of the owner/trainer members, Owens said. Currently, Bob Baffert and Ron Ellis are owner/trainer board members from Southern California, while Ed Moger is the owner/trainer member from Northern California.

“We have been really battling to keep Golden Gate dedicated to racing,” Owens said. “I think it’s a very high priority to maintain a vibrant racing site in the North.”

The 2006 law had a sunset provision, and Owens said the TOC sponsored legislation in 2010 “to make clear that owner/trainers and their spouses continue to be members of the TOC and to make clear that they had seats reserved on our board.” Owens said the trainers’ organization, the California Thoroughbred Trainers, chose not to support the legislation.

“We still have in our bylaws exactly that structure,” Owens said. “One way or the other -- either by (California Horse Racing Board) interpretation or by getting an amendment through -- TOC wants to continue being a hybrid organization. It’s designed to represent the interests of owners, whether they be pure owners or owner/trainers, but it has direct input into its deliberations by trainers.”

In its statement of objectives, the CTHA maintained that the TOC has failed “to respond to the horseplayers’ boycott” resulting from legislation that went into effect in 2011 raising the pari-mutuel takeout on exotic wagers to increase purses. Some bettors have boycotted California races in response, and some consider that one of the causes for a current decline in handle at Santa Anita and Golden Gate.

“All kinds of organizations supported SB 1072,” Owens said of the legislation. “All of the money from that takeout increase goes strictly to purses. One of the reasons I started expanding my California-bred breeding is that with the bonuses and the purses, it’s starting to make sense.”

Racetrack managements are discussing new wagers with a lower takeout to help turn around the handle decline. Owens said the TOC has been accused of blocking such experiments.

“That is not true,” Owens said. “What we did do is ask for an analysis of it so people could sit down and think about it. They came forward with data. We got assurances that it would sell, and we said, 'Godspeed and good luck.' We’re partners with the racetracks. Anything that is responsible that will improve the business has to be examined.”

Owens pointed to the lack of horse inventory as a major problem affecting all aspects of the industry, including handle. “We don’t have an adequate horse population,” he said. “We’ve got to attract new owners. It’s difficult to recruit people when you’re operating in a toxic environment like this.”

Owens suggested that members unhappy with the TOC should vote their own representatives onto the board. He noted the membership every year votes on at least one-third of the board positions. Owens acknowledged the TOC could do a better job of communication, and pledged to improve that.

To the CTHA charge that the TOC holds all of its meetings behind closed doors, he noted membership meetings are open, TOC board minutes are public, and that the CTT board and others often attend the board meetings.

“We are not in the business of opposing innovation,” Owens said. “Why would we do that? We own horses. We are not about to shoot ourselves in the foot. It doesn’t make sense.”