Horsemen's Groups Assess NTRA Membership Dues

Half of the National HBPA affiliates may not pay NTRA dues this year.

Funding reductions for operations and benevolence brought on by horse racing’s economic woes have led numerous affiliates of the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protection Association to reconsider their membership in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

In addition, some affiliates are questioning whether they’re getting value from membership in the NTRA, National HBPA officials said March 21 as they wrapped up their winter convention in Hot Springs, Ark.

The National HBPA, which has 30 affiliates in the United States and Canada, pays about $400,000 a year in NTRA dues. Several years ago the horsemen’s group changed the dues formula from a system whereby each affiliate was responsible for its own NTRA membership.

“There are a number of affiliates that have experienced financial problems,” Arkansas HBPA president Bill Walmsley said. “I don’t believe they are able to continue paying dues to remain (NTRA members), and some that are able to scrape by paying the money are questioning the current course of the NTRA and its programs.”

Walmsley said there is “universal approval” for the NTRA’s legislative endeavors, but support by horsemen’s groups for the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance has been mixed. He also said the organization’s ties to the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium are viewed by some horsemen as a negative.

Walmsley, who served on the NTRA board of directors for its first five years as a founding member, said the Arkansas HBPA board voted unanimously to drop out. He said many members believe the organization’s $7,500 contribution to the National HBPA’s overall NTRA contribution could be better spent on local benevolence programs at a time when money is tight.

Declining revenue from pari-mutuel handle, purses, and even gaming has impacted operating budgets of horsemen’s groups. The Mountaineer HBPA, for example, experienced a gradual decline in annual revenue to about $119,000 last year—for all operations, benevolence, and staff salaries—at a track that races more than 200 days a year and has a full-scale casino.

For that reason, the National HBPA board approved a membership dues reduction for the Mountaineer HBPA, which represents horsemen at Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack & Resort in West Virginia. Mountaineer HBPA executive director Maria Catignani said revenue from all sources—live handle, export handle, video lottery terminals, and table games—continues to decline.

The situation isn’t uncommon with other horsemen’s groups.

“I have no idea if we’ll be able to pay $400,000, $300,000, or $200,000 (in NTRA dues), said National HBPA president Joe Santanna, who sits on the NTRA board and is a strong proponent of the organization. “Affiliate funding is being impacted by the decline in purses. I don’t know when we’ll find out what the number might be, but hopefully we intend to retain our membership.”

Santanna said a dues contract for 2011 hasn't been signed.

Officials said the National HBPA, since launch of the NTRA, has paid about $11 million in dues. Santanna said he hopes the NTRA board will consider the “cumulative contribution” HBPA affiliates have made to the organization over the years.

Walmsley said he believes 50% of the affiliates will pay and 50% will drop out. The Kentucky HBPA, which pays about $145,000 of the $400,000, has opted not to renew, he said.

Florida HBPA executive director Kent Stirling said the organization will continue as a member of the NTRA. Florida contributes about $90,000 of the total.

Stirling and Florida HBPA president Sam Gordon said the NTRA’s legislative initiatives are important to membership. He said many horsemen’s groups don’t have the wherewithal to participate in the legislative process on a national level.

“I know how politics is played,” Stirling said. “If you don’t have the money, you don’t play. The NTRA has a presence (in Washington, D.C.) all the time.”

“The Interstate Horseracing Act is the most important thing (to horsemen),” Gordon said. “The NTRA marketing programs were never any great bit.”

Walmsley said he made a “half-hearted” pitch to the Arkansas HBPA board to remain a member of the NTRA but couldn’t buck history.

“Perhaps there is some loss of confidence because goals initially set weren’t met,” Walmsley said. “It was really set up as a marketing and advertising organization. Also, the goal was to be dues-free in seven years, but it still requires a substantial contribution.”

Walmsley said the Arkansas situation is complicated by the fact Oaklawn Park isn’t a member of the NTRA. He said the horsemen’s group did ask why Oaklawn hasn’t applied for accreditation through the safety alliance and was told the cost of accreditation exceeded the value of certification.

“They gave (the horsemen’s board) legitimate reasons not to pursue accreditation,” Walmsley said. “They also feel they already have a good, safe racetrack (operation). I think our board sees (the alliance) as more of an effort to generate good publicity rather than having all substance. I’ll probably get criticized big time for saying that.”

The alliance has accredited almost 20 racetracks in a process that began in 2009. Tracks accredited that first year are up for renewal this year; the NTRA has made adjustments in the cost of accreditation to encourage more tracks to participate.