Owner apathy. It's what Ed Friendly called the biggest obstacle to his successful effort a decade ago to overthrow the status quo and form the Thoroughbred Owners of California, the first and surprisingly only state organization to strictly represent horse owners in negotiations with racetracks on important matters such as purse contracts and simulcasting.
Friendly, a prominent television producer and racehorse owner, didn't understand why his fellow owners allowed trainers to negotiate those contracts for them. In California, as in virtually every other racing state, the local division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association was the representative body to handle those negotiations. Most HBPA divisions are still run by trainers (many of whom also own horses) even though there are far more horse owners than trainers involved in the sport. In many states, a licensed owner automatically becomes a member of the HBPA.
"I always took the position that it was not appropriate for the same organization to represent employers and their employees," Friendly said. "But before we could make a change, we had to prove that the owners wanted a new organization to represent them."
With help from fellow owners like the late Allen Paulson and Mace Siegel, Friendly began gathering proxies and affidavits from individuals who raced in California and who wanted to be represented by someone other than the HBPA. But it took more than phone calls and letters to get some owners to support such a dramatic change in governance. "To rally them is very difficult," Friendly said. "You fight apathy, and it's hard to organize a group that isn't in the same place at the same time. You need something to hang your hat on as to why the owners and trainers don't have the same interest."
Friendly found the flashpoint he needed when trainers began a boycott of the entry box at Hollywood Park after then-owner R.D. Hubbard proposed Friday night racing.
That single issue helped bring Friendly and the other owners the widespread support they needed. TOC was formed and began to lobby the state legislature to change the law designating the HBPA as the organization to represent horsemen. The subsequent new law created and established a funding mechanism for two organizations, one to represent owners (TOC), and one to represent the concerns of trainers (California Thoroughbred Trainers).
Kentucky owners tried to overthrow the HBPA in 1983 after the local HBPA president, Ed Flint, attempted to shut down out-of-state wagering on the Kentucky Derby. Many of the most powerful owners and breeders established the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association with the hope of becoming the organization that would negotiate contracts with the state's tracks. But the KTA, which currently has 1,000 members, has not been able to outnumber the Kentucky HBPA, which claims to have more than 6,000 members. The KTA does negotiate contracts alongside the HBPA at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, and Ellis Park, but the HBPA speaks for the largest number of owners and trainers.
That's too bad, especially in light of the Kentucky HBPA's latest embarrassment: filing a lawsuit to prevent implementation of new medication rules that would, at last, put the self-proclaimed "Thoroughbred Capital of the World" in step with other racing states. Though a judge denied the HBPA's motion for a temporary injunction, the organization's stubborn leadership, dominated by trainers, remains out of step not only with other states, but with the horse owners they represent.
Owner apathy will ensure that the HBPA retains its power, allowing it to further embarrass owners who race in Kentucky. For that to change, someone has to step up.