Major Horsemen's Groups on NTRA Fence

Two major horsemen's groups in key racing states are reassessing their membership in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, officials said. Meanwhile, some non-members are at least considering rejoining the organization pending review of the new NTRA strategic plan.

Officials with the Kentucky Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association and Thoroughbred Owners of California said April 22 they are on the fence. They spoke during a horsemen's forum at the Association of Racing Commissioners International convention in Lexington.

Under a handle-based formula, the two groups combined have contributed about $2 million a year in dues.

"The economic realities in Kentucky will force us to reassess horsemen's membership in the NTRA," said Marty Maline, executive director of the Kentucky HBPA, the largest HBPA affiliate in terms of membership numbers with about 6,000.

Maline said the NTRA is now less involved in marketing. He also said the Kentucky HBPA was assured the NTRA wouldn't be involved with the "drug issue," but ended up facilitating national model rules that have supplanted Kentucky's equine medication policy.

"It has been a source of frustration with some of our horsemen," Maline said.

As for the TOC, chairman Alan Landsburg said a soon-to-be-released internal report would help decide "whether we go all the way, half of the way, or no way. We have support for at least two-thirds of what they do on our board."

The NTRA strategic plan for 2006-10 focuses on three areas: marketing, with a focus on television; the organization's role in association issues such as crisis management; and integrity-related issues.

Landsburg, who moderated the horsemen's forum, criticized marketing efforts by racetracks and said there is too much emphasis on the importance of television in bringing people to the track.

"We have let that part of racing go to pot," Landsburg said of marketing efforts. "You can see what's happening because of television. It has become the only staple we have for outreach, and there has to be more."

Nick Coukos, executive director of the Ontario HBPA, noted the NTRA doesn't impact Canada directly, but still said he believes the organization has been a benefit to the industry.

"There's no question the awareness of horse racing in the United States has grown to another level in the last five years," Coukos said.

Trainer John Ward, president of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association, said the NTRA has made an impact when it comes to seeking consensus on issues such as medication and wagering security. He noted how difficult it is to get all parties on the same page.

The NTRA, which at the end of 2005 will do away with its cooperative advertising program, will reduce dues by 25% across the board beginning next year. The NTRA is seeking five-year membership commitments by this summer, and is said to have had positive discussions with industry organizations.

Most of the racetracks that defected earlier in this decade rejoined the NTRA. Those that didn't continue to take a wait-and-see approach.

"It would be very premature to characterize our posture toward possible re-enrollment in the NTRA in any fashion," said Hal Handel, chief executive officer of Philadelphia Park. "But we've had good dialogue with (NTRA commissioner D.G. Van Clief Jr.) and senior NTRA staff. There's an opportunity for us to be watchful as the process begins for membership renewals, and to evaluate the NTRA business plan going forward."

Philly Park, which hopes to have slot machines in operation sometime next year, was one the tracks that embraced the co-op program early on. Like other tracks, it defected because of concerns over the NTRA's involvement with the TV Games Network and the fact it was competing with its members. The conflict no longer exists.