Change Looms for NTRA, Breeders' Cup Moving Forward

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association and Breeders' Cup are well under way in mapping out a long-range strategy that apparently will bring changes in programs and goals as they seek a larger share of the entertainment, sports, and gambling marketplaces.

In his first industry appearance as the official commissioner of the NTRA, D.G. Van Clief Jr. told about 150 people gathered for the NTRA Annual Meeting and Marketing Summit the challenge is to build on the past six years. He said there would be a re-evaluation of strategies that were core to the organization when it launched in 1998.

"The question isn't what are we going to do now?" Van Clief said Sept. 27 at the meeting held in Las Vegas. "The question is where do we focus and how can we be most effective?"

When the NTRA got started, it focused on developing a brand. The NTRA logo and "Go Baby Go" slogan remain intact, but Van Clief indicated the branding effort wasn't that successful. "We're not so sure that has worked as well as we would have liked," he said. "We're not sure we have the critical mass of dollars needed to be effective."

Van Clief also said the cooperative advertising program, which in effect returns a percentage of dues to racetracks, hasn't met expectations. The creative materials have been used extensively by some members but hardly at all by others.

"We don't think we're getting a uniform bang for the buck," Van Clief said. "We may deploy those resources elsewhere going forward."

Van Clief said the focus after 2005 could be on public relations and media, including use of television as an educational and promotional tool for racing. For instance, live racing telecasts this year have featured informational spots on some of the major racetracks in an effort to put them in a favorable light and perhaps generate on-site visits.

As for the Breeders' Cup, Van Clief, who serves as the organization's president, said selection of host sites would be "pushed out" in an attempt to assist sponsors and facilitate television coverage. Van Clief said a five-year window would be the minimum for selecting host sites.

"The initial reason is to become more effective and efficient in sponsorship sales," Van Clief said. "Ultimately the goal would be to know where we are going and avoid dates conflicts. It would be easier to line up television clearances with selected host sites. At this stage, the organization should be sophisticated enough to extend the selection process."

Van Clief said Breeders' Cup is talking to the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club about serving as host site for the 2008 World Thoroughbred Championships. This year's event will be held at Lone Star Park, followed by Belmont Park in 2005, Churchill Downs in 2006, and Monmouth Park in 2007. Ideally, the 2008 site already would be in place under the desired structure.

In an interview after opening session of the annual meeting, Van Clief explained that he no longer is acting commissioner even though the NTRA board is moving forward with its search for a chief executive officer. He said the search could very well yield an "inside candidate," and he again said he is interested in the job should the board decide to go that route.

Van Clief said it would be "uncomfortable" for him to assume the top spot without the NTRA having conducted a search. Van Clief was interim commissioner for about three weeks after Tim Smith resigned effective Sept. 1. The board, in a vote of confidence, removed the "interim" title at its quarterly meeting Sept. 24 in Texas.

Van Clief said the NTRA board would meet once or twice before its final regular meeting Dec. 4. He said the executive search can't be launched until a new strategic plan is in place.