Tim Smith, left, is greeted by Nick Nicholson, center, and Ambassador Will Farish, right, at the Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs.

Tim Smith, left, is greeted by Nick Nicholson, center, and Ambassador Will Farish, right, at the Jockey Club Round Table in Saratoga Springs.

Skip Dickstein

Round Table: Cooperation, Aggregation Still Needed

Thoroughbred racing continues to take steps on its way to becoming a true league sport, but officials at the Aug. 15 Jockey Club Round Table again beat the drum for cooperation and aggregation in what some still believe is a largely fragmented industry.

"I can't remember when our industry has faced as many serious challenges as it does today," Jockey Club chairman Ogden Mills Phipps said during the annual gathering held in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The Round Table featured talks on the National Animal Identification System, the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Political Action Committee and Wagering Systems Task Force, and the PGA TOUR and its similarities to horse racing. The theme throughout was a need for cooperation and in some respects consolidation.

Outgoing NTRA commissioner Tim Smith, who will step down Sept. 1 after having written the organization's business plan and served as its only full-time commissioner, said the building blocks are in place for a true national league office for Thoroughbred racing. As he has in the past, he called on all members of the industry to put the plan into action.

"The stronger the national office, the better off horse racing as a whole and each of its component parts will be," said Smith, who received a standing ovation at the end of the conference.

The keynote speaker was PGA TOUR commissioner Tim Finchem, who said the organization isn't unlike Thoroughbred racing in that it has worked hard to bring factions in the golf industry together. He said a firming up of the structure has had an "incredible impact" on the PGA TOUR's ability to market the sport of golf.

Finchem noted the importance of charitable aspects of the organization in developing ties with communities. He also said the sport has focused on its players, a "fundamental value of the sport." Still, the PGA TOUR continues to look for more aggregation in the golf industry.

"Any organization worth its salt is changing all the time," Finchem said.

On the topic of wagering, NTRA deputy commissioner Greg Avioli said the Wagering Systems Task Force would be ready to release its report in September. The task force has drawn some conclusions in regard to electronic wagering, which Avioli called the industry's "greatest strategic advantage and potentially its greatest threat."

Avioli said even though high-volume betting operations -- rebate shops -- contributed about $1.2 billion in handle in 2003, revenue to racetracks and horseman haven't kept pace. He said all handle isn't good handle, and technological gains aren't necessarily working to the pari-mutuel industry's advantage.

The task force recommendations will focus on an upgrade of wagering systems, something called for at last year's Round Table; activation of a strong National Office on Wagering Security; and a close look at every bet and how much revenue is returned to tracks and purse accounts.

In a related matter, Jockey Club president Alan Marzelli said of group stakeholders including the Jockey Club, NTRA, tote companies, major racing associations, and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations continues to hammer out a "migration path" toward an upgrade of the pari-mutuel system. He cited three key areas: the live host must control the wager, receiving sites must transmit all information in real time, and transactions must be stored in a central database.

Marzelli said there has been progress but he is "disappointed" with the slow-moving nature of the endeavor. He said the infrastructure of the wagering system is linked to future growth of the business, and therefore changes must be implemented.