Looking Forward

By Tim Smith
We'll remember 2003 for highlights like Seabiscuit, Funny Cide's Triple Crown run, Richard Mandella's magical Breeders' Cup day, and the resurgent auction market. From the National Thoroughbred Racing Association's perspective, it's time to hazard some predictions for 2004:

* Wagering Security -- The recommendations of the industry's Wagering Technology Working Group and Giuliani Partners must be implemented and sustained if we are to prevent future incidents like the attempted fraud of the 2002 Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick Six 
and retain the confidence of customers and regulators. A National Office of Wagering Security will be created, staffed, and set in motion.

* New National Sponsors; Group Purchasing Growth -- Just as Dodge, Nextel, and FedEx arrived on the scene in 2003, the growth in public interest in horse racing and in TV exposure and ratings will lead to at least another two or three major new marketing partners for the NTRA and Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships in 2004. The volume of NTRA Purchasing sales will continue to grow as a result.

* Unique World Thoroughbred Championships -- Everything in Texas is BIG. The 21st Breeders' Cup will be western, different, ultra-competitive, and BIG. We predict not only record-breaking handle, but the wearing of cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats.

* Uniform Medication Standards; Improved Research and Testing -- The Industry Medication and Testing Consortium, led by D.G. Van Clief Jr. and Dr. Scot Waterman, will make historic progress toward these goals in 2004, with the help of an unexpectedly broad set of strategic industry allies, including racetracks.

* The Jockey Club Tote/Simulcast Technology Initiatives -- Likewise, this past-due candidate for improvement and upgrading will take big strides toward ushering our version of electronic commerce into the modern era, also based (like the medication issue) on the active involvement and assistance of the biggest industry stakeholders.

* Other Simulcast Policy Issues -- The long-simmering issue about revenue "leakage" from pari-mutuel wagering pools will gain more attention in 2004, and deserves it. Purse growth now lags handle growth and horsemen's groups are rightly concerned. So are the tracks whose signals represent vital assets and, in some cases, are simply being taken without compensation. More focus on the economics and implications of rebating and betting exchanges similarly will occur in coming months.

* Legislation and Political Action -- During 2004, the goal of eliminating the counterproductive 30% U.S. withholding tax on foreign wagers will be achieved. This change will increase the size of U.S. wagering pools and help turn U.S. horse racing into a growing "export product." Both the NTRA's Legislative Action Campaign (funded by contributions from consignors, buyers, and sales companies) and the NTRA's Political Action Committee (funded by individual political contributions) will have record years, and record impacts, in the crucial election year ahead.

* New Television -- In 2004, the previous "Summer Racing Tour" on CBS will switch networks--to a combination of ABC and ESPN--and grow from four hours to 10. Purses, sponsorship, and TV exposure for the best available races on five key weekend afternoons all will increase as a result of this change. Look for one or more of these races to appear in HD (high-definition) format, which should create new fans based on how great horse racing looks in this technology.

There are obviously lots of other items that could be added to this list of 2004 predictions and goals. The common thread among most of them is the ongoing need for collaborative--ideally industry-wide--analysis and action.

So far, this broad-based approach has worked well in areas like wagering security and purchasing. There is, indeed, strength in numbers. So my final prediction, and strong hope, is that we'll see more of this trend toward coalitions and cooperative ventures in 2004. As that wonderful sign on Ronald Reagan's desk put it, "There is no limit to what we can accomplish if no one cares who gets the credit."

TIM SMITH is commissioner and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.