Influence Needed

By Gary Biszantz -- Last year during a taping of a television commercial for The Greatest Game, I was asked to compare Thoroughbred racing to other sports and businesses that I have been involved with in my lifetime. Unquestionably, Thoroughbred racing has provided my family and me with more excitement and satisfaction than any endeavor in which we have been involved.

From my first racehorse more than 40 years ago, to graded stakes winners Old Trieste and Savinio, to the founding of Cobra Farm near Lexington, racing has evolved into both a business and a passion.

It is easy to sit and look over the farm with its tranquility and beauty and fall into a false sense of security that all is well in our industry. The beauty of the horse, framed by the lush bluegrass of Central Kentucky, seduces the soul and captures your heart and imagination.

But there are challenges on the horizon, both on the farms and at the racetracks that threaten the sport's long-term prosperity. We must recognize and confront those issues as one industry.

Nowhere is the challenge felt stronger than in the Thoroughbred owner community. Despite their significant investment in the Thoroughbred business, owners have little voice in the present or future status of racing.

Thoroughbred owners annually invest over $2 billion a year to provide the product to the industry and the racing public. The return on that investment is approximately $1 billion in purses. The deficit between investment and purses is both staggering and worrisome.

The economic model that funds purses, the lifeline of Thoroughbred ownership, is outdated and in need of an overhaul. The current revenue distribution for simulcasting is fundamentally flawed in its basic premise. Rebating is a difficult issue facing our business today and our approach must be based on what is in the best interests of the industry, principally, the owners, tracks, and fans.

Pari-mutuel handle, virtually the only source of revenues for owners, via purses, increased by 3.19% from 2001 to 2002, yet purses increased only 0.63%. One could argue that without contributions from alternative gaming at a few racetracks, total U.S. purses would have decreased from 2001 to 2002. Total handle and total purses in the U.S. have increased annually since 1994, but owners are still facing a deficit in excess of $1 billion. Expenses continue to outpace purse increases. We must improve the economics of the sport to encourage both new and continued investment.

A well-known owner said to me recently, "It's not about making more money; it's about losing less." When told of the economics of racehorse ownership, a prominent major league sports executive wondered why Thoroughbred owners "get out of bed in the morning."

The reason is the hope and dreams of racing the winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby, a future Breeders' Cup champion, or a stakes winner at Keeneland, Del Mar, Saratoga, or Fair Grounds. According to research done by The Greatest Game, most owners do not invest in this industry for profit, but I believe there comes a point when the economics are so out of balance that no amount of hope and dreams can justify the expense.

Historically, owners have been the primary leaders in the presentation of our industry as a sport, but in the background in the presentation of our industry as a business. Owners have the potential to bring world-class business expertise into the industry, but our diversity has kept us from becoming more involved. We must create a vision of our future, from an improved presentation of our star horses, to a broader fan base, and improved economic condition for all stakeholders. It is not a matter of owners making a case for a larger share of the existing revenues, but a case of promoting Thoroughbred racing to a higher level and benefiting directly from our investment in the sport.

The true investors are the owners, tracks, and fans. All others derive their livelihood from that investment. It's time the owners begin to influence not only the sport of Thoroughbred racing, but the business of Thoroughbred racing as well.

Gary Biszantz is chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and owner of Cobra Farm.