For NTRA, It's All About 'Strength in Numbers'

For the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the racing industry, the phrase "strength in numbers" can apply to sponsors, the wagering public, legislative clout, and even movie theaters.

In comments made to the National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association during the organization's winter convention banquet Jan. 28 in Phoenix, Ariz., NTRA commissioner Tim Smith said the numbers are looking good and could get even better in 2003. Among the positive developments is anticipated growth in the sponsorship ranks.

When 2002 began, the NTRA/Breeders' Cup had three sponsors. By the end of the year, the rolls had swelled to nine. Fallout from the Breeders' Cup Ultra Pick 6 betting fraud dampened prospects only temporarily, Smith said.

The value of the sponsorship by John Deere, which hangs its name on the Breeders' Cup Turf Division, grew to more than $1 million in 2002 thanks in large part to the NTRA's group-purchasing endeavor. The NTRA's group-purchasing arm had a presence at the National HBPA convention.

"The silver bullet is group purchasing," Smith said. "The John Deere case study is a win-win-win. Sales are going very well. We're very hopeful we'll have a couple more major sponsors with that John Deere dynamic."

Smith didn't name the candidates, but he indicated negotiations are in the works.

Legislatively, the NTRA continues to face the usual obstacles such as educating the members of Congress. The Pick 6 fraud and resulting probe put pari-mutuel wagering under the spotlight, so legislators may be prone to ask some questions when the industry lobbies in Washington, D.C.

"I believe we'll have the burden of explaining what we're doing and why," Smith said. "One positive is there truly is strength in numbers ... I think we're a fairly substantial player in Washington."

One of the industry's biggest opportunities for national exposure will come this year with the release of the "Seabiscuit" movie by Universal Studios. The NTRA has formed an alliance with Universal to push the film, scheduled for a July 25 release.

According to the plan, "Seabiscuit" would get prominent advertising on nationally televised horse racing programs, and the NTRA would have access to cooperative advertising that would run in movie theaters in targeted racetrack markets, complete with customized tags.

Smith said even if the movie does "moderately well," it would be seen by more than 10 million people. "As I told the producers (at the Jan. 27 Eclipse Awards dinner), play hard, we have a big bet on you," Smith said.

Also during the NTRA banquet, Nat Wess, director of racing at Canterbury Park and the point man for the Claiming Crown, urged National HBPA affiliates to work hard to drum up nominations for the event to be held July 19 in Minnesota. The first round of nominations closes April 15.

"We really need help from the HBPA to let people in their area know when the nominations are due," Wess said. "Recognition is up. The last two days at Turf Paradise, when I was talking to horsemen, I introduced myself and they said, 'Oh yeah, the Claiming Crown is back at Canterbury."

The Claiming Crown, now in its fifth year, was held the first three times at Canterbury, and last year at Philadelphia Park. The National HBPA, Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, and host racetracks and horsemen's groups are partners in the $500,000-plus racing series for horses that have started for a claiming price within a given period.