New Board Member Says NTRA 'At Make-Or-Break Point'

Published in the Feb. 17 issue of The Blood-Horse
With crucial issues such as its Oregon wagering hub and board voting structure still unresolved, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association is moving forward with a new 15-member board of directors and a recommitment from a major racetrack that had defected.

In elections held the week of Feb. 5, three racetrack seats on the expanded board were filled by Craig Fravel, executive vice president of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club; Bryan Krantz, president and general manager of Fair Grounds; and Nick Nicholson, president and chief executive officer of Keeneland. They represent the West, South, and Midwest regions on the board.

Del Mar and Keeneland never have wavered from their support of the NTRA, but that's not the case with Fair Grounds, the New Orleans, La., track that was among the 22 that defected last October. When Fair Grounds bowed out, Krantz lost the board seat he had attained in early 2000.

On Feb. 12, Krantz was asked which issues Fair Grounds had with the NTRA had been resolved. "Really, none," he said. "Our rejoining is a show of faith that both sides are working diligently to resolve the issues. If the Fair Grounds is to continue to be proactive, I need to be a board member."

Those issues are the Oregon betting hub operated by NTRA Services, and the number of votes required for the NTRA board to take definitive action. The 12 Mid-Atlantic tracks that dropped out of the NTRA in October repeatedly have said the betting hub and governance issues must be resolved to their satisfaction before they will consider rejoining the organization.

"I appreciate the ongoing discussions, but we really have reached a make-or-break point," Krantz said. "I do think there's a reasonable possibility these things can be worked out."

If a sufficient number of Mid-Atlantic tracks rejoin the NTRA, a representative from one of them would fill the fourth independent racetrack seat on the board. If the seat isn't filled by March 31, the seat will become at-large, and another election will be held.

The point men in the negotiations between the NTRA and the Mid-Atlantic tracks have been Churchill Downs Inc. president Tom Meeker, an NTRA board member, and Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis. Mid-Atlantic officials said Meeker has been a key to forward movement given his ability to understand business issues from a racetrack's perspective.

De Francis said he's optimistic the flap over the Oregon hub, utilized primarily by the TV Games Network, an NTRA marketing partner, will be resolved, though he didn't offer specifics. He said the big question is whether the NTRA can implement "the necessary policies and procedures so that the organization stays focused on its primary marketing mission, and that it doesn't compete with its members."

The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority has requested a meeting with Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief Jr., now the NTRA's vice chairman of the board, to discuss "Breeders' Cup issues related with issues we have with the NTRA," said Bruce Garland, executive vice president of racing for the NJSEA. The issues aren't exclusive to the Mid-Atlantic region, he said.

Garland said the Sports Authority would like to host a Breeders' Cup, but that's nothing new. In 1999, Van Clief confirmed the Sports Authority had expressed interest in hosting the championship at some point; in fact, Meadowlands bid for the first Cup, held in 1984.

Garland said it would be "incorrect" to say the Mid-Atlantic tracks have made the host-site issue a condition for their return to the NTRA. New Jersey and Maryland have the only racetracks in the region capable of accommodating crowds of at least 50,000.

Van Clief confirmed that site selection and concerns tied to dissemination of the Breeders' Cup signal will be discussed at a meeting with Sports Authority personnel. For 2004, Breeders' Cup is open to the possibility of siting the event at a track that hasn't before served as a host site. In addition, "a different structure that would benefit Breeders' Cup and the recipient tracks" is on the table, Van Clief said.

As for the elections, tracks that represent about 98% of dues paid in the West, South, and Midwest regions participated in the elections. Nicholson, the Keeneland president who was instrumental in getting the NTRA off the ground in 1997, said he already has spoken with representatives from most of the tracks in his region.

"What I'm hoping to do is be helpful to the overall cause of a strong national office," Nicholson said. "I'll also be sensitive to the fact the Midwest region has a number of different issues, and a large number of small- to medium-sized racetracks."

Keeneland was a founding member of the NTRA with its $1 million contribution. In Midwest voting, Keeneland and Turfway Park, of which it owns a third, had by far the most votes (a combined nine) of the 10 tracks that participated in the election. In the West, Del Mar led the way with six votes, and Fair Grounds led the South region with four votes.

The board was scheduled to meet Feb. 15-16 during a retreat in South Florida.