NTRA Membership Remains Uncertain

Who's in and who's out? Even the National Thoroughbred Racing Association may not know for a few more days -- at least.

At the end of October, 22 racetracks announced they would not renew their memberships in the NTRA for 2001. But that number appears to have grown in recent weeks. Or has it?

Though the NTRA had hoped for commitments from racetracks and horsemen's groups late last year, the "deadline" was extended into 2001 while the NTRA continued negotiations with Magna Entertainment, which owns seven tracks, and officials in the Mid-Atlantic region, where 12 tracks defected.

Magna chairman Frank Stronach said Sunday he was ready to come back but only if changes were made in how members of the Breeders' Cup board of directors are elected. Breeders' Cup president D.G. Van Clief Jr. indicated that change would take place quickly.

Word was circulating Wednesday that Magna is prepared to enter into a two-year membership agreement with the NTRA, and that a statement could be released within days. Stronach has said he will accept an NTRA board seat if his tracks rejoin.(see related story: Magna Rejoining NTRA)

The NTRA has hopes for commitments from all members this week so it can have an expanded board of directors in place for its next meeting in February. A list of about 75 member tracks posted on the NTRA's web site is outdated, in that includes the 22 that defected last year, as well as those that apparently didn't renew by Dec. 31, 2000, and have no intention to do so.

NTRA communications director Eric Wing said the membership renewal deadline "is not cast in stone." The organization is in the process of discerning which members plan to renew.

The NTRA did prepare a second budget for 2001 that didn't include the 22 tracks that defected last year, but it wasn't known how additional defections would affect the bottom line. Of course, if Magna gets back in, any shortfall would be more than eliminated.

On Wednesday, Louisiana Downs general manager Ray Tromba said his track probably wouldn't renew its membership, though he planned to discuss that with officials on the corporate level. He said he fully supports the concept of a national marketing organization for racing, but also must look at the bottom line.

"We have concerns (in our region) with Fair Grounds out -- and it appears it's not even on the bubble -- and Oaklawn Park out...that we'll be missing out on some of the synergistic effects of the marketing effort," Tromba said. "It's hard to carry the flag all by yourself. Here's the real acid question in my opinion: Is it worth the $155,000 we pay in (annual) dues? I have a hard time justifying that expense.

"Right now, it's a hard recommendation to make."

Operators of some small tracks claim they haven't gotten the attention they expected from the NTRA. Randy Fozzard, general manager of Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Ariz., said he believed his track was ignored, though NTRA officials have challenged that claim.

Finger Lakes Race Track in upstate New York track didn't renew its membership for 2001, and in fact has been out since November. Finger Lakes, which usually races at least eight months out of the year and generates healthy pari-mutuel handle through the New York off-track betting system, would pay about $100,000 a year in dues, hardly a small amount.

Finger Lakes president Christian Riegle said he doesn't care for NTRA advertising, which is available to tracks through a cooperative program, and saw no benefit when his track ran NTRA ads versus in-house ads. He also said he doesn't care for the TV Games Network, which is closely aligned with the NTRA.

"I think the ads have been weak for the past two years, and I can't go a third year," Reigle said. "If I don't use the (coop program), I'd just be paying a membership fee. On the positive side, I think the NTRA has a lot of good ideas, but it's trying to go in too many directions. The concept is good, but it needs to be reorganized."

Riegle said he considers Finger Lakes a "small" track, and that it appears the bigger tracks are the beneficiaries of NTRA programs. He said the "trickle-down effect" hasn't materialized.

One of the smaller tracks that never joined is Beulah Park in Grove City, Ohio. Track general manager Mike Weiss said he has attended many meetings and had planned to join, but couldn't pull the trigger.

"I believe in the concept that racing needs a national marketing organization," Weiss said. " I'm not opposed to the NTRA, but I never felt comfortable with it. The question I've asked a lot of people is, 'What have I missed by not being a member?' I asked that question to numerous track managers, and they all said, 'Nothing.' If somebody can give me the answer to my question, I'd be interested in hearing it."

In Ohio, only River Downs was an NTRA member as of Wednesday. Thistledown left the fold when Magna's tracks dropped out en masse, and the Ohio Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, which represents horsemen at the state's three Thoroughbred tracks, never has been a member.

As of Wednesday, the following tracks had renewed their memberships: Aqueduct, Belmont Park, and Saratoga, all operated by the New York Racing Association; Arlington Park, Calder Race Course, Churchill Downs, Ellis Park, Hollywood Park, and Hoosier Park, all operated by Churchill Downs Inc.; Canterbury Park; Columbus; Delta Downs; Del Mar; Emerald Downs; Eureka Downs; Fair Meadows Tulsa; Fairplex Park; Fonner Park; Horsemen's Park; Keeneland; Lincoln (Nebraska State Fair); Lone Star Park; Los Alamitos; Mountaineer Park; Sportsman's Park; Oak Tree Racing Association; Prairie Meadows; Retama Park; Ruidoso Downs; Sam Houston Race Park; Stockton (San Joaquin County Fair); Sonoma County Fair; Suffolk Downs; and Turfway Park.

Keith Chamblin, vice president of marketing and industry relations for the NTRA, had said Wednesday was the deadline for horsemen's groups to ante up for 2001. All of the major associations have indicated they will remain members through at least this year.

Arkansas HBPA president Bill Walmsley, an NTRA board member, said his organization renewed, and is working with Oaklawn Park on how it will pay its dues given the fact Oaklawn isn't an NTRA member and doesn't plan to rejoin.

Horsemen's groups not yet heard from are the Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, and Virginia HBPAs; the New Mexico Horsemen's Association; and the Pacific Coast Quarter Horse Association.