Corey Johnsen March 8 at National HBPA convention in Las Vegas

Corey Johnsen March 8 at National HBPA convention in Las Vegas

Denis Blake/National HBPA

Johnsen Calls on Tracks, Horsemen to Work Together

Johnsen is president of Kentucky Downs.

The keynote address on the first day of the National Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association Convention March 8 in Las Vegas centered on partnerships horsemen can forge to improve the sport for everyone.

"By working together, we can improve the sport and generate more revenue," said keynote speaker Corey Johnsen, a horse owner and breeder as well as president and part-owner of Kentucky Downs.

"Yeah, there's lots to fix and lots of challenges," he said. "(But) I believe strongly the horsemen and the tracks are truly partners ... If you want to approach this like we're adversaries, we're never going to get there. We've all seen states, unfortunately, where racing has been shut down because groups haven't worked together. We're going to have disagreements. But if you respect each other, communicate, and understand each other, we can find common ground.

"When you find that common ground, you can work together and move things forward. And when you do that, they can't stop us." 

Johnsen noted that in the first year Kentucky Downs began generating revenue from historical racing, horsemen agreed to loan back part of their cut so the track could invest in the facility. "That made spending millions of dollars an easier sell," he said. "I was able to go to my partners and say, 'Look, the horsemen believe in this.'"

The HBPA, which has consolidated from two conventions a year to one, is holding panel discussions and meetings at the South Point Hotel & Casino through March 10, with the national board convening Saturday.

Other highlights from Johnsen's address included calling for standards to streamline licensing for horse owners and get paid purse money from tracks in different states.

"I'm sitting on a $46 check that I've got to get a notary to send in my request to get my money in one state," he said. "... The licensing piece of it, every state has different interpretations of a partnership. If we see an issue or a problem, let's put together a group of people and let's see if there are some best practices we can all utilize. Let's use a (Thoroughbred Racing Associations)- and HBPA-type committee to maybe look at horsemen's bookkeepers and what we can do to tweak this. Because it's almost there and could get better."

Johnsen also pushed for more manned surveillance at racetracks.

"I didn't have that much experience with surveillance prior to having a gaming facility at Kentucky Downs," he said in reference to historical racing. "But I am telling you, it is one of the greatest (management and security) tools you can have. Frankly, surveillance does not lie. I believe every shedrow in America should have surveillance for your benefit.

"I believe everybody in this room wants to play by the rules and have a level playing field. Medication and testing is critically important. Having investigatory procedure is critically important. Having penalties that are fair are important. But if you leave out surveillance, you can't really get there. And if someone is monkeying around with one of your horses, and he shows up on surveillance, all of a sudden you've got a defense."

Johnsen termed it a "touch disturbing" that "some tracks don't spend the marketing dollars they should." He said if resources are lacking, the deficit can be made up with volunteers from the horse-racing business, for example, doing morning workout shows for the public or being "ambassadors" to mingle with groups attending the races.

"With racetracks, it's not so much that they can't afford it, but they can't get the people to do it who are knowledgeable," he said. "So if you have a group that you can train, to talk to people about how to make a win, place, show wager or what an exacta bet is, that is invaluable."

Johnsen said innovation must be embraced to increase revenues. Besides historical horse racing, he mentioned EquiLottery, which is striving to tie state lotteries into horse racing as a way to grow the pie for both, and Betfair's exchange wagering. 

"You'll notice I did not mention gaming or slots or casinos," he said. "That's nothing against gaming states that utilize those. In the competitive situation, I understand that's important. But historical horse racing will work, if you want to compete against electronic gaming (and) slot machines. Just as important, it's our product. It's pari-mutuel wagering on historical horse racing. It's very difficult for them to take that away.

"But when you talk about casino gaming, virtually every state has come in and changed its formula to the detriment of horse racing, or they've changed the competitive situation to the detriment of horse racing."