This week, the Paulick Report continues a new series interviewing young people in the Thoroughbred industry. Despite the recent economic recession and resulting shrinking of the Thoroughbred industry, some members of Generation Y are choosing to launch careers in racing. Every other weekend, we will ask these young professionals what issues they're most concerned about, and how they think they could be solved.
Peter Aiello is the announcer and director of simulcasting at Hialeah Park, and was the announcer for Gulfstream Park's summer meet this year. He graduated from the University of Arizona's Racetrack Industry Program and interned for Horse Racing Alberta, and also took guest announcing stints at Rillito Park, Tampa Bay Downs, and the Arizona Fair Circuit. He has also served as the announcer at River Downs.
PR: What got you hooked on racing, and why?
PA: Strangely enough, it was going to Hialeah Park with my family as a kid. When I was three, my grandma bought me a pink jockey suit from the gift shop and from that point forward, I was hooked. Both my grandfather and father liked to bet both horses and greyhounds (my grandfather was actually in the greyhound business) so for many years, that was the only exposure I had to the industry.
PR: How and why did you decide to make your career in the business?
PA: The ‘why' is the easy part. I was always (and still am) of the belief that if you like what you're doing, you never truly work a day in your life. So, when the time came to decide what I wanted to do with my life, I thought “I enjoy horse racing more than anything else. I think I'll pursue that”. I discovered the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona and from then on, I donned my blinkers and was focused on that goal. When it came time to apply for college, I submitted only one application. Risky? Maybe, but by then I was a horseplayer so a gamble didn't feel as significant to me as it might have been otherwise. I got a scholarship through the Race for Education, for which I remain eternally grateful.
Taking advantage of opportunities presented to me while at the University of Arizona via Rillito Park and the Arizona Fair Circuit, I broadened my skill set and accepted my first job out of the U of A as Assistant Racing Secretary at Prairie Meadows thanks to Derron Heldt and Dan Doocy. Because I'd developed a wide skill set while in school, I was in a position to not ONLY be an announcer. Soon after, the track announcer job came open at River Downs, I seized the opportunity and succeeded in my dream.
PR: Was it intimidating for you, as someone who's at the beginning of their career, to be starting out in an industry that's undergoing some change and uncertainty?
PA: The intimidation came from trying to find a job in a consolidating industry, let alone the job I wanted. I've been very fortunate that way: zigging when I should have zigged and zagging when I should have zagged. I do wonder how things will shake out not only for me but for others as the industry contracts more and more.
PR: From your perspective, what is the biggest issue currently facing the Thoroughbred industry?
PA: Simply put, unity. We have far too many stakeholders with far too many interests to do anything as a unified front. Horsemen want bigger purses, but don't support the entry box. Racetracks want better fields, but have poor stable conditions. Small tracks want the big tracks to help them. Big tracks want the small tracks to close and see them as a “cancer” on the business (simply ludicrous in my view). Simulcast revenue is being fought over by guests, hosts and horsemen alike. I credit this to everyone trying to get “their” piece of a shrinking industry, but it hardly justifies the behavior in my view. We need to get away from the “gimme gimme gimme” mentality and start looking at the business.
I'll give you a great example of how unity can provide huge dividends for ALL parties. In Alberta, there is an organization called Horse Racing Alberta. Think of them as the NFL or NBA of racing in the province. They provide racing regulation and marketing dollars for all tracks. The composition of the group is what is so strikingly different from other jurisdictions. On the HRA board, you have elected representatives from ALL facets of the business….breeders (both Standardbred and Thoroughbred), regulators, owners (both Standardbred and Thoroughbred), track operators, etc. When the time came to lobby the provincial government for slot machines and other legislative reforms, they went as Horse Racing Alberta…not separate groups. Before that process, board meetings were held to discuss the group's collective opinion. Some parties won, some parties lost but, at the end of the day, the decision was made by the group. I have to wonder if this process was done in Ontario if they would have been in a better position to lobby the government for much more favorable reforms. Make no mistake, they came together quite effectively after the rug was ripped out from under them. My point is, prior unity of all parties may have made the message more clear to government officials before the “Big Bang.”
PR: What do you see as a potential solution to the problem of too much segmentation?
PA: Easy–all parties need to make concessions and work together. Will that happen? Unlikely because, as I mentioned, the instinct is to preserve “your” piece of the pie. As a positive example, look at the “super meet” held at Monmouth a couple years back. The horsemen conceded days in favor of purse money in part because the racetrack thought their business would increase accordingly. It's really tough to tell and can be debated how successful that meet was as a whole, but the point is, both parties deemed it a success and the handle did skyrocket. I'm trying not to focus in on the horsemen versus track debate but that is by far the easiest target.
Some may say I am naïve with this view because business is business and everyone should try to garner as much as they can. In my opinion, that view is myopic, because the industry is contracting. Look at the industry as a ship. When the ship starts sinking, it doesn't matter where you are on the boat….you're going down too. We need to slow the leaks and need cooperation from everyone to do it effectively.
Now that I've said all that, I want to say that I don't believe the industry is in as dire shape as some would like to say. I found an old book in the Hialeah storage room that was written and compiled by Louis Wolfson of Harborview Farm in the mid-1980s. It was an intense examination of what is wrong with the industry and some suggestions were made on how to fix it. The point is, the problems identified in the 1980s are very similar if not identical to what we are seeing now. I look at this in a positive and negative way. Negatively, it reaffirms the industry's lack of action and acknowledgement of what problems are real and need fixed. But it shows that the industry is capable of living with, enduring and in some cases, evolving amidst these problems.
PR: Bearing in mind the complexity of the segmentation issue, are you optimistic about the future of racing in this country?
I honestly don't know how I feel about it but that's simply because I can't forecast what the consolidation will look like and what the time table is for when it takes place. I think horse racing as we know it today will look nothing like the horse racing of the future, both on and off the track. But I'd say this: we've endured far more (technology, lotteries, increased competition, a broken business model) for far longer than we're undergoing today. If the industry was to “die” as so many keep preaching, in my view, it would have happened already.
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