The Jockey Club: What Would We Do Without Them?
Things I thought I’d never say.
“Where would the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry be today if it weren’t for The Jockey Club?”
That thought occurred to me at the annual Jockeys’ Guild Assembly in Florida recently when I heard presentations on a relatively new injury database and baseline testing for concussions of riders. Both projects are dependent on The Jockey Club for either financial or technological support. These are necessary programs in the modern era of sport where the long-term effects of concussions and other injuries are under scrutiny like never before.
For those who may be new to horse racing, The Jockey Club is, indeed, a “club” – and a private one at that – but it is not comprised of jockeys. Instead, it is a somewhat mysterious organization of mostly wealthy individuals with an interest in horse racing who have been invited to become members. A small group of members called “stewards” are the de facto executive committee. There is no publicized criteria for membership or transparency in how The Jockey Club operates, other than its IRS Form 990, which, by law, is public record and gives some indication of its finances. The Jockey Club’s core responsibility is to be the registrar of the Thoroughbred breed but it has a much broader vision and mission today than its founders ever could have imagined.
When that “what would we do without them?” thought hit me, I flashed back to some of the other projects either driven by The Jockey Club or getting their critical support: the Equine Injury Database that is going to make a difference in prevention of injuries to racehorses; the push to create more fans for our sport through America’s Best Racing and the just-launched Jockey Club Tour on FOX televised racing series; the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, an area neglected by national organizations for too long; and Equibase, which next year will celebrate its 25th anniversary as the sport’s official database.
It’s doubtful any of these endeavors would have gained traction without The Jockey Club.
All of this happened under the watch of Ogden Mills Phipps, better known as “Dinny,” who has served as chairman of The Jockey Club since 1983. A cynic might say he’s been at the wheel as the industry drove itself into the ditch. An optimist would say he’s in the tow-truck, trying to pull things back on track.
Both would be right.
For too long, The Jockey Club served as an obstacle around which every new or progressive idea had to go around. If it wasn’t their idea, or The Jockey Club didn’t control it, the widely held belief was new ventures had no chance of succeeding.
The biggest example of Phipps and The Jockey Club exerting their influence was the death of the National Thoroughbred Association – which would have created an entity similar to the PGA Tour in golf where the “talent” (horse owners) controlled operations at a major league level. When the late John Gaines, who earlier created the Breeders’ Cup, brought this idea forward with support from many powerful horse owners, Phipps and The Jockey Club transformed it into the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which brought racetracks, existing horsemen’s organizations, the Breeders’ Cup and, yes, The Jockey Club into the decision-making sphere. Too many chefs ruined that soup, and the NTRA has little influence today on how the sport is conducted.
But that, as they say, is Turf history. Today’s Jockey Club seems more solution oriented than ever before, and that’s a refreshing thing, especially since everyone else in the industry is either treading water or looking for places to plug in slot machines or set up online poker games.
The one nut The Jockey Club has been unable to crack is that of structure, and the examples involving the concussion baseline study and jockey injury database demonstrate that challenge. Participation levels are low. The jockey injury database, for example, which is designed to collect information on any “incident” involving a jockey whether injured or not (i.e., thrown at start of race but not hurt), has about 10 percent participation, making the data inconclusive so far. On another front, there are tracks, including Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and Los Alamitos in California, that have not agreed to supply any information to the Equine Injury Database.
The Jockey Club’s response to that seems to be, “We’ll keep chugging along in hopes you’ll get on board, sooner or later.” As a former critic of The Jockey Club who will continue to voice my opinion in areas where I think the organization is falling short (Equibase being the best example), let me just say this: I’m on board. Without The Jockey Club’s leadership, this industry would be in far worse shape than it is today.