Can We Survive? Lessons In Human Nature From Louis Wolfson

by | 01.14.2016 | 3:07pm

In 1986, Harbor View Farm owner Louis Wolfson was fed up with the racing industry. He was so fed up that he needed a good vent, but since the Paulick Report's comment section wasn't available during those days, he self-published his own book titled, ‘The Future Looks Bleak For The Thoroughbred Racing & Breeding Industry: Can It Survive??'

Inside the pages of the cardstock-covered volume, which is packed with copies of his personal correspondence with various industry representatives and breeders, Wolfson seemed to lean toward answering his own question with a bitter “no.” He laid out his concerns about the need for a national governing body for racing, increased competition from new forms of gambling like the lottery, and public perception problems. The way Wolfson saw it, he and others had been calling for unification in the business since an unnamed conference at Hialeah Park in 1966. There was no time to waste on these things, Wolfson said. Death was imminent.

Without these reforms, Wolfson guessed the decline he had seen in the business over the previous 20 years would result in the number of tracks, farms, horses, and jobs decreasing by half over the next 20.

Fast forward to Jan. 10, 2016, when the Vision 20/20 Committee hosted a panel titled, ‘‘The State of the American Thoroughbred Industry,' seeking to define, for what has to be the hundredth time since 1986, what exactly keeps us all from moving forward. We need a unified front, the panelists stated. We need to keep up with increased competition from other forms of gambling. We need to improve our public image.

Of course, we haven't died out yet. Maybe that's why the 2016 panel's attitude on facing the industry's problems was a little lighter than Wolfson's 30 years before. Rather than the intense, “adapt or perish” approach Wolfson favored (he felt so strongly that he characterized what he perceived as underhanded political moves against him to be as shady as the Ku Klux Klan), modern discourse suggests racing regulators might have earned a participation trophy. One theme panelists returned to was that the public has a negative perception of the industry in part because industry pundits spend their time talking of nothing but what's wrong in the business, instead of taking a moment to congratulate themselves for how far we've come in recent years.

Evidence of this was delivered by Mark Lamberth, chairman of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, who pointed out that horse racing has improved leaps and bounds in uniform medication reform. Lamberth's measure of success is an RCI study which found that 65 percent of race jurisdictions with a given minimum of race dates used third-party Lasix administration rules, or rules dictating that Lasix administration be overseen by commission officials. Additionally, 83 percent of jurisdictions ran under the national uniform medication policies set forth by the RCI and the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium or are in the process of approving those rules (although that 83 percent included states that had adopted only a portion of the policies).

“We don't do a really good job of patting ourselves on the back,” said Lamberth. “We do a good job of pointing out our warts, and then when we do something right, it gets lost in the shuffle. We haven't done a very good job of telling the public that we are making progress [on medication reform]. We are making great progress since 2012, but all the public hears or sees is a New York Times article that castigates us and makes us look like we all wear black hats.”

Then again, it's been said you can't propel yourself forward by patting yourself on the back. Perhaps instead, we should focus our energy on looking within to see what we as individuals can do to solve racing's fragmentation. Wolfson provided a guideline for this, although it seemed to fall on deaf ears in 1986.

In his plan for a national governing body, he wrote that people in racing need to “set aside, or controlling at least temporarily, prejudice, envy (fear of being surpassed), and jealousy (fear of losing something).”

It was a suggestion that, like so many of his others, is as applicable today as it was 30 years ago. In other words, if we are to survive, we need to overcome our own humanity. Simple as that. I can't say that I think he's wrong, but it's hard to imagine horse trainers and Jockey Club officials hugging it out after going ten rounds in a therapy session with inflatable anger bats.

Then again, maybe it's not.

  • Andrew A.

    People like to gamble and they like gambling games of skill. Major jurisdictions need to have WPS takeouts at 15% and pay to the penny on breakage and 15% takeout exactas.
    Incentivising High Churn wagers and monitoring the handle/revenue. Churn is everything in gambling and the Industry seems to want more low churn wagers. Go figure.

    • AA, you know that people prefer to gamble on things involving no skill – otherwise the racetracks would be funding the casinos.

      • Andrew A.

        Blended takeout is 5% to 7% too high at major tracks. Abusive takeout rates are the biggest problem when we talk about growing the game. There are other problems as well.

        • Ernest Vincent

          What are the percentages for gross profit markups for say clothing, furniture etc? Perhaps 10 times that of racing.

          • brussellky

            People don’t buy 20 items of clothing and furniture every day whereas many gamblers do make 20 bets every day. As you made another similar post earlier I felt it necessary to clue you in on what I thought was self evident.

          • Ernest Vincent

            Operating expense – “the cost to do business” – are realized from the net profits subtracted from the gross profit. Same for all bizs. But racing per cent is very low in comparison to most other businesses.

      • Garrett Redmond

        Great and very valid point.

    • Sal Carcia

      Andy – What we can figure is there is a complete disconnect between the stakeholders of the industry and the horseplayers. Maybe, they are too busy fighting with themselves.

  • Debbie Rhodes

    Well we are still kicking. The good horses keepcoming up. Barbaro, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Zenyatta all the animals that catch our imaginations. Keeneland continues to set attendance records. Saratoga has American Pharoah days. The Breeders Cup appears in primetime. Racing is growing new fans, viewers and owners.
    I believe we are on an upswing.

  • A penny for your thoughts

    According to the pari mutuel stats since 1990…in 1990 there was 9.3 billion wagered on USA racing peaking at 15.1 billion in 2003 and down now to 10.6 billion for 2015. The last 5 years it has been at 10+ billion

    From 1990 to 2003 there was a 6 billion increase (9.3 to 15.1 billion)

    The eye catching number is that there has been a 71% drop of ontrack business since 1996 (2.9 to 1.1 billion)

    Horse racing has its issues but in no way is it dead. With that being said, it needs the right people at the right tracks to survive and companies like Penn Gaming, Delaware North, Churchill Downs, Caesars Entertainment etc should NOT be in the racing business because they don’t give a rats ___ about the sport we love

  • Robbie Osment

    We need a racing commissioner! Like all other sports

    • Perhaps something on the lines of the soccer or athletics model would work?

  • Bein

    Does the public even have a negative opinion of horse racing as we are constantly being told? Or, could it be that a small percentage with very loud voices over influence our thinking on the subject?

    The excitement and outright love we see for racing’s stars just doesn’t seem to support the negative narrative. Also, instead of constantly touting the industry’s efforts to address what’s wrong in racing, couldn’t we just have a little pride? Most people who think drugs are rampant in racing don’t even know horses are tested. Wouldn’t it be more effective to share the truth of what is done to thwart drug use and cheaters instead of the constant promise of “We’ll do more, public! We’re making progress!”

    I don’t know if this makes sense, but I’m just tired this angle. If someone cheats, punish them. If someone discovers a new substance, find out what it is and test for it for the next jerk who tries to use it. Throw the druggies and cheaters out. Keep it simple and have some pride.

  • Luis Peña

    I’m reading this from South America and thinking – Americans take everything for granted. You want to see bad, look at the state of racing below the U.S. That is bad. Purses that barely reach 1,000 for allowances, stakes worth nothing, tracks that don’t pay out purses, takeouts of more than 40%, horses that are not worth 10 dollar, breeding industry that’s just a hobby because it’s mismanaged and no one can make one single dollar profit ever. That’s bad, not the state of racing in America today. We envy America.

  • Sal Carcia

    When the NYTimes did its brand assisination of horseracing, what struck me was how defenseless the industry was to the claims made by the NYTimes. Some of the quotes from the industry in NYTimes even agreed with the authors.

    Quite frankly, horseracing lost all of its national marketing when it gave up on the NTRA as its main national marketing arm. The marketing people at the NTRA understood the importance of building relationships with national press. If NTRA marketing efforts was still around, I believe they could have prevented the NYTimes debacle.

    • What an absolutely absurd notion.

      • Betty Earl


      • Garrett Redmond

        Absolutely agree with you.

      • Sal Carcia

        Barry, I know that the NTRA was being trained by a world class marketing company on how to wage a successful Public Relations campaign. Obviously, they would have had a relationship with Joe Drape. Even, if they could have not prevented the expose’, they could have at least responded to it better than those who were quoted in the NYTimes series.

        This will be needed no matter what happens to horseracing. Even if the Federal Government approves the USADA as the governing body of racing’s drug matters, it will not automatically be interpreted as an improvement by the public.

        It is similar to the person who lumped Todd Pletcher in with some of the other trainers who commonly associated with drugging in the industry. You promptly set the person straight on the issue. That needs to be done no matter what happens in future on a national level about the industry.

  • Steve Wolfson, Sr.

    Ray, minutes from the 1966 Hialeah conference show remarkable foresight. My father chaired the meeting attended by racing and breeding heavyweights from throughout the. United. States. Lou Wolfson was lauded for his leadership and perspective, and he came away from the conference encouraged by the great enthusiasm shown and was hopeful that the industry might see what seemed so obvious to him. Major themes were unity and cooperation, but before long he ended up being pessimistic because of inaction, apathy, and self interest.

  • Peggy Conroy

    We certainly need more major positive coverage by all the mainstream media, not relegation to special site, stations or networks. TB’s are the most magnificent of all critters which all humans relate to and admire so can sell themselves if given a big platform. Even during the few major televised events we are seeing less of the horses and more just plain yap by talking heads.

  • we’re watching

    Aside of the cheating trainers and their vets, the focus should be on the competition of the wagering dollar. Racetrack takeout is way too high. I saw one prominent track trun a winner at 18-1 and the second place finisher was like10-1. The exacta paid about $188. I’m not a math major but twenty years ago this exacta would have paid out approximately $280 or better.

    Regardless of this, the takeouts are too high and needs to be addressed along with the welfare of the animals, and if we’re sticking them with needles in the middle of the night, something needs to be corrected quickly.

    • Ernest Vincent

      I’m always amazed that people who buy all kinds of goods and services find 17% to 25% Gross Operating (not net) Profit extraordinary.for racing.

      The total size of a/each pool and the number of winners of the comparison tickets/payoffs would also have to be known.

  • Ernest Vincent

    When it comes to payday for Sports teams – everybody gets paid. Handsomely. Every pay day.
    Owners, players, cheerleaders, equipment managers etc.
    Racing is a zero sum game. The difference.

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