by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am

By Ray Paulick

Ten years ago many of the grand poobahs of American racing gathered in Tucson, Ariz., for the University of Arizona Racetrack Industry Program's 25th annual Symposium on Racing. There was great anticipation of the event, in large part to get an update on the fledgling National Thoroughbred Racing Association's efforts to organize a “league office” and provide national leadership for an industry that had none in areas like marketing and television. The NTRA had commenced operations a year earlier, in 1998.

There's something about this game that brings out the knockers (no, Tiger, not that kind), and the NTRA was under intense criticism at the outset in many different quarters from people who thought a) their chief executives didn't know enough about horse racing; b) they were paid too much money; c) the “Go Baby Go” catchphrase developed by New York advertising agency Merkley Newman Harty was mindless; d) their first-year marketing campaign featuring Lori Petty (aka “Tank Girl”) was horrible; and e) horse racing's television ratings and the economics of the industry weren't getting any better and the NTRA had already been in a business a whole year!

Oh, for the good old days!

Pari-mutuel handle in North America during the NTRA's first year in 1998 hit an all-time record, of $13.8 billion, and it increased for the next five years, peaking at $15.9 billion in 2003. At the end of 2009, total handle in North America will be less than what was generated in 1998.

In 1999, when chief executive Tim Smith delivered a state of the NTRA address at the Symposium on Racing he spoke about increased television exposure, including a new series, NTRA Champions on Fox, and additional programming on the ESPN family of companies that would bring the total number of hours of televised racing on network and cable (excluding TVG) to 137, an increase in 40% over two years.

Nearly $30 million was spent on national and local advertising using NTRA-branded material in 1999. Inserts promoting major racing events were placed in Sports Illustrated and USA Today. There were NTRA “fan guides,” racetrack customer service training coordinated by NTRA, new events like the NTRA All-Star Jockeys Challenge, in-depth market research and increased lobbying in Washington, D.C.

Thoroughbred racing, for a brief period, was playing offense, an unfamiliar strategy for this industry. Sure, a few years earlier, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America (a trade association of tracks, not to be confused with the NTRA) hired an outsider, sports marketing executive Brian McGrath, to come in and play the role of “commissioner,” but his tenure was over almost as soon as it began.

Why is it this industry so often says it needs outside expertise, then bludgeons whoever is brought in under that guise because “he doesn't understand racing”?

Today, while its top executives are back at the Arizona Symposium on Racing, all the NTRA can do is play defense, a glorified game of whack-a-mole. There's no talk about growing the sport and its business anymore but of how to stop the bleeding. Racehorse injuries and fatalities here. Tote credibility problems there. Threats from Washington, D.C.  There is no such thing as NTRA marketing or television anymore. The organization's skeleton staff in Kentucky and New York is stretched to the bone, and its budget has been continuously reduced, now standing at about $10 million, a fraction of what it was 10 years ago.

What happened?

The organization's fate was sealed when Frank Stronach, not long after he started buying racetracks, declared he didn't need the NTRA for his Magna Entertainment to succeed (how's that working out?). Stronach petulantly threatened to drop out of the NTRA and joined with other short-sighted track-owning malcontents that forced NTRA executives to spend most of their energy keeping the coalition from crumbling. That's not a formula for success.

Any chance of building the NTRA into some semblance of a “league office” finally ended when the Breeders' Cup, which signed a joint operating agreement with the NTRA in 2001, ended its relationship five years later.

I'm not even sure why we have an NTRA any more. Its area of interest almost completely overlaps with the aforementioned TRA, with the lone exception of lobbying federal politicians to maintain tax breaks for horse owners (something, incidentally, the racetrack organization TRA should care about, since it needs horse owners to race at their tracks).

At that 1999 Arizona racing symposium, Smith introduced the NTRA's second-year ad campaign, one that featured the actor Rip Torn talking to chunks of turf and statues of jockeys like a crazy person. Torn hasn't had the best of times since then (witness his two arrests for suspicion of drunk driving), and neither has the original Go Baby Go girl, Lori Petty (she had some driving problems, too).

But both Torn and Petty have survived the ups and downs of life, something I can relate to as well. I'm not sure we'll be saying the same thing of the NTRA, which could be Gone Baby Gone before we know it.


Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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