HEARING IGNORES FANS

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am

Have you ever been to one of those business meetings where the boss calls his managers together and “wants feedback” on an idea that, it's clear to see, he has already decided to put into play? That's what Thursday's Congressional hearing, entitled “Breeding, Drugs, and Breakdowns: The State of Thoroughbred Horseracing and the Welfare of the Thoroughbred,” was all about.

The members of the subcommittee on commerce, trade and consumer protection weren't at all interested in getting feedback from a broad mix of Thoroughbred industry participants. If they were, they would have invited track owners, jockeys and someone representing the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium to testify.

Most glaring, however, was the absence of any racing fans and horseplayers — the people who fuel the entire multi-billionaire-dollar industry with their bets. They would have had plenty to say. Where were all the fans?

Thursday's hearing was all about reinforcing the predetermined opinion by some – if not all – of the subcommittee members that racing and breeding is in dire need of some form of federal intervention. It was a two-act play, masterfully choreographed by acting chairwoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and ranking Republican Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, who tipped their hand that they will try and amend the Interstate Horseracing Act to employ guidelines that could radically change how the sport is regulated and conducted.

Many of racing's numerous flaws were exposed during the three-hour hearing, which came to an abrupt end when the members were called to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. The happiest man in the room when that happened was National Thoroughbred Racing Association CEO Alex Waldrop, the last of a dozen speakers providing testimony. House members were interrupted just before a question and answer session got under way in which Waldrop was likely going to be grilled.

In short order, those problems are:

– Drugs have contributed to a decline of the Thoroughbred breed and Thoroughbred racing

– Research, drug testing programs and horse rescue/retraining efforts are severely underfunded

– The lack of a central authority or national regulatory standards, and the existence of state-by-state regulations, have led to dysfunction

– Existing industry organizations and perceived industry leaders have failed miserably to address the problems successfully

Allowing Congress to interfere with any industry is a frightening thought, given some of the pointless and idiotic questions directed at the two panels. For example, if one of the Congressman had his way, inbreeding would be banned. What's next, nicking? However, doing nothing under the present industry leadership is the greatest risk we can take.

The uninformed comment about inbreeding was far from being the most outrageous aspect of Thursday's hearing. It was the complete absence, both in body and spirit, of the racing fan and horseplayer. To my knowledge there was only one mention of fans (by Waldrop, in response to a question) throughout the day, as if they didn't exist. Let's not forget that the word “consumer” is part of this subcommittee's name.

Shame on the committee for not including racing's ultimate consumers who fuel the industry's revenue engine.

The NTRA is attempting to put together a coalition of horseplayers, but the NTRA's track record is not exactly inspiring on many levels. But before we bludgeon that 10-year-old organization to death, it should be pointed out that divisiveness, lack of trust and reticence from other alphabet groups (TOBA, TJC, HBPA, THA, TOC, AAEP, RCI, TRA et al) to give up control emasculated the NTRA and prevented it from having the national oversight and major league commission office status it was designed to have.

Jockey Club CEO Alan Marzelli was pressed hardest by House members and ultimately came out looking the worst of all the industry experts during the hearing. When asked what authority the Jockey Club has to ban steroids and enact other recommendations of its safety committee, Marzelli said it has the “power of persuasion.” It was a pitiful and embarrassing moment for the industry, or a bad attempt by Marzelli to imitate Don Corleone of The Godfather.

The Jockey Club's same power of persuasion has been ineffective on getting a national license for racehorse owners. If that power of persuasion was so strong, a national owner's license would have happened 20 years ago when the Jockey Club created an ownership registry, which could have been a first step toward that goal. That boat never left the dock. Instead, we have a patchwork system of state licensing that is a poster child for the industry's complete and total dysfunction when it comes to regulatory oversight. Look at the situation involving Curlin's minority owners, the Midnight Cry Stable. Their horse, Einstein, couldn't run in New York on Belmont Stakes Day because of licensing problems, but could run at Churchill Downs a week later because Kentucky has different licensing rules.

If the Jockey Club's power of persuasion isn't strong enough to get something as simple as a national owner's license accomplished, how can we count on the same failed leaders to persuade 38 state agencies to uniformly ban steroids and enact other necessary change to move the sport forward?

By Ray Paulick


Copyright ©2008, The Paulick Report

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