The sixty-third annual Jockey Club Round Table conference took place on Sunday at the Gideon Putnam Resort in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Depending upon your perspective, it was either a marker of tremendous positive change for the racing industry, or a reminder of just how slowly things progress in the sport.
The conference began with a review of where the industry stands in relation to the report presented at the Round Table by McKinsey and Company in 2011. On some points, racing is looking pretty good; on others, not so much. On one hand, McKinsey had predicted that the annual handle, which was dropping at that time, would be down to $10.1 billion by 2014. In reality, Jason Wilson, president of media ventures at the Jockey Club, reported that total handle was $10.6 billion in 2014. Wilson attributed this relief to racing's increased presence on television.
Part of McKinsey's suggested course of action was for the industry to get proactive about controlling its brand. Penelope Miller, senior manager of digital media for America's Best Racing, presented numbers indicating that in just three years, the initiative has already succeeded in engaging fans both at the racetrack and online. On Saturday, Miller reported that ABR hosted several dozen “influencers” with sizable followings on blogs or social media at Saratoga Race Course for a day of racing that will be recounted to a combined 400,000 people between the influencers' combined audiences. In the first half of 2015, ABR-produced videos have garnered over 700,000 views online as of mid-June, Miller said.
McKinsey also suggested that one easy fix to improve the fan and handicapper experience would be for tracks to work together to prevent running races over the top of each other. Ask any weekend horseplayer whether this problem has been successfully addressed.
More technology is coming to racing—Wilson announced that by 2016, a web system will be in place allowing trainers to send in entries on their smartphones or tablets, streamlining the process and helping centralize data. Bill Squadron, executive vice president of strategic relationships for STATS, outlined a statistical database with predictive algorithms to help horseplayers and casual fans, coming to the industry in 2016. Rick Bailey, registrar at the Jockey Club divulged plans to require all foals to be registered by microchip by 2017, helping streamline the process of identifying horses. Critics would point out that other racing jurisdictions are already using microchips, and that microchip use in pets has been in place for years (New Zealand first required all dogs be microchipped in 2006).
Glass half full, glass half empty.
In the ‘progress' column, Dr. Kathleen Anderson outlined the American Association of Equine Practitioners' new ten-point plan for cooperative improvement of the racing industry, which included the intent to seek out alternatives to Lasix in hopes of phasing the drug out of competition. Whether you're for Lasix or against it, such a move would help quell public anxiety about the drug.
On the other hand, several of the organization's points could be construed as closing some loopholes from older reform movements—anabolic steroids are recognized as legitimate therapeutic tools in the treatment of some medical conditions, but in 2009 the industry moved to end the use of the drugs in racing based on public outcry. The idea was to put the public's mind at ease that the horses they saw on the track weren't “juiced up,” but the laws that made their way into state statutes did nothing to create penalties for trainers of horses testing positive for anabolic steroids outside of competition…meaning that some of the horses you see at morning workouts could still be getting doses of steroids, depending on how far they are from race day. The AAEP's plan calls for the halt of anabolic steroid use in training as well as racing.
The AAEP plan also seeks a reciprocal status for horses placed on the veterinarian's list for a health issue across state boundaries. While the reciprocity of suspensions and other sanctions for trainers and jockeys has moved more into the public consciousness in recent years, many racing fans probably don't realize that a horse categorized as lame in Maryland can run in New York if he passes the necessary vet checks.
Finally, former Olympic gold medal winner Edwin Moses, chairman of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, spoke at the Round Table to encourage racing to support the Horse Racing Integrity Act that has been introduced in the House of Representatives. The Act would turn over drug testing and regulation to the USADA, a non-profit, in accordance with the federal law.
Moses acknowledged after the meeting that while the USADA has focused on the regulation of human sport, its leadership is aware that any eventual hand-over of equine drug regulation comes with new and unique veterinary challenges. Moses said that the USADA has already been in talks with the Federation Equestre Internationale, which conducts testing for a range of equestrian sports such as dressage, show jumping, and eventing all over the world, all under the same rules.
Moses made reference to a presentation by the USADA's Travis Tygart in 2012—three years ago. It remains to be seen whether this year's legislation will pass through Congress, but even if it does, it's hard not to think that there are those in the industry who will fight control by an outside organization, tooth and nail for many more years to come.
Is the glass half full or half empty? No matter where you sat in the Gideon Putnam ballroom, it's best to keep pouring.
How do you feel about recently introduced federal legislation that would create an independent, non-governmental agency to oversee Thoroughbred racing medication regulations in all U.S. states? Take our poll.
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