The Jockey Club kicked off its Pan American Conference Thursday in Washington D.C. with a program focusing on the international and gaming elements of Thoroughbred racing. The conference, which according to the event website was sold out, covered a broad range of speakers and panels on its first day.
The Paulick Report will bring you news and notes from the Pan American as well as the first International Forum for Aftercare of Racehorses, which also took place this week.
A few takeaways from Thursday's Pan Am presentations:
- One of the day's first sessions was a trainer panel focusing on the benefits and challenges of shipping Group/Grade 1 type horses out of their home countries to race. The panel included trainers Ken McPeek, Ignacio Correas, Criquette Head-Maarek, and Breeders' Cup Senior Director of Racing Josh Christian. Rather than being confusing, McPeek thinks that switching between left- and right-handed courses can benefit some horses. He cited the case of Hard Buck (BRZ), who had some physical issues he thought were resolved by switching to a right-handed British course. McPeek said horses training for possible European trips at his Magdalena Farm in Central Kentucky are worked to both directions and don't seem impacted by the course set-up when they ship.
- The challenge with shipping horses to and from South America to race isn't the shipping itself – it's the quarantine. McPeek and Correas agreed the long and restrictive quarantine procedures for any horse that has gone to the continent make it “impossible” to run a horse in the States after time there. Horses shipping into the Breeders' Cup from Europe have a relatively short quarantine period and are allowed to train during special hours at the track during that time. This is not permitted for horses coming from South America, and in fact, handlers aren't even allowed to touch horses during the week-long quarantine; McPeek said there are even restrictions on the feedstuffs horses may get, often resulting in weight loss for Thoroughbreds.
- McPeek also suspects the process of import from South America is especially challenging for fillies and mares, who go through reproductive cycles seasonally according to day length. When they transition from one season to the opposite season, McPeek said it can take up to six months for them to fully adjust.
- The American licensing system is cumbersome for foreign (and domestic) owners and trainers. For many years, owners and trainers had to be licensed in each state they operated in, although McPeek indicated this process has become slightly more streamlined. The fingerprinting process in particular may still seem startling for foreign horsemen. “What did [longtime owner] Mrs. Payson say?” McPeek asked. “‘Racing horses destroyed her career as a bank robber because [the government has] got 30 sets of fingerprints from Virginia Kraft Payson.”
- Criquette Head-Maarek said there seem to be differences in application of standards for the running of a race between countries on her side of the Atlantic. Head-Maarek has been on both sides of the issue: In 2009, John Gosden runner Dar Re Mi was disqualified after crossing the finish line first in the G1 Prix Vermeille for her involvement in what many perceived as minimal interference in the stretch. The next year, Head-Maarek trainee Special Duty was awarded wins via disqualification in both the G1 1,000 Guineas and the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches. “They don't judge the races exactly the same, even in Europe,” she said. “If you go to England, interference in a race is not judged exactly the same as in France because of the betting. Our situation in France is completely different. In England, you bet winner or place; in France there are bets on all three [top finishers], so your horse can interfere and get disqualified.”
- The racing industry in Asia and in Korea is bigger than many American race fans may realize. According to a presentation by Korea Racing Authority Executive Director Yang-Tae Park, Asia produces 33.6 percent of the Thoroughbred population (when the total is calculated between Asia, the Americas, and the European/Mediterranean countries). Not only does Asia have roughly 50 percent of available prize money among those groups despite hosting fewer of the races, it also takes in 58.5 percent of the betting handle across those three regions.
- The majority of bloodlines in Korea have American roots, but 75 percent of horses running there now originate from Korean-owned stock. Previously, the KRA had per-horse price caps in place for imported horses, which had Koreans buying in the middle market at U.S. auctions. Koreans purchased fewer horses at American sales last year than they did in 2014, but Park announced the caps have now been removed, which may increase the number of horses Koreans will take home in 2017.
- In a trend that will certainly interest U.S. horseplayers, KRA is seeking to reduce takeout to bettors as a means of improving handle, which has plateaued somewhat there. Park said KRA hopes to improve return to bettors from 73 percent to 78 percent in the coming years, as well as expand online wagering opportunities and importing/exporting signals on a larger scale.
- It's unlikely to be news to anyone who follows racing, but a horseplayer is more likely to play casino games than a slots player is to bet racing. Scott Wells, president and general manager of Remington Park, is able to put numbers behind the trend: In his experience, 25 to 30 percent of racing customers play in the casino before they leave; only 5 percent of casino players bet racing (“if you really do a good job of it,” he said). Does that mean racing should avoid tying its business model to that of casino gaming? Maybe, Wells said, but you only have to look at Texas to realize resisting the connection does little to preserve the local Thoroughbred economy.
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