The exchange of ideas was a central theme at The Jockey Club's 64th annual Round Table Conference, which took place at the Gideon Putnam Hotel in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. on Sunday morning. Two of the speakers on the schedule brought inspiration for improvement to American racing from other businesses: Jeff Novitzky, vice president of athlete health and performance for Ultimate Fighting Championship (better known as UFC, the leading mixed martial arts organization), spoke about anti-doping, while Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, spoke about customer service and integrity.
Novitzky, former investigator of a number of high-profile doping cases for the FBI and FDA, said in the course of his work with those groups he spoke to between 150 and 200 athletes about their drug use. One of the things he asked them, besides the basics of their drug acquisition and use, was why they began using performance-enhancers in the first place.
“The answer I got an overwhelming majority of the time came down to one word, and it was trust,” said Novitzky. “They said, ‘I didn't trust my teammates weren't using, I didn't trust my opponents weren't using, and most importantly, I didn't trust my sport's governing bodies cared about it because of the weaknesses of the doping program or in some cases the lack thereof.'”
With this in mind, Novitzky worked on developing the UFC's drug testing program through the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which acts as an independent party for collecting and testing samples. Athletes make themselves available for testing at all times, and may be tested no matter where in the world they are.
The program began in July 2015, and while Novitzky reports most test results have been negative (the rate of positives is less than 2 percent), he sees the program's goal as more of a deterrent than a police force—along with heavy penalties for violations.
“The other thing those athletes told me when I asked about why they chose to dope was that it was a constant risk/reward calculation,” he said. “There's no doubt about it: these drugs work. They work for humans, they will work for animals. They take an already great athlete, an already great animal, and make it better.”
Included in the 20 positive tests Novitzky referenced was one fighter, Jon Jones, who had been scheduled to compete but was pulled out of the UFC 200 – a major event held last month in Las Vegas – and another, Brock Lesnar, who competed in the event and was flagged for a potential violation afterward.
Education ahead of any program's implementation is crucial to accomplishing its goal as a deterrent, Novitzky said.
Engelbrecht-Bresges profiled efforts of the Hong Kong Jockey Club to elevate racing in that region and improve the sport's perception among its client base. The Jockey Club changed the way it wrote and funded purses for races to attract superior horses. Engelbrecht-Bresges also said the HKJC wrote a schedule of group races of different distances that enabled horses to remain on its circuit with options to run every three weeks.
HKJC also took a survey of Hong Kong residents to learn about their impressions of horse racing. Similar to America's McKinsey Report, it found that people found racing difficult to follow, and that the average age of its fan base was middle-aged (Engelbrecht-Bresges called the widespread perception of fans as “racing uncles”).
HKJC responded by pouring money into improvements to its facilities and making more detailed, free information about a horse's training record available to fans. Engelbrecht-Bresges presented a screenshot from a mobile phone depicting a horse's page in the HKJC system showing the horse's performance history, training record (with videos) and an F-to-A rating on its “relative ability” and “condition.”
One of the primary differences between Hong Kong and the United States, of course, is the strength of funding and the authority the HKJC has over its sport. Engelbrecht-Bresges still believes there are elements in his sport that Americans can learn from.
“We firmly believe that the philosophy of substance-free racing and the best practices to ensure implementation should be adopted by all leading racing jurisdictions, especially in the U.S.,” he said. “We should apply these best principles and practices especially to the best horses in the world in the best races.”
In addition to Novitzky and Engelbrecht-Bresges' presentations, the morning was filled with the now-familiar calls for industry reform. Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY) and Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) spoke about the Horseracing Integrity Act of 2015, with Barr apparently responding to some criticism of the bill.
“Calls for reform should not be misinterpreted as unfair or destructive criticism of the sport we all love,” said Barr. “But the reality is this: there is tremendous competition for today's entertainment dollar, and the industry must continue to innovate to win over new bettors and new fans.”
Kip Levin, CEO of Betfair and TVG, urged the audience to welcome the future of exchange wagering. Levin sought to clear up a few misconceptions about the practice: for one, Levin said, exchange wagering is only permitted on a horse coming in or not coming in win/place/show. Levin said Betfair does not take bets on a horse finishing last. He also said that he doesn't anticipate the platform will encourage nefarious activity surrounding horse races.
“Some have suggested that being able to wager against a horse to finish in the money somehow increases the chances of someone trying to manipulate the results of the race,” said Levin. “In fact, it's no different than someone boxing several horses in a trifecta and leaving other horses out — the bettor is, in effect, betting against the horses that are not in his trifecta box.”
Additional speakers at the event included Julie Broadway, president of the American Horse Council, and Chris Kay, president and CEO of the New York Racing Association.
Also at the Round Table, the Jockey Club issued two new rule recommendations from its Thoroughbred Safety Committee. One would prevent jockeys from raising their arms above their shoulder while using the riding crop; the other would require reciprocity on veterinarian's lists between jurisdictions.
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