By T. D. Thornton
United States Representative Andy Barr (R-KY) opened the bi-annual Pan American Conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday by saying he was poised to reintroduce the Thoroughbred Horseracing Integrity Act “in the next couple of weeks,” although he did not touch on reasons why the legislation has not progressed to a vote in Congress since his original bill was filed in 2015.
Barr, who also serves as the co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Horse Caucus, told Pan Am delegates that “calls for reform must never be interpreted as destructive criticism of the sport we love. The reality is that there is tremendous competition for today’s entertainment dollar, and the industry must continue to innovate to continue to win over new bettors and fans.
“We hold the sport in high regard, [but] medication-related issues have undermined the confidence and integrity of racing and adversely impacted fan perception of the sport,” Barr continued. “And this perception of doping has compromised the integrity of our sport in the eyes of bettors and fans, and has hurt the export sales of American breeding stock to prospective buyers in foreign jurisdictions. The perception has been cultivated in part because Thoroughbred racing labors under a diverse set of inconsistent and conflicting medication rules that vary from state to state here in our country.”
Barr acknowledged that the industry has made “notable strides” in attempting to adopt uniform standards in recent years, “but the fact remains that today we still have a patchwork of inconsistent and conflicting rules.”
Barr said that he and supporters of a federal bill that provides independent medication oversight are “realists” who know that “some of racing’s challenges are not solely attributable to lack of uniformity…but we also recognize that eliminating any and all excuses for young millennials to become fans of our sport is an important innovation in terms of marketing and bringing more fans into the industry.”
Barr wrapped up his presentation by saying that “I would submit that the inability of the industry to develop its own national rules over the past 36-plus years is probably the most persuasive argument for why we need federal legislation today.
“To continue our progress and to actually move this legislation forward, to achieve our ultimate objective of staking integrity to national uniform standards, we must have a continual dialogue with the industry stakeholders,” Barr continued. “We want to be inclusive. We want to build consensus. We want to invite feedback from participants in the industry and have an open and inclusive discussion about how we can improve the legislation…and only with this consensus approach can we ultimately enact the reform we need.” @thorntontd
INT’L TRAINERS TALK ABOUT NEED FOR STANDARDIZATION
A panel of Thoroughbred trainers with international graded and group stakes experience discussed the pros and cons of shipping abroad for major races at Thursday’s Pan American Conference in Washington, D.C. The chief takeaway was that myriad considerations beyond purse money drive their decisions to race overseas.
While the lack of standardization in rules, judging, medication, and quarantine protocols topped the list of concerns, those worries were largely trumped by the prestige of being an international participant, the availability of more graded or group opportunities for horses, hospitality perks, and, most of all, the pure fun of trying something new.
“I think it’s a blast taking these kinds of trips, said trainer Ken McPeek, speaking from the perspective of a United States conditioner who has gone abroad. “I think some American trainers and owners are real conservative and worried about things that they’ve never experienced. But a horse race is a horse race…. If you’ve got a horse doing well and you’ve got an owner that wants to have a good time, it’s super…. Take a good horse, have a good time, take your best shot. If you pull it off, you’re a hero. If you don’t, you had a nice vacation.”
Criquette Head-Maarek, an internationally renowned trainer with Group 1 successes on three continents, largely agreed. But she underscored that prior to enjoying the experience of shipping internationally, it’s a trainer’s first responsibility to take care of the business end of the overseas journey. While a number of international racing organizations, like the Breeders’ Cup and the International Racing Bureau smooth the way, other countries, like Japan, Head-Maarek said, can be a bit more difficult to navigate, shipping-wise.
McPeek said that for American outfits, shipping outside of the U.S. is comparatively easy. “But when Europeans or Australians or South Americans come this way, the licensing needs to change,” he said.
Although the national licensing program in the U.S. is helpful, McPeek acknowledged, the fingerprinting process subjects “respectable people” to an unnecessarily arduous process. He also joked that any owner who attempts to get licensed in multiple states is at risk of killing off their potential career as a bank robber, because a licensee might have 30 sets of fingerprints on file with various regulatory and law enforcement agencies.
“When you’re licensed in one country, you should be licensed [in any racing jurisdiction] in the world,” Head-Maarek said.
Ignacio Correas, a fourth-generation Argentinian horseman now based in Lexington, Kentucky, said there can be issues with race judging and what constitutes a foul or disqualification from country to country.
“The rules, sometimes they’re good for you, sometimes they go against you,” Correas said. “You do the best that you can, and you know everything is done in good faith. That’s racing. You just take what they give you–or you take what they take away from you.”
Head-Maarek concurred: “They don’t judge races the same in different countries,” she said, adding that she has had horses both disqualified from and elevated into wins via disqualifications in Group 1 races.
Head-Maarek explained though, that she doesn’t have as much of an issue with race officiating as the international disparities with medication rules.
“In France it’s medication-free. I think it’s a very good rule. I think it should be like that in all the world, medication-free. You know exactly what you’re doing [when shipping],” Head-Maarek said.
“I have strong feelings about what we do here with medication in the U.S.,” McPeek said. “I think we need to eliminate medication from all graded races. And who takes leadership on that, whether it’s the Graded Stakes Committee or the Breeders’ Cup, I think we’ll see that the better off we’ll be. I don’t find the need to treat a horse with medication for those kinds of races whatsoever.”
Another topic that kept surfacing was the need for clear communication between horsemen and race organizers, and the benefit of keeping owners happy so they’ll not only want to come back, but will promote the event or racetrack to others in their home country.
When courting overseas horse owners and trainers for the annual world championship races, the Breeders’ Cup’s senior director of racing and nominations, Joshua Christian, said his organization tries to not only take care of immediate shipping, licensing, and hospitality concerns, but to also lay the groundwork for future relations.
Christian related the vignette of an owner who shipped a horse from England for a recent Breeders’ Cup, but the horse had to scratch several days before the race. Yet because of the full slate of social events and concierge-level service, the owner ended up thanking him for a great time.
“They didn’t even run, but they had a wonderful, wonderful experience,” Christian said. @thorntontd
THINK GLOBAL, ACT LOCAL TO REACH NEW MARKETS
Riffing off the old saying that “all politics is local,” a trio of international betting information providers and bet-takers gave insights at Thursday’s Pan American Conference about the need to present foreign races in ways that resonate with receiving-
market bettors if the rapidly expanding globalization of Thoroughbred simulcasting is to reach its full potential.
“I don’t really think it’s enough to just provide the pictures and the odds and the will-pays and hope for the best,” said Racing Post chief executive and editor-in-chief Alan Byrne. “It’s about raising the profile of overseas racing in the global market, and making sure that people ‘bump into it’ if you like, that they become familiar with the [imported] racing and have a way of forming an opinion which might prompt a bet. Really, the bottom line is it’s about giving a racing product from a new country credibility and legitimacy.”
Byrne ticked down a checklist of ways simulcast importers can engage and focus customers on races from other countries, including tailoring offerings to various international time zones, making sure that the quality of racing is emphasized over its quantity, and ensuring that presentations are supported by high-level statistical information that potential bettors are instinctively likely to trust.
Phil Siers, the chief commercial officer of Betfred Group, which operates over 800 betting shops in the United Kingdom, echoed the quality-over-quantity angle: “Good horses are good horses, and the fact is that a good horse can transcend [its home] market,” he said.
And while a variety of international simulcast signals might seem like a good thing for bet-takers, Byrne said “that presents as a challenge in terms of getting the attention of the audience and getting them to engage.”
Byrne continued: “Customers require the right data and information packages. People need a basis for their opinions. They need some guidance and insight from trusted, independent sources.”
John Hartig, the chairman and chief executive for Sports Information Group/Daily Racing Form, noted that simulcast signal importers shouldn’t view international simulcasts as competition to races in their home countries. Rather, he said, an international product influx “doesn’t cannibalize…it’s additive.”
Byrne followed up: “With the right product at right time, it draws an audience.”
During the trainers’ panel earlier in the day, a member of the audience had posed a question about the difficulty in studying foreign races in America because of the lack of “traditional” U.S.-style running lines. That topic was revisited in the horseplayers’ panel, and all three speakers stressed the need for delivering betting information on overseas races in a manner that locals can understand.
“You need to present the form and the data in a style and a format that the local market expects,” Byrne said. “And yes, there are arguments for a universal approach to past performances, but I think the reality is, you gather as much data as you can, and then you output that data in the style and format that the local customer is used to.”
Bettors in England and Ireland, Byrne also noted, can also be “disillusioned” by the fluctuating nature of U.S. pari-mutuel odds because they are so used to locking in fixed odds with bookmakers. A lack of uniformity in what constitutes a race disqualification from country to country can also be a “disincentive” for them to bet, he added.
“Make the racing product as accessible as possible to as many people as possible,” Byrne urged.
Siers noted that despite the panel largely agreeing in theory on the need to show quality simulcast feeds, the acquisition of packages of video rights and odds feeds from overseas entities can be difficult in practice.
One audience member from Sweden who said he is well-versed in navigating betting sites backed up Siers’ assertion by detailing how he had to search almost all day on the first Saturday in May to watch the GI Kentucky Derby online from his home country. When he finally succeeded (only by opening a new online wagering account), he said he was disappointed to only get the horses loading and then running America’s most important race, with zero pre- or post-race commentary available to him.
That type of inaccessibility doesn’t bode well for breaking through to racing’s coveted younger demographic, Byrne noted.
“The other thing everybody knows we needs to address is the generational shift, whereby there are more older people interested in racing than younger people,” Byrne said. “Racing has to do everything possible to increase its chances of being the sport of choice for as many people as possible. @thorntontd
FUTURE OF RACETRACK DESIGN ARRIVING SOONER THAN YOU THINK
You don’t need many fingers to count the number or new Thoroughbred racetracks built in the United States over the past several decades. But the opportunities for renovating and retrofitting existing facilities are ripe, and a panel of architects and sports facility design experts at Thursday’s Pan American Conference gave some intriguing insights on what the future of our on-track experience is going to look like in a panel titled “Racetrack & Facility Design.”
But to understand what lies ahead, Todd Gralla, the director of equine services for Populous, an international planning and architecture practice specializing in sports facility design and development, said we first must look backward to see how the expectations of racegoers have shifted over the past several decades.
“One big thing is that Baby Boomers were traditionists,” Gralla said. “They like to sit in a seat and watch. Beginning with Generation X, that has changed, and continues to evolve. Our younger patrons, they want to experience the event. They want to engage the event. They even want to impact the event. And whether that’s physically or through technology, they want to be a part of what’s happening…and the good thing is that experience generates revenue.”
Donald Dissinger, a senior vice president of EwingCole, a firm that has led the renovation plans for a number of prominent U.S. tracks, including Saratoga Race Course and Gulfstream Park, said part of his design strategy is based on the fact that “millennials actively seek out environments that foster social collision.”
Dissinger extrapolated on that thought: “Millennials are a social generation. They are, by and large, inclusionary. So grandstands at racetracks and buildings that segregate are not their interest. And [in racetrack projects we have recently worked on] we have merged all of those spaces into a single entrance, a single access, and start to repurpose those spaces.”
Younger sporting event attendees, Dissinger added, come earlier, leave later, and fully intend to socialize.
“Racing fits that mold beautifully. And I think what we have to learn how to do is reprogram from the paddock to the race and everything in between so it’s a series of seamless and connected events stimulated by great technology and purposed for large groups as well as small groups,” Dissinger said.
Gralla said his firm was recently engaged by the Georgia Horse Racing Coalition to come up with a concept for a new track in conjunction with the push to legalize pari-mutuel wagering in that state.
“This is a rare opportunity,” Gralla said. “You rarely in North America have an opportunity to create a brand new track.”
He said much of the Georgia design concept borrowed from new trends in Formula One auto racing, where customers now insist on engaging with the sport from non-traditional vantage points.
“The new way to view a race is from everywhere. It’s from the infield, it’s from the backstretch, it’s from all over the place,” Gralla said. The design included integrated aspects of a multi-use community, including entertainment, retail, residential, and recreational sports spaces.
“So it’s much more than a racetrack,” Gralla said. “It’s really a community unto itself with a lot of different activities occurring, and all of the infrastructure and build components are built on multiple uses.”
The new goal, the panelists agreed, would be to design racetracks that avoid empty tiers of seating and vast expanses of unused infields.
Technology will play a big part, too. Gralla said a survey commissioned by his firm revealed that 67% of Generation X respondents believed virtual reality devices will be the new way to enjoy sports. As an example, think of jockeys and horses wearing small sensors that let you see biological statistics, like heart rates and real-time speed data, as a race is in progress.
“But the interesting thing is, that less than 30% believed we will cease to attend in person,” Gralla said. “So almost everybody still believes that even though we’re going to have greater integration with technology, we’re still going to come together to experience most of our events together.”
He cited another recent survey that said many potential attendees at a new basketball arena agreed they would be in favor of paying $20 extra per ticket just so they could have power outlets at their seats to power personal technology devices.
“They’re very interested in experience. They will pay for experience. They will pay for technology at events,” Gralla said.
Other parts of the panel discussion focused on preserving history, and the architects batted around the idea why Saratoga, for example, feels so much more intimate than cavernous, often empty, Belmont Park.
The panelists discussed the fact that at Saratoga, horses walk directly through the crowd to get to the paddock. Similarly, at Keeneland Race Course, fans can access the backstretch, which lends to the connection with the horse.
“The horse is obviously the unique thing that we have as an equestrian sport,” Gralla said. “We’re ‘man and horse’ not ‘man and ball’ or ‘man and car.'”
Walter E. Lynch, the principal of the planning and development company that shares his name, is involved in the ongoing renovations at Laurel Park. Backstretch renovations have been completed, and the project will eventually expand to create a “Main Street” mixed-use design that links the nearby train station to the track with retail and residential space along the way.
“The easiest way for me to get somebody to buy into our project and tell them about the project is really not to have them come to a race,” Lynch said. “I get them out there at 7 o’clock in the morning to see several hundred horses training, and it’s an amazing sight.”
Gralla agreed, and said that’s why he’d like to see the public have better access to the backstretch areas, even during non-racing hours.
“I think people having a glimpse in the day of the life of a horse is is important,” Gralla said. “It’s also helpful in combating a lot of the misconceptions about how racehorses are treated. If people just knew how well these horses are treated, that would be an easier battle to fight.” @thorntontd