By Bill Finley
With some of the best purses in the world and perhaps the sport’s most iconic racetrack in Saratoga, New York racing should be a place everyone wants to race, but that’s not always the case. Joe Appelbaum, appointed last month as the new head of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association, understands that there are impediments that keep some owners and trainers away from New York. He wants to change that.
Appelbaum is one of two principals in Off The Hook, a breeding, racing and sales company with offices in New York and Ocala and says he’s been following New York racing for 30 plus years. Previously a member of the NYTHA Board of Directors, he expressed a desire to take over when prior president Rick Violette, Jr. decided not to seek reelection. He did not want to be one of the people sitting on the sidelines complaining.
Appelbaum wanted to be part of the solution and understands that perhaps nothing is more important for New York horsemen than getting the workmen’s compensation situation under control. The system is complex and it requires payments from both owners and trainers to cover jockeys and backstretch help, but there’s no doubt that because of what are likely the highest workmen’s comp rates in the sport, there are people staying away.
“There’s no question people have second thoughts about racing in New York because of the huge costs,” Violette told the Blood-Horse when still in office.
Appelbaum has already helped broker a deal with NYRA whereby during the current winter meet, any owner and trainer who has a horse finish fourth through last will receive a $300 credit toward the amount they must pay into various workmen’s compensation pools. It’s both an incentive for people to race in the winter in New York and a way to ease the burden on horsemen.
“NYTHA and NYRA got together as a way to help incentivize owners and trainers to race during the winter and both organizations know how burdensome the workmen’s comp situation is,” Appelbaum said. “When people are racing for slightly smaller purses in the winter, this is a small way we can help keep guys in the game and get them through the winter when we hit them with the workmen’s comp costs, which usually come in January.”
But Appelbaum knows that more needs to be done to bring down the costs and that, he said, is his number one mission.
“We think we have made some good progress by switching to a private insurer this year. We’re bringing down the premium a little bit. It’s the first step of many,” he said. “One of the things we want to do as an organization is to lower the barriers to entry to competing in New York, and workmen’s compensation is a great example of this. And this is just one barrier. We would like to make New York a more favorable place to do business as a horse owner so we can do more business here and trainers can have more horses to work with–and NYRA can have more horses to card races with.”
Though he said he understands that costs are high, he also noted that some have lost sight of the benefits of racing in New York. You may be paying more in overhead to compete there, but you’re also competing for huge purses and the competition level is not that tough in the winter once some of the bigger stables head to Florida.
“Clearly there are costs to doing business in New York, however there is not a state that rewards owners and trainers like New York does,” Appelbaum said. “l’m not just talking about Saratoga. Look at the purse structure at Aqueduct compared to the purse structure in states with more favorable climates this time of year and what it takes to win those races, what kind of speed figure you need to win, what kind of horse you need to win a race.”
Every track needs more horses than it has and NYRA is no exception. Appelbaum said he realizes that’s not just because of workmen’s comp issues. Instead, he believes that what he calls the “middle class” owners have been chased from the sport, and it is imperative that they be brought back.
“One thing I’d really like to work on is recruiting more owners to come to New York,” he said. “If you followed either the auction markets or, quite frankly, the owner’s standings over the last decade, what we’ve seen is a flight of the middle class owners. Horses now can sell for any amount of money or they tend to sell for nothing at all. Those small partnerships that were buying horses in the $50,000 to $150,000 range, which can get you a horse that can compete in New York, they have fled. The bread-and-butter owners fled after the last recession and we’ve had a real problem getting them back. That hurts for a number of reasons because if you have those guys, a trainer that might have 20 horses would [instead] have 30. That’s a big difference.”
Appelbaum would like to see NYTHA and NYRA work together to recruit more owners that fall into the economic level he discusses.
“It’s just old fashioned marketing,” he said. “Show them the beauty of the game and how much fun ownership can be.”
Appelbaum touched on a handful of other topics.
On winter racing, he believes a good balance has been struck and would not want to see NYRA cut any more dates.
“We have lost about 18 winter dates over the last three or four years, so the pruning has been done,” he said. “We are in a spot where any more cuts would make it difficult. Winter racing has benefits seen throughout the year. Its interlocked very tightly with the New York-bred program, which is important to our racing eco system throughout the state.”
On the possible consolidation of the two downstate tracks, he says he has confidence that NYRA will come up with an effective plan for all involved. As head of the horsemen’s group, he says a main priority is that whatever happens does not effect the number of racing days.
“We’re not naive and we understand the current political situation,” he said. “For us, what’s important is that we maintain opportunities to race in New York for as many horsemen as we can. We’re hopeful that the facilities reflect that. It’s not my place to comment on the specifics of the facilities. What’s important to us is we maintain the opportunities to race and maintain the quality of the racing facilities.”
He says a personal pet peeve is how people in racing seem to be stuck in the past, longing for the “good old days.”
“I think it’s really important for horsemen, racetrack owners, everyone in our game, to understand we have to modernize our thinking,” Appelbaum said. “By that, I mean there are a lot of people who pine for this idyllic time in racing. I’m not exactly sure when they’re talking about, maybe the mid-seventies. I started going to the track in ’84. Even then, everyone was complaining. It is important for us to have a modern approach and to evaluate where we are today in 2018 and what we can do with technology, modern management techniques, all the things we’ve learned in business over the last 30 years and apply that to the sport we love instead of complaining there was a better time. It might have been better, it might not have. Who knows? It doesn’t really matter. We are here today and we need to start thinking about what the next 30 years of horse racing should look like as opposed to what it used to look like.”