On Friday, Churchill Downs awarded a check for $55,000 to the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. The donation was the result of a $5 per start fee donated by horsemen and matched by Churchill. Mike Ziegler is the Executive Director of Racing for Churchill, but came to that post after serving as the TAA’s Executive Director from 2012 to 2013. He discussed the TAA and the industry’s role in funding it with Sue Finley.
TDN: You were there at the very beginning of the TAA, and you once said the TAA originated out of a Thoroughbred Charities of America meeting where someone asked, `why aren’t we solving the financial aspects of this problem?’ Do you think that’s still a relevant question today?
MZ: Absolutely. I think that while tremendous strides have taken place and helped generate a fair amount of revenue, there’s still a lot more work that can be done.
TDN: In 2013, at The Jockey Club Welfare and Safety Summit, you gave a presentation where you said that people used to say it wasn’t their problem, but that you were happy to say that everyone had (by then) taken responsibility. Do you still feel that way, or looking back now, was that perhaps a little optimistic?
MZ: I think that aftercare is an essential aspect of the business that before five, or seven years ago wasn’t even mentioned. I feel it plays an important role. I think people know what it is. I think people don’t just automatically assume that it’s somebody else’s problem. But there is clearly still more work to be done.
TDN: You also put up a slide at the summit that said, “to fund the efforts of the TAA going forward, we envision small automatic mandatory contributions (your emphasis) from the various touch points from a horse’s career and these include: Breeders, sales companies, sales consignors, buyers at sales, owners, trainers, jockeys, tracks and breed registries. Other than a mandatory $25 registration contribution, that hasn’t happened. Why do you think that is?
MZ: I think that there still needs to be a critical mass before you can go mandatory across all those touch points. I don’t feel that there is anybody who is vehemently against contributing. It might just be that the institutional mechanisms to collect don’t exist across all aspects of the industry. The breed registry is a touchpoint where everybody is registering a horse and it funnels pretty quickly outward from there. I think it’s the burden of the TAA to communicate its value to all the participants at the sales so that when it does go mandatory, there’s no sentiment to push back.
TDN: Do you think it’s possible to go man to man, or at some point, it has to be up to the industry to impose it?
When enough people ask for it to go mandatory, I think it probably will. I don’t think we’re ready for that yet.
TDN: It seems like everyone focuses on their own constituency: jockeys have the PDJF, the National HBPA has a charitable safety net for horsemen, The Jockey Club has Grayson, racetracks provide childcare centers and other assistance for backstretch workers. How do you convince people that the horse is everyone’s constituent when there are so many other worthy causes people feel are equally important?
MZ: There are a lot of equally important causes, but at the end of the day, it’s about the horse and by definition, this was supposed to be a really small percent of a lot of big transactions so that the impact would be minimal across the board. It’s an obligation, and I think gradually people are realizing that it’s everyone’s duty.
TDN: The total amount raised by the TAA each year has flattened out. Does that concern you, and is it possible to move that needle without mandatory funding?
MZ: I do think it has flattened out, after an initial surge. I think it’s too soon to be discouraged by that but I think that because we’re going to accredit more organizations year after year, by definition, the more you accredit, the more you have to give, because the more people are going to get. There needs to be a call to action by the industry, to the people who aren’t yet participating at the touchpoints to do their fair share and not continue to be a free rider on this train.
TDN: What does Churchill commit to the TAA?
MZ: When I got here, we started a $5 per start through the paymaster program for the horsemen, and we match it dollar for dollar. It’s opt-out, but from what I understand, nobody has opted out. So it’s $5 per start by the horsemen represented by the HBPA and KTA and matched by Churchill.
TDN: What kind of feedback have you had from horsemen?
MZ: Nothing but positive. They are absolutely supportive of the program.
TDN: How much should tracks be committing, and do you have any idea how many other tracks are following your example?
MZ: We weren’t the first. The Stronach tracks were doing it first, but I do know that NYRA has signed on. When we first started the TAA, we looked at annual starts and if the tracks and the horsemen participated across the country, it would have been $4 million per year from the $5 contribution per starts. So there’s definitely still work to be done.
TDN: You were a big proponent of the accreditation aspect of the TAA. Why is that important?
MZ: I came into the TAA through my role running the NTRA accreditation program and seeing what I guess were some situations that the industry encountered of horses in bad care, and we needed to have confidence that that wasn’t taking place. And we still need to have confidence in it. The accreditation program does a really good job of ensuring that the entities that are receiving funds from the industry are taking care of the horses. I think to the really big donors, it was really important to them that the money was going to places where the horses were in good hands.
TDN: What are you most proud of with regard to your role in the creation of the TAA?
MZ: I was about 25 years old when I first got to the racetrack. I had a little claiming partnership with my friends and my father, and actually, we did pretty well with whatever we initially invested. We had this really good-looking dark bay, almost black, gelding who bled pretty badly, to the point where he couldn’t run any more. My trainer told me that he got him adopted by a little girl and I totally fell for it, hook, line and sinker. At that point, nobody was just adopting horses off the racetrack. Little girls weren’t taking horses off the track to ride in their back yards. Fast-forward to a few years later, and it clicked that that was a total bullshit story and I thought, `I have to help do something about that.’ I didn’t know any better. I couldn’t have known any better. Now, when you look at things like the OwnerView conference where you’re entertaining brand new owners in the sport who are being educated about having to plan for them after their careers are over before they even own a horse, that’s huge progress. So I’m most proud of the acceptance that aftercare is all participants in the industry’s responsibility. But we still have some work to do there.
TDN: What frustrates you the most?
MZ: The fact that we’re flat on revenue is frustrating. It’s not due to a lack of trying to grow the revenue. I think there are still touchpoints where people are not doing their part.
TDN: You quoted Mahatma Gandhi and said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” How do you judge us, right now?
MZ: I think it’s actually pretty refreshing to see how far we’ve come. You look at the jump to action with things like the Borrell horses by so many. I think it’s pretty refreshing.