By Bill Finley
What is The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation (TIF)? According to the press release announcing its formation, it has been established to create an active forum for the exchange and curation of ideas which will improve the overall prospects for the Thoroughbred industry, its stakeholders, and fundamentally, the horse. Those are huge goals and the person running the ship will be Patrick Cummings, formerly the executive manager of public affairs for the Hong Kong Jockey Club. He will be the executive director of TIF and starts his new job August 1.
Cummings was a recent guest on the Thoroughbred Daily News podcast, brought to you by Taylor Made. Excerpts from that podcast appear below.
TDN: Many people don’t know what the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation is, how it will work or what its goals are. Can you please explain?
PC: There is a reason for that, because we are truly just getting started. This is the brainchild of Craig Bernick, who wanted to start something that is completely different. He has sat on many of the boards of the industry organizations that are out there, he’s been in the meetings and was of the opinion that the complex ideas–and even the simple ones–aren’t getting completed. The sport is not improving as it should be. It should be growing and it should be more innovative. It got to the point where Craig said the heck with it, I’m going to start something on my own. He assembled a tremendous board of nine people coming from all areas of the industry. Too often like-minded people in racing go to their like-minded corner and talk about like-minded topics and reiterate those same talking points. We have people coming from many different areas. For example, we have Paul Matties, who is a significant bettor. The extreme opposite is Gary Stevens. It’s a very diverse board and the goal is to bring together active people who want to change the sport for the better. What we won’t be doing is talking about the pie in the sky or these lofty issues that are seemingly impossible to fix. The goal for us is to take issues that can be tackled and work within racing’s existing infrastructure. For us, the state of North American Thoroughbred racing can be summed in three main statistics over the last decade or so: handle is down roughly 20%; foal crops are down almost 40%; the number of races being run is down about 25%. If you take those three big factors and say what has happened, you have to ask yourself what are we doing to stop this? We’re starting from scratch. We want to take this venture from nothing to try to inspire the industry and advocate for change. I’m very excited to be coming home to do it.
TDN: It sounds like this will be a horse racing think tank. You want good ideas that will help the industry. Where will they come from? How will they be formed?
PC: You hit the nail on the head. Our new website will be racingthinktank.com. The ideas are not just coming from the board or from me. We are going to solicit input from anyone, industry stakeholders, fans, gamblers. A good idea can come from anywhere in this sport, just like a good horse can come from anywhere. But it’s about time that we started to curate those ideas and work together. A lot of people criticize what goes on in the social media landscape, but there are a lot of good ideas out there that get tossed about. It’s just that very little gets done. What we’re hoping to do is take some of these ideas, curate those ideas, have people submit ideas through racingthinktank.com and go from there. One of the heartening things about this is that once it was announced that I was coming back from Hong Kong to lead the organization, I had four different racing executives–and two from particularly big tracks–reach out and say how can we work with you? I think the industry is ready for this. A lot of people are exhausted and there is a lot of industrial malaise when it comes to talking about these very large issues, like Lasix, medication rules and state regulations. Those are not the types of things we are interested in tackling. We are looking for some simple solutions, for some broken windows and certainly some bigger fixes. The thing is, they’re out there.
TDN: Perhaps coming up with good ideas isn’t even the hard part. If you come up with something innovative and positive, will people in a sport that is notorious for not changing listen to you? Does that worry you?
PC: Yes. Horse racing is full of losers. By that I mean, there are far more losers in horse racing than in any other sport. It’s significantly different than any team sports that are out there. In the team sports, one team loses, one team wins. Half of the people, half of the fans, half of the sides are gratified; the other half are not. On any race day, the majority of people walk away as losers. You have to deal with a lot of losing in horse racing. So when topics arise where there is no easy way to win, people just fight. People fight tooth and nail to come up with any victory that they can–even when it’s obvious that changing something is vital. I keep going back to the numbers. Handle down, foal crops down, total races run down. Can we afford to keep doing the same thing and not try something different? We really have to. We’re going to approach this positively and very inclusively and see if changes can’t be derived. Frankly, we just have to try. We know most people want to reject change in racing, but we just can’t afford to anymore.
TDN: If I wanted to bet on tonight’s Yankees/Orioles game, there is a wealth of information available to me about the teams, the pitchers, how they match up, who can and cannot hit left-handed pitching, on-base percentages, etc.. And it’s all free. Not only does racing not have nearly as much data available, but whatever data is available is not free. In fact, it’s quite expensive. How can racing compete with other forms of gambling that give data away when we charge an arm and a leg for ours?
PC: This is an important point and something we want to tackle. We want to work with Equibase to come to a resolution and advocate for players as a whole. Of course, Equibase is partially owned by the racetracks and you would think the racetracks would want their customers to have as much information as possible. But it seems they more want the money that comes from the data more than they want people to have free access to it. Free access to the information could potentially yield greater play. You have to try some things first to see if that would work. I agree wholeheartedly that other sports are doing a far better job than what we are doing in America from a racing perspective. There are so many statistical programs and analytics experts out there. I would have to think a lot of people would like to get their hands on racing data, but they don’t have the opportunity to do so in an easily accessible format. There’s so much more that racing could have. I understand that there are limits and there are expenses associated with acquiring that data. Call me crazy but I could go to a racetrack and I could sit there in the stands and chart the races myself. The fact that any particular horse ran first, second or third doesn’t seem to me to be proprietary information that someone should pay for. It almost seems like it’s a public event that has taken place. I could chart the races myself, but Equibase does it for us. But the basic results should be widely available and they aren’t. That’s very frustrating to the modern player who is looking for as much information as possible. I’d like to posit maybe the opposite. What would happen if we unshackled the data and invited teams from universities to come in and have at it? Let people run wild with it and see what they can come up with on their own and then see what the impact on handle would be. Try to invite people to come in. The opportunity would be fantastic to take this age of analytics and apply it to racing. Let’s take the shackles off.