Challenges and Solutions is an ongoing series in the TDN.
ERIC HAMELBACK, CEO National HBPA
What is the most pressing problem that needs to be tackled in racing, and how would you solve it?
It's hard to narrow down and prioritize which problems are “the” most important–not to mention those which are not a reality, but are proclaimed as a problem by some within our industry. However, I strongly believe one of the most real problems revolves around protection and procurement of our national owners and trainers.
How many times have we heard, “We need to get more owners in the game?” My response: “Are we taking the best care of the owners we currently have?” While I certainly advocate for acquiring more owners, it is of greater importance to strengthen the ties we have with our current owners and trainers (many of whom also are owners).
A critical step is ensuring that owners are fairly compensated for their property and their horses' images and statistical records being used for wagering in this tech era by entities that benefit without contributing toward the care and upkeep of our horses. Also, today's owners deserve to feel good about being in our sport, instead of enduring the self-immolation by segments within our industry proclaiming–without facts–that we have public-perception issues, or that our sport is inundated with performance-enhancing drugs.
This is not denial. This is knowing the facts do not support those declared issues. We continue to see record crowds at our marquee events such as the Kentucky Oaks, Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Breeders' Cup and for local meets such as Keeneland and Oaklawn Park. The massive money spent from around the world at the top end of our auctions show no lack of confidence in the American product.
Fact: the amount of medication violations is less than 1%. Obviously we all want it to be zero, and there is more work to be done. But let's be truthful about how good of a job we are doing. We should be letting current and prospective owners know our sport strives very hard to keep everyone on a level playing field. There are winners and there are losers every day in our sport. On a day when your “team” is not a winner, let's not bash an entire industry to proclaim there had to be cheating.
We always will have concerns that need to be addressed, problems that need to be fixed, and yes, even rule breakers who must be punished. In that regard, we are no different from any other profession.
Meanwhile, our owners and trainers continue to see dwindling purse accounts. That is the problem we should be attacking in order to protect current and gain future owners and trainers. How can we procure more owners if we mishandle the ones we have now?
There are several companies making money off of our trainers' efforts and our owners' property. Are those owners being properly compensated? No.
We must stand up for our owners and trainers. What defines the rights of an owner? What rights do we have that we are not claiming in today's media and data-rich technological world? We are in a situation where the racetracks, advance-deposit wagering platforms and other media sources pat owners on the head and say, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine…”
For our success and survival, horsemen must have a genuine understanding of what belongs to us and what rights we have to the equine athletes' images and the data they produce. It is imperative that owners and trainers get a fair portion of the “product” their properties produce every day.
Owners must come together and decide if purse accounts are being properly supplemented from the fees collected by others in this business. There are entities selling statistics to horseplayers and fans as handicapping tools or to the racetrack programs. Do percentages of those sales go back to the purse structures? Who actually owns the collective rights of a horse race? Why should a bet placed through any ADW platform have less of a percentage going back to the purse accounts than a bet made on track? Especially, if those bets are made within the bricks and mortar of the very racetrack racing.
These questions are food for thought. The answers also are complicated. But what is clear is our representative horsemen's groups are the only organizations which can institute beneficial change. We are the only federally-authorized entities mandated to represent owners and trainers. Those who say otherwise are simply wrong.
What I consider as the pressing problem of our industry can be solved, but only through the coming together as a group with pooled resources to, if necessary, force change.
What do you think somebody from the outside looking in–somebody not involved in racing–would say the problem that most needs solving is?
Having brought first-time spectators to the track, I believe complexity is the problem we must address to gain traction among those not involved with racing on a daily basis. There are many aspects of a day at the races that are intimidating to the uninitiated.
We must produce a positive experience for everyone, especially for those who are new to handicapping.
In this day of instant gratification on the entertainment and social levels, we need to initiate and cultivate ways for increasing the churn of our handle.
We must recognize horse-racing data has been primarily in the same format for the last 50 years and change. We need to embrace being an industry so superbly suited for technological advances and use it to our advantage for horseplayers, be they rookies or regulars.
We must understand betting horses as a monopoly is gone and the competition for the gambling entertainment dollar will continue to be fierce. As such, we must do a better job of demystifying the sport and the acquisition of data for those new to racing.
We need to continue a focus on attracting new fans. Part of that is making racing less complex in hopes of generating more handle for our national owners and trainers.