Some two years ago, Randall Lane, the chief content officer for Forbes, and Bob Daugherty, an investor and educator, met for dinner and the conversation turned to horse racing. Both are fans of racing and they started to talk about why the sport isn't nearly as popular as the four major sports. The answer, they concluded, is that in baseball, basketball, football and hockey, the sports center around teams, leagues and standings. People fall in love with their teams, they root for them, they pay to see them play, they live and die with every victory and defeat.
That doesn't exist in horse racing, a sport where your rooting interest changes from race to race with each bet you make.
So what if racing could adopt the team concept? Will that help grow the sport?
Lane and Daugherty believe that it will, and that's why they have created the National Thoroughbred League (NTL). Ready to launch on Sept. 2, the league will consist of six teams representing six cities. League races will take place on five weekends, points will be accrued in the races and the team that has the most points when the season ends on Dec. 31 at Tampa Bay Downs will win $1 million.
“The idea is to take what works in pretty much every other sport,” Lane said. “Why not take that and bring it to this great sport, horse racing? It is America's original spectator sport. We're going to create team affinities. There are Yankees fans, Cowboys fans. You love your team and you love the players, the new ones and the returning players. People love those teams because they represent their cities. We want to do the same for horse racing.”
The NTL has already attracted an impressive list of investors. Team owners will include rappers Nelly and Rick Ross, NFL star Kayvan Thibodeux, the NBA's Danny Green and retired basketball player Baron Davis. Steve Asmussen, Chad Brown, Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland have also signed on to be part of the project. Tom Ludt, the former chairman of the Breeders' Cup, has been hired as the league's President of Horse Operations.
The six teams will represent New York, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Seattle, Nashville and Philadelphia. Each team will have a name, a logo and specific silks that will be their uniform. The teams will each consist of six horses. All horses will be owned by the league. They will be assigned to their teams based on a draft, not unlike the ones that take place in other sports.
It will be up to Ludt to find the horses. He said that he will soon start the process of buying 36 horses and will be talking to bloodstock agents to see what is available. Each team will consist of six horses. He said he will use various avenues to find the horses and will aim to make sure they are relatively evenly matched so that the races are competitive.
“I'm going to try to buy 36 horses that would be in that high allowance, small stakes level,” he said. “We're using tools and parameters, like Ragozin and Beyer numbers, to make sure the horses are evenly matched. We want to create competitive fields. We'll try our best to make sure the horses are at the same level.”
The NTL horses will not be allowed to run in non-NTL races.
If more horses are needed due to attrition, they can be acquired through a supplemental draft. The horses will remain members of their team as long as they stay sound and are able to be competitive in the NTL races. Ludt said that for the first year, most of the races will be sprints.
The series will start on Sept. 2 at Kentucky Downs, which will represent the Nashville market. It will then travel to Emerald Downs (Seattle), the Meadowlands (New York and New Jersey) and Los Angeles (Los Alamitos) with the final races held at Tampa Bay Downs. There will be three NTL races held at each venue and they will be spread out over two days. Each race will consist of six horses, one from each team. Points will be awarded to the teams based on where their horses finish.
Randall believes that one of the most appealing aspects of the league concept is that no horse will be retired prematurely to cash in on their value as a sire or broodmare prospect.
“We want to create stars,” he said. “In every other sport, when you become a star, you don't retire. You go on to have an even-higher profile. In racing, when horses become famous, they are generally retired because it is in owner's economic interest to do that. Because our horses are going to be owned by the league, you won't be able to do that. If we are ever fortunate enough to have a Flightline or an American Pharoah, those horses will race year after year and that will go a long way toward creating a fan base.”
Ludt said the plan is to expand and he expects more teams to come on board for 2024. He envisions having two divisions, eastern and western conferences.
The NTL is also looking to expand and simplify the wagering menu, where bettors can wager on their team, whether that means in a head-to-head competition with another team, or winning the overall championship.
The NTL team also hopes to bring the type of atmosphere found at racing's biggest events, like the Breeders' Cup and the Kentucky Derby, to their racing weekends. They see each racing day as part of a larger festival that will feature food, fashion, parties and concerts. The New York/New Jersey races will include a trackside celebrity chef competition and will partner with the New York City Wine and Food Festival.
“We want to have the same type of atmosphere they have with Formula 1,” Lane said. “The Preakness, the Kentucky Derby, those are incredible weekends. In the case of the Derby, more than 150,000 people enjoyed it. That's because it's not just a race, it is weekend-long celebration. Once a month, somewhere in America, we want to have an incredible lifestyle weekend centered around the great sport of thoroughbred racing.”
It will be a large undertaking and might need time to get established and grow, but Ludt said he believed the NTL will achieve the goals first set forth when Lane and Daugherty met for dinner.
“We're going to create competitive racing fields, wrapped around a great weekend of entertainment in the city and at the facility,” he said. “This is a concept that is really exciting for an industry that needs that bolt of energy.”
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