By Sue Finley
In mid-December, John Phillips was elected president of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) for a two-year term. The TDN's Sue Finley sat down with him at the Keeneland January sales as he started his tenure to talk about his goals for the organization.
TDN: Why did you take on this role, and what do you hope to accomplish?
JP: I took on the role because I am and have always been, as my father and my grandfather before me, enamored with the sport and I think it's important for this sport to survive. I believe the TAA is one of those pillars which will help it survive. And so when it was offered to me, after a lot of thought, that's what I decided to do. I decided to take on the TAA role.
Ideally, I would like to see funding for the TAA–and the cause of the TAA, which is to accredit and support the retraining, retirement, humane management of thoroughbreds post racing career–to substantially increase. I think in order to do that however, we're going to have to expand the approach that we take and, maybe more importantly, the mindset that industry participants have relative to the TAA.
TDN: What does that mean?
JP: That means that we need to encourage support for the TAA not just as a charitable or philanthropic endeavor, but really as much as a way to protect the industry, a cost of doing business if you will, like insurance. Such will assure that the sport has a cache or good will manifesting in public opinion. Our sport has participants who are totally enamored with the creature, who may have come to this sport because his father or grandfather were, such as myself. Or we have successful businessmen or women, who may have started out handicapping, who have never been around horses, and yet are fascinated with horse racing as a business or intellectual challenge. Horses are the franchise. The sport is the entertainment. Or he/she may enjoy the social aspect, the pageantry of it. But for whatever reason, however we all come to this sport, we must take care of that which makes it a sport. No one wants to go to a racetrack and have no fans, no purses. The reality is we have to protect the sport and in order to do that, we have to control and affect those things which we can control, and one of them is what happens to the thoroughbred after racing.
I look at it perhaps differently than most. I always appreciate people who are totally passionate about the animal. There are those who look at the horse as almost a pet, to be respected as part of the family. And yet I realize there are people who have very little relationship with the horse, and look at them as simply livestock, a commodity, but nonetheless have an enthusiasm and appreciation for the sport. Whichever way the participant approaches it, the bottom line is that the post-racing treatment is an increasingly significant part of how the public looks at and judges the sport and if we don't respect that, if we bury our head in the sand, we jeopardize the viability of the sport moving forward.
TDN: Do you think that people in the industry bury their head in the sand because they are afraid that the number is so big that if we start thinking about it, it's going to swamp us economically?
JP: The number is large, and larger than we would like to admit, but I don't think simply because the goal of having a significant impact is a challenge, that we are going to ignore it. Furthermore, it is never going to be 100% resolved. We're never going to get close to perfect on this issue, but we can certainly do significantly better. I believe we can make a substantial impact. In short, I think that while the challenge is large, we can substantially address it. If I felt otherwise, I certainly wouldn't have accepted a role in the TAA.
TDN: But do you think that people shy away from it because they feel it's too big to solve?
JP: The answer, more specifically, to your question is there are some that think it's too overwhelming to tackle. But it isn't. Some may think we are suggesting retirement homing for tens upon tens of thousands of horses; we are not. But I think most people are simply not focused on the issue and how to resolve it. They simply have not paid attention, put pen to paper and done the basic actuarial work. Most of it–most of it–is a matter of blissful ignorance.
TDN: So what is the number?
JP: Actually, there have been some numbers thrown around. I know it's significantly more than where we are. Two, three million dollars annually for the TAA is not sufficient. Even if you could add in independent fundraising we need to do better. The total annual number may be north of $15 million per year. But those numbers could be calculated on an actuarial basis, but I'm not sure we really need to find the actual, precise number. We're so far from it, we just know we need substantial improvement. I would love to set some goals. A good goal for us now would be $10 million annually, and I think that is actually doable provided we get a change in the mindset of our participants. We need total buy in. Every aspect needs to be participating in the protection of the sport. Times have changed. Sensitivities have changed. We have plenty of empirical data to suggest that attention to animal care is much higher than it has ever been and more a part of the decision-making process for the general public. Yes, there are more vegans than there were a century ago, but that's not our issue. What is clear is that the center has shifted as well. And it's recognizing that shift that we simply must address from, if from no other point of view, a business point of view. I never want to discourage or disparage those who have a moral or personal value support towards aftercare or retirement or humane management. These indeed may be our base. But for those who do not think in those terms, and there's no sense of getting into that debate, as those are personal values; they can certainly understand and agree upon valuing the sport. Indeed, all of us, regardless of how we are involved in the sport and regardless of our personal values, and regardless of our level should be able to recognize the importance of protecting the sport and listening to the shifted center of public opinion.
When I talk about supporting the sport with a diversity of participation, I mean to include not only from whence people come geographically but in what income bracket and whatever role they have. I do think it's very important for us to encourage everybody to understand that this is an integrated economy. You cannot just be in Saratoga and say, “It's not my problem,” any more than you can be at Mahoning and say, “let the rich guys address it.” It is a global economy, and at the very least, this has to be understood, it is totally interconnected and nobody–whether they are a feed company, a farrier, a vet, an owner, breeder, trainer, at Mahoning or Saratoga–is immune. We are all facing the same fundamental issue, and we need to recognize that. Nobody is immune.
TDN: How do you accomplish that? Is it an advertising campaign? Is it man-to-man combat?
JP: Well, it certainly is not man-to-man combat. I think marketing and education is going to be important. How we posture ourselves as a sport and as the TAA, how we brand ourselves will be important. And I think we need to take a marketing tack that really educates. As they say in the NFL, protect the shield. For me, this is protect the sport. The study that The Jockey Club did revealed the sensitivity on this issue. It's empirical. It cannot be ignored. So those that make an investment, whether it's their career or it's just their sport, those who have farms, those who have horses, those who make their livelihood in this industry, need to start considering the sport when they consider the retraining, retiring and humane management of horses. They just can't ignore it. Fortunately the TAA represents a means to project the best of our sport in this regard.
TDN: Or else…?
JP: Or else we can see a demise the in the sport very quickly. There is no doubt that horse racing has dropped relative to other sports in this country. Our relevancy can be measured in column inches, which are few and far between these days, relegated to the fourth page of the sports section. We have gotten to a point where we have to televise our own racing. I'm not a doomsayer, but I am realistic about the kinds of sports entertainment competition that we face today and we cannot afford, as a sport, to be casual or unconcerned about what the general public is sensitive to. We tend to respond to crises, whether it's Ruffian, Eight Belles, Barbaro, and we've had those kinds of crises in aftercare, too, and that could just as easily blow up in our face if we don't have a firewall. It doesn't need to be a perfect firewall. It just needs to be a sincere, honest attempt by the industry, one that has significant impact. We will never solve it all, but it has to be significantly more impactful than what we have today.
TDN: Do you extend that argument to say that when people turn on their television, they are less comfortable than they used to be watching animals be used in a manner that may not be kind to them? And as a result, we need to put forth a positive story and a positive message in a manner that is so true as to be unquestionable?
JP: Part of that I agree with, and some of it I don't. I think the average guy or gal, whatever that is, respects and understands the relationship of people to animals. You don't have to be an extremist on one side or the other. So that having a sport that participates intimately with an animal I don't think is inherently objectionable. In fact, it can be inherently romantic or exciting, and it should be portrayed as such. However, that perception can be obliterated quickly by facts to the contrary. The reality could be that because people have less contact with horses and their beauty and their pageantry and their power, it can be an exciting gateway, an exciting rebirth of the relationship between man and animal if managed properly and presented properly. But if facts present themselves to the contrary, that it's abusive, frankly, racing could go the way of elephants in the Ringling Brothers Circus or Shamu at Sea World. That is to say, to disappear.
Part of the reason I have this sensibility is that my family was in baseball for 35 years, and the importance that they place on image and integrity, whether it's the NFL or Major League Baseball, is imbued in every aspect of their culture, and it isn't that way in horse racing.
TDN: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to say?
JP: In my life, I have always played sports, and coaches always told me, “Concern yourself with those things you can control.” A whole lot of this game, you can't control. There are a whole lot of issues that are totally out of one's control. You get a bad call, you get a bad break, and you can't worry about it. You do the best you can do. Focus on what you can change. But post-racing management of horses is totally within the industry's control. And I admit, that's what's so frustrating. We could change it overnight.
I've been in the trenches too long, and I know how people have traditionally tried to approach it, and that's why I'm looking for a broader way. I really don't want to engage in the passion-versus-livestock question. I want to focus on protecting the sport. If you look at the TAA, you can agree there are a couple of issues. One of them is that expanding the TAA's budget cannot be done by appealing only to the impassioned horse lovers. As one such person, we are easy targets. But that is proving to be predatory on the funding mechanism of the local retirement or retraining facilities. We have to figure out a way to work in conjunction with them, and not in competition with them. That's a huge issue that we have to face. And there are other similar practical issues which we will have to deal with as we go along.
But again, in my tenure, I want to emphasize that those who participate in this sport at any level at any location in any role must realize the public demands a good faith effort to address post-race retraining, retirement or humane management as necessary for those horses left out of the current reintegration system or markets. We heed this concern, the sport grows; we ignore it, we become a relic.