TUCSON, Ariz. – One of the topics being discussed among racing officials over the past two days outside the conference rooms at the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing and Gaming is whether the recent popular vote in Florida to ban dog racing could happen to horse racing in one or more states soon.
And many of those racing officials are now acknowledging openly that they are increasingly anxious that it could.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Symposium tackled the issue head-on, with a presentation from Marsha Kelly, a political consultant, about the Florida vote. Added to the ballot after years of pressure from a well-funded group seeking the ban, the Florida referendum passed in early November with an overwhelming 69 percent in support. Eleven tracks will close by the end of 2020.
Kelly provided a detailed autopsy of the vote during the 30-minute presentation, ranging from the industry’s complacency in countering the referendum’s supporters, to the complicity of some tracks that willingly traded their racing product for the guarantee to retain their slot machines and poker tables.
Most tellingly, Kelly said that supporters of the referendum were well organized and used a time-worn strategy: divide and conquer. Prior to getting the referendum on the ballot, supporters worked with the state legislature to allow greyhound tracks to keep their casino operations if racing was banned, and that eventually pitted dog breeders against the tracks, and some tracks against other tracks. The industry never was able to provide a united front after that.
“This is the same pattern again and again and again that we have seen from animal welfare groups,” she said. “Divide and conquer.”
She had some recommendations for the horse racing industry. One was to build alliances with other businesses that use animals, to construct a wide front able to fend off attacks. Part of the reason she recommended a broad alliance is that industries cannot take any support for granted, she said: in Florida, several prominent Republican legislators expected to stick up for the interests of private business went quiet when both Republican attorney general Pam Bondi, an outspoken Donald Trump supporter, and Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, expressed support for the referendum.
“You can’t assume the continued support of legislative leaders who have previously been allies,” she said. “A lot of people were not going to take on the daughter-in-law of Donald Trump.”
And she also said that any industry under attack needs to do its own work to clean its gutters.
“You have to weed out the bad actors in your industry,” she said. “Don’t let them spoil the barrel.”
Thoroughbred Idea Foundation advocates eliminating breakage
In earlier presentations at the Symposium on Wednesday, Patrick Cummings, the executive director of the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation, attempted to build support for several ideas that the TIF has begun pressing through the release of detailed position papers and public advocacy.
The first is the elimination of breakage, presented during a panel focusing on the needs of core horseplayers. In one slide during his presentation, Cummings calculated that breakage on the payouts for the three wins by Justify in the Triple Crown races cost bettors just over $482,000.
“That’s $482,000 that’s not being churned,” Cummings said.
Breakage currently goes to a variety of constituencies depending on a state’s rules or racetrack’s policies, although account-wagering companies are exempt from that variability, keeping all of the breakage for themselves, Cummings said. With the exception of changes implemented in New York in the early 1990s (at the behest of former Daily Racing Form publisher Steve Crist), breakage has hardly been touched since the industry adopted pari-mutuel racing nearly 100 years ago, according to Cummings.
The TIF is also pressing for the U.S. and Canada to adopt an interference rule called “Category 1” that would require stewards to weigh whether an offending horse would have been beat by the offended horse in order to disqualify the offending horse. It’s a nuanced difference to the existing rule in the U.S. – which has nuanced distinctions even among individual states – but Cummings presented data showing that countries that have adopted the Category 1 definition end up reviewing far more incidents and disqualifying far fewer horses.
“It is much more consistent, and the yield that you get from this category is one in which the best horse is prized, the best performance is awarded,” Cummings said. The Category 1 definition has been adopted in every major racing jurisdiction in the world, with the exception of the U.S. and Canada. The last two other holdouts, Germany and France, adopted it last year.
TIF was launched earlier this year, the brainchild of Craig Bernick, the owner of Glen Hill Farm. Cummings has been active at conferences throughout the racing world over the past six months, and he’s got more panel slots on the horizon. In the meantime, Cummings acknowledges that the organization has caught some flak for the first two ideas it has decided to champion, saying that critics have complained that the TIF is going after small change.
Cummings has pushed back on the criticism, saying that racing needs to make changes wherever it can to avoid slipping further into irrelevance, citing the fact that handle on racing has dropped nearly 50 percent in the last 10 years, when the figures are adjusted for inflation.
“There’s almost no change we can’t consider or implement soon enough,” Cummings said. “It has to happen. And a good idea implemented today is better than a perfect idea when it’s too late.”