The 75th annual convention of the Association of Racing Commissioners International in Lexington, Ky. convened on April 21. Opening remarks were delivered by Robert Beck, Chairman of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and were followed by a video welcome from Gov. Steve Beshear.
Representing the Standardbred industry were United States Trotting Association (USTA) President Phil Langley and Ted Smith, President of Standardbred Canada.
Phil Langley began by remarking, “the state of harness racing today is confusion; a mixture of success and failure. “Purse money has risen by $100 million in recent years, but if you don’t have racinos, you’re struggling.”
Langley acknowledged that USTA membership was down by about 10 percent, but hoped increased purse money would attract new owners and members back to the USTA.
He added, “Sometimes our policies contribute to our decline. Years ago everyone thought Off-track Betting Parlors would bring new business. But all it’s done is make fans leave the track and go to OTBs. It’s also true to with live streaming of races. I don’t go to the track, watch my horse race and bet the entire card with friends of mine. I stay home, watch my horse race and that’s it.”
He added four salient points. “We need uniform rules at least for medication standards and penalties. It’s been a nightmare for years.
“Our present testing system doesn’t work,” insisted Langley. “Instead of 20 labs in 20 states, each with million dollar budgets, why not one central lab with a $20 million budget? How much more could they actually do? We might be able to do enough research to get one step ahead of the bad guys instead of four steps behind.
A horse owner, Langley understands the reason why each state’s racing commission requires a license. “I’d just like to see it made a little easier, keep the owners happier.”
He was emphatic about integrity and the continued relicensing of “undesirables.” “We deny 100 to 125 people every year because they have committed serious offenses. But they move to a new area, spin a yarn about how they’re reformed or served their time and they get a new license. Then we’re asked why we licensed them. We didn’t, the commissions did. Racing, especially for repeat offenders, should be a privilege, not a right.”
Smith delivered a perspective on Canadian harness racing. “Breeding and racing go in cycles; we’re at the bottom now. The number of mares bred last season was down 17 percent. Standardbred Canada’s membership also dropped 12 percent.”
He said that in Quebec where there are just 50 days of racing allocated for 2009, combined with the insolvency of the shuttered Hippodrome de Montreal’s operator, Attractions Hippiques, breeders have been dealt a death blow.
But Ontario tracks host marquis events like the $1.5 million North America Cup and younger horse Breeders Crowns. Purse increases in Ontario Sire Stakes and the Ontario Mare Residency Program are significant incentives keep Ontario racing strong.
Smith said racinos increasingly view racing as an expense; an undesirable appendage. He said racing needs a uniform set of rules and emphasized the need to keep bettors happy. “Players don’t like fluctuating pools with 20 percent takeout.”
He noted Standardbred Canada adopted a plan that moves them beyond their core functions into stimulus and marketing. With the slogan “Driving Harness Racing” Standardbred Canada launched a multi-year initiative to re-energize racing with events like the Adrenaline Festival and Extreme Horse Racing.
The Conference will remain in daily sessions until Friday, April 24. (The Horseman)