Lessons From the University

For most of the last half century, one of horse racing’s unsung “heroes” has been the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program.  Virtually every segment of this industry—including the NTRA—has been fortified by the talent, passion and strong education that the RTIP graduates bring to their jobs in racing upon graduation.  

The NTRA was privileged last week to be a significant part of the University of Arizona’s 37th annual Symposium on Racing and Gaming.  While it is always nice to renew acquaintances with the many executives and officials who attend, my favorite part of the Symposium is meeting the latest class of students (representing an age range that is wider than you’d expect) who’d like nothing more than to work in the profession that’s already near and dear to their hearts.

Last Wednesday—before an audience that included students, racing professionals and other interested attendees—updates were provided on several important NTRA initiatives, including tax fairness for horseplayers, the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance, Web 2.0 and the Daily Racing Form/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.  Rather than do all the talking ourselves, however, we relied heavily on non-NTRA speakers to expound on various projects.  

First up was Greg Means who heads the NTRA’s lobbying team in Washington, D.C.  Means is a partner in the Alpine Group and is the industry’s point man in Washington on all things related to pari-mutuel horse racing.  He reported on current efforts to forge consensus on an Internet Poker bill that would also provide a revenue offset  for several much-needed tax changes for horseplayers, including elimination of the automatic 25 percent federal tax withholding on pari-mutuel winnings of $5,000+ at odds of 300-1 or more and a doubling of the reporting threshold from $600 to $1200.  These crucial tax changes and a clarification that the Wire Act has no application to pari-mutuel wagering authorized by the Interstate Horseracing Act have long been at the top of the NTRA’s legislative agenda.  NTRA has a seat at the negotiating table for Internet Poker based on the industry’s 10-year presence in the I-gaming market – a right secured by a key change to the IHA in 2000. Our fellow negotiators include key Senator staffers, the casino industry, Native American tribes  and the sports leagues, which  actively guard their  business from legalized gambling.  Our  effectiveness in protecting racing’s interests within this powerful coalition speaks volumes about the strength of our industry in Washington, D.C.

Next up was Stanley Bavlish, the 2007 National Handicapping Championship (NHC) winner.  Stanley was kind enough to take time away from his Subway Restaurant franchises (and his love of Pick 4 plays) to talk about  what the NTRA’s NHC has meant to him and his fellow horseplayers who have utterly embraced tournament play over the last 10 years.  Stanley represents the standard we’ve come to expect among our tournament players and horseplayers in general: a well-educated, successful entrepreneur who’s absolutely passionate about horse racing. He was outspoken in his advocacy that more tracks, OTBs and other venues embrace NHC tourneys especially with the news of the increase to $2 million in 2012.  Stanley made clear his view that the NHC is one of the most successful NTRA promotions ever because of its appeal to serious horseplayers - the very people who support  our industry with their wagering dollars.

John Della Volpe, the Director of Polling for Harvard University and the Founder/Managing Partner of SocialSphere, Inc., discussed the ever-changing landscape of social media.  He pointed out some things that racetracks and other industry organizations are doing well and other areas where we could be a bit more adventurous.  The good news, to hear John tell it, is that no sport lends itself better to the internet and social media than horse racing.  So we definitely plan to be on board as Web 2.0 morphs into Web 3.0.

Steven Koch—Vice President of Thoroughbred Racing at Woodbine—gave an extremely eloquent summary of the Alliance accreditation process from Woodbine’s perspective.  He assured the audience that NTRA Alliance accreditation is extensive and rigorous yet reasonable in its expectations for first-time applicants.  He also said it was a completely beneficial experience—not just because it’s the right thing to do or because it bolstered Woodbine’s already outstanding reputation for quality—but  because Woodbine benefited from learning and implementing  the best practices of other accredited racetracks that had previously been inspected.  Speaking from the audience, Mike Campbell, President of the Illinois THA and someone knowledgeable of the benefits of accreditation, urged horsemen to demand that all tracks where they race be accredited.  

The final “outsider” was slightly more familiar to many, but he came with the most hard-hitting message of the five.  The Alliance’s independent monitor, Tommy Thompson, was unable to attend in person so he delivered some sobering comments via video.  Governor Thompson told the gathering that while many good things had happened in the past 18 months as a result of the Alliance, he was disappointed that more racetracks had not availed themselves of the accreditation process in 2010.  As many as 25 racetracks have indicated they plan to seek accreditation in 2011. It’s obvious that Governor Thompson will be watching to see if these tracks walk the walk in the coming year.

Yet again, Tucson was a reminder of how much those OUTSIDE the industry have to offer us.  What’s on your mind?  What are your key priorities as we near the end of 2010?

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