U.S. Racing Needs International Help

By Fred Pope 

Some people spend time thinking about how to win a big race. Some dream bigger. They think about how to deliver a bright future for the Thoroughbred breed.

The Breeders' Cup cancelled its ban of race-day drugs and some liked the decision, thinking it might help them win a race. Others felt betrayed and one man resigned. That man, Oliver Tait, works for Darley, the racing operation of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

Sheikh Mohammed dreams big. A part of his dream is playing out this month in Dubai on a scale only a country ruler can implement. But, his role in educating newcomers and supporting Thoroughbred needs around the world is well known and respected.

Mr. Tait said he resigned because Sheikh Mohammed wants the sport to be enjoyed and admired by a new generation of participants and enthusiasts. He noted other sports have distanced themselves from drugs.

The Breeders' Cup's attempt to go drug-free was not going to change U.S. racing. It would be like NFL football saying the Super Bowl will be drug-free, but not the rest of their games.

Is the drug image here a barrier for current and future generations, or is it just one symptom of the real problem in U.S. racing?

The real problem in U.S. racing is the lack of a talent-based structure, where like-minded stakeholders who own the talent control a top portion of the sport.

There are few stakeholders like Sheikh Mohammed. He has more skin in the game than anyone.  In U.S. racing, Frank Stronach probably has the most integrated investment.  Then around the world come major players like John Magnier, the Aga Khan, Terry Yoshida, Khalid Abdullah, etc.

These individuals and more share a vested interest in seeing racing enjoyed and admired by a new generation of participants and enthusiasts. They agree to the restrictions necessary for the sport to have credibility.

Sheikh Mohammed can do well in Europe, Dubai, Australia and Japan without U.S. racing and breeding. But his dream for the future includes the world's largest market, just like every worldwide enterprise has a U.S. strategy.

So, what are these leading stakeholders in an international sport to do with a country that is not only damaging the image of their game, but might also be hurting the future of the breed?

It is easy to do nothing.  It wasn't easy for Sheikh Mohammed to build Meydan in Dubai, or for the Aga Khan to save Chantilly. These are not casual stakeholders. But, I doubt they have ever considered U.S. racing a problem they could help solve.

U.S. racing has now exhausted the strategies available under the current track-based structure.  Every organization has tried and none can overcome it. Not The Jockey Club, not  the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, not Association of Racing Commissioners International, and finally not The Breeders' Cup.

Every aspect of the game will benefit from the introduction of a new, talent-based structurenot just drug policy.

The same U.S. laws that prohibit control of all Thoroughbred racing, allows like-minded stakeholders to join together and form a racing program within the sport. That's how Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NBA are able to take restrictive actions to benefit their brand, because their brand is the public face that advances the entire sport. 

Sport has one indispensible element—talent. It is movable and it is the legal basis for all sports contracts. It doesn't matter where the talent comes from, the entity that organizes, packages and presents the talent can change and grow the image of a sport quickly.

Ironically the one country damaging the international sport is also the only country where racehorse owners could introduce their own racing program.  This new brand can become a beacon that shines a new light on the game and assures common international rules to benefit the breed. The infrastructure is in place and ready to partner with talent-based stakeholders committed for the long run.

How is a talent-based structure different from the current track-based structure? Facility owners do not make rules in any successful sport. They do not determine how to package, present and promote the sport. The best example for racing is the PGA Tour, where the talent agrees to rules, contracts with the golf course owners, then packages, presents and promotes their brand of golf. It works.

Every sport has had to wait until strong individuals joined together and defined a talent-based structure for the highest level of each sport.  That is the segment within each sport the public enjoys and admires.

Perhaps less than 200 individuals worldwide have the means and ability to put aside rivalries and join together for the future of the breed. Right now the country with the most problems, the most need and the most potential to elevate racing internationally is the U.S.

Each country, except the U.S., has a structure to protect racing within its own borders, but as our problem here illuminates, we are missing an overall authority to protect the Thoroughbred breed across borders.  Who has the worldwide plan for the Thoroughbred breed? There is no international Jockey Club, just individual countries. 

There is a body called the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), which helps harmonize racing rules to allow owners to cross borders. It does a great job, but it is not a modern sport structure.

Even with IFHA agreements on rules, each country is an island. The mix of Jockey Clubs and government agencies provide the public face of racing and breeding, however, in each country strong individuals are the backbone and real power.

No matter how powerful, racehorse owners worldwide move to the whims of those who control racing events in each country. Some owners leverage these event organizers, but in no country do the racehorse owners call the shots in the same way the talent in other sports protect, monetize and expand their brand.

It is time for racehorse owners, both domestic and international, to step into direct involvement in order to protect and develop the sport and the breed. That is the void in our international game.

I won't suggest now how a new structure be formed or how it would operate as a business. I hope this piece encourages serious rivals to see the opportunity and need to join together for the breed.

There is every reason to believe that in the world's best market, a new brand of racing can be established quickly and communicate its benefits as fast as possible.

Fred Pope is a marketing executive living in Lexington. He can be reached at fpope@popead.com

© Fred A. Pope 2013


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