Safety At A Cost - By Dan Liebman

(Originally published in the December 19, 2009 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.)    

Suppose you chose a day and stationed survey takers at the entrance of every racetrack asking those who entered the grandstand three questions: Who is Rachel Alexandra? Explain the difference between an exacta and a quinella? What is the National Thoroughbred Racing Association Safety and Integrity Alliance?

What type of responses do you think would be received?

For one thing, the sample would be limited because, as we know, approximately 80% of all wagers today are placed off track. But, let’s assume for a moment either 100% is wagered on track, or we are also able to survey those at off-track sites as well as those wagering at home through advance deposit wagering systems.

One would expect a high response regarding Rachel Alexandra, considering the 3-year-old filly is undefeated this year, won a classic, defeated colts, and is one of the two Horse of the Year candidates.

Because we are asking those wagering on races, one would confidently assume most know the difference between an exacta and a quinella. If they don’t, then we truly welcome their handle.

One can only imagine the responses about the Safety and Integrity Alliance, though the name alone should provide a hint. But the best guess would be that few would know what the alliance is or its mission.

The alliance was born after the tragic breakdown of Eight Belles brought an avalanche of unwanted attention to the sport of Thoroughbred racing and breeding. But though unwanted, many saw it is a wake-up call that the industry needed to do considerably more in the areas for which the alliance was named.

To boil it down, a racetrack must first submit an application and later be inspected before it can be accredited by the alliance. To date, 13 racetracks have been accredited, and officials expect as many as 20 more could be by the end of 2010.

On Dec. 8 at the Arizona Symposium on Racing & Gaming, the independent monitor hired by the alliance, Tommy Thompson, released his initial report. Among the items he cited was the need to get additional racetracks to want to become accredited and to educate the public about the alliance’s functions.

“Racing fans need to buy into the alliance,” said Thompson, the former governor of Wisconsin and secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Unfortunately, both getting more tracks to buy in and educating the public boil down to one thing, and that is money, which is in short supply today. The independent monitor’s report states there are “serious concerns that more resources are needed in the coming years,” and that an “upfront investment needs to be made by all stakeholders in Thoroughbred racing to the alliance.”

Wagering on races in the United States, for the first 11 months of the year, was down 10%, about $1.2 billion. Purses paid to owners and horsemen declined 5.8%, more than $60 million. Gross receipts at Thoroughbred auctions in North America are off more than $300 million, about 30%, after falling $250 million in 2008. Stud fees were decreased in 2009 and for all but a few hot horses have been cut (or remained stable) for 2010.

So, many racetracks are making less; most horsemen are winning less; sales companies, consignors, and breeders are selling less; and stallions farms have cut fees, so they will take in less in both 2010 and 2011.

The work of the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance is vital to the industry. Just like a track cannot open if its elevators, fire alarms, and concessions are not inspected, so too its facility should have to pass muster in regard to its starting gate, safety rail, drug testing, etc.

Though even passing every safety and integrity standard cannot ensure another accident such as Eight Belles’ will not happen, it shows that the proper steps were in place.

But finding the funding will not be easy in these tough economic times.

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