Sounding Off - By Eric Mitchell


 (Originally published in the March 26, 2011 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell
The Blood-Horse recently cast a wide net into the pool of Thoroughbred industry participants and posed a simple question: What are five things you would do to improve racing?

Among the answers we got back from owners, breeders, veterinarians, trainers, jockeys, gamblers, racetrack executives, and other professionals were some of the usual wishes—increase purses, create uniform rules across all racing jurisdictions, and put more racing on television. But we also got surprised by a lot of specific and innovative suggestions, getting more than 50 unique recommendations from the 29 people who replied. All the responses can be found on pages 804 through 811, and you’re invited to add your own on the “Industry Voices” blog on

Some approached the question philosophically. California trainer John Shirreffs said racing needs to reconnect people to the horse. It has been a long time since we used horses as our primary mode of transportation, so fans need to be “more exposed to the unique and individual beauty of the Thoroughbred. It is something we all share when we pass through the racetrack gate from coast to coast,” Shirreffs said.

Then we got some more precise fixes from Kentucky racing secretary Ben Huffman and Hollywood Park’s vice president of racing Martin Panza. Huffman suggested capping the stakes purses for 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds in order to increase the purses for older horses as an incentive for owners to keep horses racing longer. Panza suggested that the windfalls from casino gaming have skewed the purse landscape by allowing $5,000 claimers to run for $30,000. In order to compete for horses and keep the fields full, tracks have to match these purses, often by pulling money from higher-quality races.

“We should be rewarding horses for running in higher-level races, not rewarding mediocrity,” Panza said.

Another opportunity for people to sound off about the state of the industry is coming. The Jockey Club has commissioned a study from McKinsey & Company to delve into the economic and consumer issues affecting Thoroughbred racing, such as the effect of takeout and exchange wagering, international opportunities for expansion, ways to increase the popularity of the sport, and the importance of improving the health and safety of the sport’s athletes. As part of this analysis, McKinsey & Company analysts are collecting comments submitted through editorials, blogs, and articles. The New York-based consulting firm will also be conducting interviews.

The results of the study are expected to be presented during The Jockey Club Round Table Conference Aug. 14.

While the news of yet another state-of-the-industry study may make many eyes roll and skeptics harrumph, the study is timely. The industry is at a crossroads, and a lot of questions are being asked. For example, what are the real effects of raising takeout? And as the industry continues to move through a state of contraction, it needs some clear landmarks on the horizon to steer by if growth is to return in any meaningful, sustainable way.

McKinsey & Company is a reputable firm that has already provided some valuable research on medication use. Granted, it took a few years for the recommendations in the consultant’s 1991 report to gain some traction, but it is still providing some useful advice today.

We cannot afford to be as casual in responding to this year’s study. The foal crop is shrinking. Purses are down. Handle is down for the third consecutive year. So let’s get all the questions answered, the information analyzed, and the latest report into the hands of the people who have the wherewithal to accomplish meaningful change. Then, after these leaders have digested the report, let’s see an action plan fed by a renewed spirit of cooperation.

Because at that point, all the industry can do is heed the words of the 27-year-daughter of Crystal Springs Farm’s farm manager Tom Goncharoff:

“Quit asking us what to do and do something!”

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