(Originally published in the April 2, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter
The National Thoroughbred Racing Association is caught in a vicious cycle. Racetracks’ and horsemen’s associations are looking for reasons to avoid paying dues to the marketing/lobbying arm of the industry. Then, hamstrung by limited resources, the association is criticized for not doing more, which becomes justification for not paying membership dues.
Down the spiral turns. Since the 2005-2006 budget year, membership dues to the NTRA have fallen 67% from more than $10.3 million to $3.4 million for the current budget year.
The NTRA is getting ready to take another hit from some horsemen’s groups.
During the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association annual convention in Hot Springs, Ark., several HBPA affiliates announced they would discontinue their NTRA memberships. A tight budget in tough economic times was one reason for withholding payments, which are incidentally for the current budget year. The other reason offered by some affiliates was an uncertainty they were getting their money’s worth.
“I don’t believe they are able to continue paying dues to remain (NTRA members), and some that are able to scrape by paying the money are questioning the current course of the NTRA and its programs,” said Bill Walmsley, president of the Arkansas HBPA.
Walmsley reportedly said there is “universal approval” for the NTRA’s legislative endeavors, but there is mixed support for the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance program to accredit racetracks. Horsemen also have a negative view of the association’s ties to the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. Many horsemen vehemently opposed recent efforts to lower the legal threshold for race-day Bute to 2 micrograms/ml from 5 micrograms/ml and are concerned that more restrictions on therapeutic medications, such as corticosteroids, are on the horizon.
These comments frustrate NTRA executives.
“I don’t know how you can say you see value in what the NTRA does on a legislative level and not see the value in safety and integrity,” said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of marketing and industry relations. “Those are the issues that we have talked about with Congress. You can’t just say it; you have to demonstrate it. Eliminating (anabolic) steroids was not a P.R. ploy. Getting tracks and horsemen across the country to embrace pre-race testing and TCO2 (total carbon dioxide) testing is not a P.R. ploy.
“I wish we could spend the energy required to demonstrate our value to our members on our strategic mission.”
How much the NTRA stands to lose is unknown. The National HBPA has 30 affiliates in the United States and Canada and has paid collectively for its members about $400,000 a year in dues. Depending on how many affiliates drop out, what the National HBPA pays could be as low as $200,000. The Arkansas HBPA is withholding $7,500 and the Kentucky HBPA is withholding $145,000. Walmsley predicted half of the affiliates will drop out.
Not an insignificant sum.
Maybe the NTRA of today is not what was originally envisioned, but the organization still plays a vital role in an industry that lacks any national focus. No one disputes that budgets are tight, but horsemen and racing associations should pay what they can to preserve some semblance of unity. Congress may come calling again.
Ex-racers Still Need Care
Founded with the best of intentions in 1984, the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation is now in the ironic position of having to defend how it cares for horses in its program. The situation arose after a New York Times article alleged that horses at some TRF contract farms are undernourished and in some cases starving, allegations the non-profit disputes.
People can debate the reporting all they want, but no one disputes that the TRF has financial problems—it showed a $1.9 million deficit in 2009—and that relations with its primary benefactor, the Paul Mellon estate, are strained.
Even as the TRF has taken steps to address the welfare of its herd and to improve its front-office operations, the controversy raises larger questions about how to deal with the ever-growing ex-racehorse population.
As with nearly all non-profits, the TRF has received fewer contributions since the economic meltdown while the demand for its services has increased. Today the TRF has 1,200 horses under its aegis—four times as many as eight years ago—and cannot accept any more. Other equine retirement and rescue organizations are maxed out, too. But dozens of ex-racehorses still leave the track every day, and it still costs an estimated $2,300 a year to care for each horse.
Without a reliable funding source such as a mandatory version of The Jockey Club’s check-off program or other industry initiative, the welfare of many ex-racers will continue to depend on the generosity of individuals.