(Originally published in the December 17, 2011 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
By Tom LaMarra - @JerseyTom on Twitter
The funny thing is the symposium has never been more relevant
Attendance is down. The exhibitor hall is half—maybe even a third—the size it was 10 years ago. There are fewer satellite meetings held by industry organizations. The resort bar isn’t as crowded, and the uncorking of $200 bottles of wine at dinner isn’t as prevalent.
In many ways the University of Arizona Symposium on Racing & Gaming mirrors the horse racing industry. There are fewer patrons, emptier facilities, and much less money spent on expensive meals and entertainment.
But it’s more than that. As one attendee said of this year’s event, held Dec. 5-8 in Tucson: “There seems to be a lack of energy.”
It has nothing to do with the Race Track Industry Program, which organizes and hosts the symposium, or with the students who participate in the program and over the years have landed many jobs in the pari-mutuel racing business. It has everything to do with the economy, malaise, and fear within an industry that has no collective idea what it wants to look like in the next 10 years.
In the same way there are questions about the purpose and role of numerous alphabet soup organizations in a business that is contracting; there is talk of the symposium’s relevance and importance in the industry. The funny thing is the symposium never has been more relevant.
For many years attendance at the event, which was launched in 1974, topped 1,000. This year it was closer to 500.
RTIP director Doug Reed noted, however, that this year visitors from outside the United States made up 21% of attendees, which represents a growing number. Reed said that’s a product of international stakeholders in racing wanting to interact with their North American counterparts, something that hasn’t been easy to do despite repeated calls for international cooperation and uniformity.
And then there are the RTIP students, many of whom are in their early 20s. A major component of the program curriculum is interaction with industry professionals throughout the year and during the symposium.
What seems lost on the industry, however, is the fact that year after year—in the face of seemingly endless negativity and dysfunction—there are young people with a passion for horse racing who actually want to make a living in the business.
Joe Harper, president and chief executive officer at Del Mar, said when he got started in racing, he and others “inherited an entrepreneurial business. We were handed a golden egg-laying goose. People were flocking to racetracks. It was a case of, ‘How could we mess this up?’ Well, the golden goose is gone.”
For now it is. But Harper said a positive outlook, an appreciation for the business, and cultivation of young people with new ideas are paramount for the industry’s survival.
The symposium serves another purpose. It’s one of a handful of conferences at which presentations aren’t vetted, speakers can speak their mind, and attendees can ask questions and make challenges. The symposium and these other events offer in-person interaction, a flow of ideas, and yes, controversy at times.
Remember, this is a democracy. Such transparency is needed, but unfortunately in short supply.
If you take a look at coverage of previous RTIP symposiums in The Blood-Horse or through BloodHorse.com, you’ll shake your head. Major initiatives have been launched at the event, but many unresolved industry issues involving the same players are addressed year after year.
There have been lively discussions and some strong back-and-forth between the audience and panelists over key issues in horse racing. The platform is there. Is it a failing of the symposium that issues never get resolved?
Of course not. If anything, the symposium has been quite effective in delivering a message.
If there have been overriding themes the past 15 years, they are a need for collaboration, integrity, and a putting aside of personal interests and egos. If attendees and the bosses who send them don’t get it, they haven’t been good symposium students.
Hearing is one thing; listening and absorbing are another. How many times does the racing industry need to hear the same thing before it listens and takes action?
The symposium, like horse racing, will never be what it once was. But that doesn’t mean it will be any less important.
It will be leaner, but hopefully meaner. The latter, of course, depends on what the racing industry does to reinvent itself.
The RTIP symposium gets a B-plus for effort. The industry is the one with the D-minus on its report card.
But failing doesn’t always equate to failure. There’s still time left in the semester.