The National Thoroughbred Racing Association was formed in the United States in 1998, but the path it is on today is very different from the one it started on, as Alex Waldrop, its president and CEO since 2007, explained to Amanda Duckworth.
Q: What do you think the biggest misconception about the NTRA has been over the years?
A: The promise of the NTRA distilled to its essence was to be an organization that created a national advertising and marketing campaign for horse racing. It wasn’t to create a league. We had to help the industry understand we are not a league office.
Q: What is the direction of the NTRA as it stands today?
A: When the NTRA came about, the expectation was “you are going televise 100 hours of racing a year and make racing ubiquitous”, but we had to abandon the TV strategy because it wasn’t sustainable and it wasn’t affordable.
What we have been doing constantly for the last 10 years is trying to find those things that we do that the industry values and that they will pay for that will keep the organization sustainable. I want people to turn the page on the old expectations and come to the 21st century and focus on what can be achieved and see that we have achieved a sustainable organization that relies not only on dues but on valuable programs that people support with their dollars.
Q: What is the NTRA’s sustainable marketing campaign if it isn’t pursuing television?
A: The National Handicap Championship (NHC) has evolved into that promise of the NTRA. That is our primary national marketing campaign, which is why it is such a high priority for us. It is a way in which we can achieve results that benefit the industry on a daily basis and do something that they can’t do for themselves. Tracks can hold qualifiers, but there really isn’t a close second to us in terms of handicapping championships that are out there.
It builds interest, it gets people enthusiastically involved, and our polling is very strong. People love the event and love the comradery. This year it was worth almost $3 million, and we are looking to take it to $5 million.
Q: The Eclipse Awards also belong to the NTRA, and yet they weren’t televised this year, even though there was enormous interest in American Pharoah. Why?
A: Since the awards have been in Florida, HRTV was our partner. They produced and broadcast it for us, wire-to-wire, for a very reasonable rate. They disappeared halfway through last year, so we were left without a broadcasting partner. We approached TVG, but that wasn’t going to work. So, what we did is go get the same production team and streamed it live for free on the internet. We felt that made it accessible, but we are always looking at new TV opportunities.
We also had a social media team. The whole #APandMe campaign was very successful. I gave the Horse of the Year award away to American Pharoah at Ashford, and I have to say I love that horse. He is beyond special. He is almost human. That 20-second video of me presenting the award to him and he is nuzzling it, it got almost 700,000 views across the industry. People sought it out, and it worked.
Some people love the Eclipse Awards, and some people say it is the most boring thing. It is a long night, and we know it is a long night, but we have 17 awards. We think every one of those awards is important, and trust me, everybody who receives an award thinks that award is important.
Q: Why did the NTRA launch the Safety and Integrity Alliance?
A: The day I started working officially at the NTRA, Barbaro died. Then a little more than a year later, Eight Belles was fatally injured in the Kentucky Derby. The other thing that happened was Big Brown. When Rick Dutrow admitted he was administering steroids to Big Brown, that ignited its own fire storm. It was equivalent to the Barry Bonds scandal, even though he was doing it legally.
At the opening of the Preakness telecast, NBC came to me, and I was getting questions from Bob Costas. He basically asked me, “What are you doing about this?” I said, “We care about every horse every day, but I can tell you one thing specific we are going to do. We are going to eliminate steroids in this business, and we will do it by the end of the year.” Honestly, I didn’t know exactly how we would do it, but by golly we did.
We then went to Washington D.C., and we sat down with one of the big law firms there and they said, “You need to form a self-regulatory organization, otherwise you are going to be faced with federal legislation. Take it upon yourself.” The idea was born for the NTRA Safety and Integrity Alliance. We came up with a 48-page document. It is very extensive. If anyone thinks it is window dressing or a PR plan, it absolutely is not.
We had a lot of people say, “Alex just tell the good story. Quit focusing on the bad, tell the good.” Okay, but the best story we can tell is that we are dealing with our problems. That is what the Alliance does. It tells the good story about what tracks and horsemen are doing to change how we contest and regulate the business.
Q: You are both the president and CEO of the NTRA and the chairman of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. How does that work?
A: The RMTC and the Alliance today are pretty much joined at the hip, which is why I can run the NTRA and be the chair of the RMTC. It is the same exercise. What we do with the Alliance, we get tracks and horsemen to champion model rules. We say, “Okay we are going to accredit you this year Fair Grounds, but we are going to come back in two years, and if you haven’t convinced the Louisiana Racing Commission to adopt what we call third party administration of Lasix, you aren’t going to be reaccredited.”
We’ve done 30 medications because they are good medications and veterinarians need them. Once we set a threshold, we go to the next step, which you don’t get in Europe, and say, “Here’s a suggested withdrawal time.” Europe will never give you a withdrawal time, and you will never know the threshold. They don’t really have the same due process rights we have to contend with in the U.S.
Q: How do you address the questions about the lack of uniformity when it comes to medication use in the American Thoroughbred industry?
A: The whole uniformity issue is one that continues to vex us. Uniformity is going to be hard to achieve, but we are now getting enough regulatory uniformity that about 90 percent of handle goes through states that have adopted the Controlled Therapeutic Schedule (CTS). The British version of the CTS has 32 medications. We are now doing things the very same way they do it, which is to say, “Here are the medications we encourage you to use,” but we also give you thresholds and withdrawal times.
I don’t think they understand us at all internationally. A prime example is Lasix. Lasix is 100 percent uniform. Every state abides by virtually the same rules, although they don’t all do third-party administration.
The other thing about uniformity is that enforcement is always a challenge for these states. Every case brings different facts. It’s not as simple as saying he had x drug, he gets y. The outcome may be different in different states, not because the rule is different, but because the facts are different.
Keep in mind in Europe is dealing with smaller countries, and they certainly don’t have uniformity between the countries. They may have it within a country, but to me the better analogy is the European Union.
My friends at the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) are very well intended, but we primarily disagree on two things: Bute and Lasix.
Our Bute rule is about a 30-hour rule, while most of Europe has a 55- to 60-hour rule. They are out twice as long, but all of our research indicates it is gone. You can put it out to 100 days, but it is not in the horse’s system after 30 hours, period, end of story.
However, we are thinking about going back further, which would leave Lasix as the only challenge. Lasix is a difference of opinions. It is a philosophical debate that is good natured, well intended and it is the right thing to have, but I really don’t know the solution. Reasonable minds can differ.
Q: Do those who contribute to the NTRA’s legislative efforts get their money’s worth?
A: I think people are getting their bang for their buck, and the proof is that people continue to give. We are very successful when we come together on a consensus basis around issues. Like taxation — we’ve been working on the three-year uniform depreciation of racehorses and that has delivered real value. We are also actively involved in convincing the treasury to look hard at how they report and withhold winning wagers.
Ultimately, at the NTRA we are pragmatists. We work on things that are achievable. If you are a single-issue person, and if you think the only thing that matters in Washington D.C. is one single bill, if that is the only thing that matters, the NTRA’s approach is not for you.
The problem with the federal bill (the Thoroughbred Horse Racing Integrity Act of 2015, otherwise known as the Barr-Tonko bill) is that it is perceived to create winners and losers, and when you do that, my membership goes into camps. I can’t function as an organization effectively in that environment, so I have to pull back and be neutral. It’s not because we don’t care about the issue or because we don’t understand it. With the exception of equine medial directors, I don’t think anyone in this industry works harder than me personally on drug and medication issues.
We aren’t even opposing the federal initiative, but we aren’t supporting it either. While everybody is figuring out what the right policy should be in the macro sense, in the micro sense we are working every day to make sure we get as much uniformity, good science, and defensible regulations in every state we can. We have always championed reform.
Q: How is the overall health of the NTRA today?
A: The beauty of the NTRA today is that more than 100 organizations contribute to the welfare of the organization, not only through dues but through our Advantage program, the NHC spots, money that is required for the accreditation programs, etc.
We have a variety of different memberships now. We don’t just have member and non-member. We have associate members, of which Churchill Downs is now one.
They left the NTRA in 2010, and many people saw it as the end of the road. We just dug in because all the various things we do are too important to let any one single member dictate their availability to the rest of the industry.
For example, NTRA Communications is a thankless task, and they are out there every day slugging away with the conference calls, the polls and the day-to-day support that they give people. That will never be a money maker. I will never be able to charge for Jim Mulvihill’s work, but we need to provide it.
Now, we’ve brought a lot of people back in like Churchill Downs, like the Stronach Group, in other ways. That broad base of support means we have gone from being 60 percent reliant on dues to about 12 percent, which gives us a lot more stability.
However, we don’t relish any dues-paying member leaving, so we continue to make the value argument. You hand us $1 and we will turn it into $9 worth of programing. We are approaching the point where $1 in membership dues generates $10 worth of programming for the industry. But we need that $1.
Q: The NTRA will turn 20 in 2018. Do you have any goals for this milestone?
A: I couldn’t be more proud of the team that is there from top to bottom. I am beyond being objective about it. They’ve stuck with us, and with me, through thick and thin. We’ve had 10 years of real challenge, where a lot of people said our days were numbered.
I remember D. Wayne Lukas said, “Alex, better not be putting any meat in the freezer.” I am not sure what that meant, but I think it meant, “He’s not going to have a job.” I took that as a challenge and thought, “I am going to put more meat in my freezer, whatever that means, and we are just going to double down on this thing.”
People rallied around that. It’s hard to go to work every day when people don’t understand what you are doing, are criticizing what you are doing, and are even cheering your demise.
Now, we’ve found the sweet spot: what we do is valued, it is unique, it can’t be supplied by others, and people are willing to contribute and support it.
At Year 20, I want to be bigger. I want the NHC to be at $5 million or more, I want to see some legislative achievements because that can’t be left to happenstance, and ultimately for the next management team to know that what they do makes a difference.