It may not have achieved everything it set out to do, but the U.S. Jockey Club’s annual Round Table has been difficult to ignore for more than half a century. Indeed, it has been both a driver of progress and a reminder of how slowly it actually takes for things to change. With this year’s conference just over a week away (Sunday, August 14, at Saratoga Springs), Will Springstead examines what it has - and hasn’t - achieved.
Over its 63 years, the Jockey Club Round Table has addressed some issues that are long gone and others that never left, but took different shapes.
Taking the large view, the Round Table has had its fair share of achievements and progress.
In 1953, a group of 18 gathered at the offices of The Jockey Club on Park Avenue in New York. The Jockey Club’s George D. Widener stated the Round Table’s simple purpose in words that will sound familiar.
“Because of the complications and pace of racing today,” Widener said in a transcript of the meeting, “we never have an opportunity to hear what people who are in another branch of the activity than ourselves think about various problems.
“The purpose of this conference is to get every element in racing together to exchange viewpoints.”
While the 1953 Round Table included such questions as “should spurs be prohibited?” and “do grooms and other stable help have to sleep in stalls?”, there were other questions that are still asked today, with a twist.
Over the years, the format changed from a true round-table format to presentations, but the importance of the Round Table has never been lost.
“It’s a combination of owners, trainers, jockeys, bloodstock agents, racetrack executives, executives from other parts of the industry,” listed Stuart Janney, chairman of The Jockey Club. “They all have some power in the industry, and all are going to be needed to affect change.”
The most repeated Round Table themes are medication, technology and marketing.
In 1990, the Jockey Club commissioned the McKinsey & Company to produce a blueprint for a world-class national drug-testing program. The report was given one year later at the 1991 Round Table.
The McKinsey report said such a program would need consistency and funding. In the words of John Stewart, one of two people to give the 1991 report: “Drug testing is really a national system, not necessarily centralized, but it is a national system. And it’s a system made up of a lot of parts that have to work together if the whole system works well. Simple things like rules and penalties have to be consistent … and funding has to be appropriate as technology advances.”
Horse racing always has had to stay on top of medication issues, and some years it was a toss-up as to whether medication or technology was moving faster. In 2007, Ogden Mills Phipps, chairman of The Jockey Club, said: “Medication, unfortunately, seems to be a staple of the Round Table. We have been addressing it one way or another at 13 of the past 20 Round Tables. I can assure you it will remain on this agenda until we have resolved this issue and we have achieved the level playing field that every trainer, breeder, owner, jockey and racing fan deserves.”
To that end, the 2008 Round Table dealt solely with the health and safety of its horses. That conference called for the elimination of toe grabs and for anabolic steroid regulation, both of which have since happened.
Sometimes the Round Table’s message on medication changed depending on circumstances. In 2008, James Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, recommended a “peace treaty among industry organizations initialed at Saratoga or Keeneland or Del Mar, not a piece of federal legislation in the halls of Congress”.
Yet, at the 2014 meeting, it was announced that The Jockey Club would pursue federal legislation for uniform medication rules, and in 2015, it threw its support behind the Barr-Tonko bill, which would establish an independent, non-governmental anti-doping authority.
Other medication/health-related topics the Round Table has addressed over the years include the NTRA (National Thoroughbred Racing Association) forming a task force on racing integrity and drug testing standards in 1998; and the announcement of the Graded Stakes Out-of-Competition Testing Grant Fund, designed to encourage more out-of-competition testing for blood doping agents and RCI Class 1 substances, in 2013.
Sometimes technology and medication/health issues overlap, as was the case in 2008, when Dr. Mary Scollay discussed the launch of the equine injury database to track horse injuries and fatalities in the United States.
In 2015, the Jockey Club noted at the Round Table it had authorized development of a comprehensive nationalized database to standardize the collection, storage and analysis of pathology data. It also announced that the Jockey Club’s board of stewards voted that microchipping foals would become a requirement for foals in 2017 and later, and that it would allow microchips to be phased in voluntarily for 2016 foals.
Other times, technology and information were married at the Round Table, most notably in 1990, when the Jockey Club and TRA (Thoroughbred Racing Associations) announced the formation of Equibase, which was to become an official industry-owned database of racing information.
In 1995, Equibase CEO Richard LeBer gave a presentation on “How the Information Revolution Will Change Thoroughbred Racing”. In that speech, he told the assembly: “The combination of livespread live racing video and the interactivity on your computer or TV is going to transform interactive wagering from a small, niche business to a core part of our industry.”
The Round Table’s three biggest subjects in marketing were the Bruskin Report in 1986, the creation of the NTRA in 1997 and a marketing study by McKinsey & Company in 2011.
R.H. Bruskin Associates did a market research study commissioned by The Jockey Club. The study found that racetracks should encourage repeat attendance and provide incentives for group attendance. It also stated that racing needed to attract fans to the sport, not just gamblers. And it also recommended that the sport consider having a “central clearing house” for information to help the media. Finally, it recommended racetracks improve their cleanliness, seating and parking.
When the NTRA was formed, it had many of the big-name tracks on board and was, at the time, racing’s closest thing to a league office in a sport that has never embraced the idea. The message was always clear, though: it would take cooperation from all parts of the industry, some sacrifice and a lot of capital.
While the NTRA still exists, it is not what its creators envisioned.
The nine recommendations in McKinsey & Company’s 2011 report focused on increased television coverage, a free-to-play website, fewer but better races and better scheduling to increase field size, creation of a social game, innovative wagering platforms, track-integrated advanced deposit wagering, integrity reforms, encouragement of ownership through greater transparency and dissemination of best practices from tracks.
Many of these topics will be in evidence once more on Sunday week, when the invited speakers include Congressmen Paul Tonko and Andy Barr, NYRA president Christopher K. Kay, new American Horse Council president Julie Broadway, Kip Levin, the CEO of Betfair U.S. and TVG, and keynote speaker Winfried Englebrecht-Bresges, the CEO of Hong Kong Jockey Club.
“I think we do get people excited about aspects of positive change,” Janney said of the Round Table. “When I look back, I see progress. Never as much as I would like, but I’ve felt we were in a better place the following year than we were the year before.”