Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bringing Keeneland to Ocala

I’ve been to a lot of race tracks in many professional capacities, but whenever I’ve gone to Keeneland, so far, I’ve gone as a tourist. To me, Keeneland represents the apex of the sport, and to be able to participate competitively in the racing game there means that a horseman has truly arrived. It is the racetrack that every other track aspires to be, or should. Sadly, many of the others now aspire to be slots parlors, card rooms, or full-blown casinos, with a track on the back forty, somewhere between the concert hall and the driving range.

Keeneland marches to a different drummer. Organized as a non-profit operation by breeders as a place for themselves and their customers to buy, sell and compete, it has become both a first class track and North America’s leading Thoroughbred sales facility, most likely because the revenue that Keeneland generates goes back into its operation and into the lifeblood of the business, purses. Keeneland embodies an old and honorable economic paradigm: better horses bring more handle, more handle brings bigger purses, and bigger purses bring even better horses in an upward bound cycle.

But at other, call them “corporate”, racetracks, the paradigm is working in reverse, with a vengeance. At these tracks, purse pools are viewed as a monstrous cost center, a potential threat to the important things: return on assets and return on investment. Too often, the horsemen’s share of the action comes as a result of adversarial negotiations in which management, ever conscious of the “bottom line”, engages in behavior at least bordering on intimidation and coercion. Consistent demands for a more equitable share sometimes result in the ultimate corporate response. Thoroughbred racing is terminated in favor of something more profitable: real estate profiteering in Detroit and harness racing at Rockingham are two recent examples.

Simulcasting and phone betting haven’t helped. Few horsemen understand the formulas by which revenue is supposed to flow into purse pools from these, but they can read the headlines that appear in industry publications year after year: “Total handle up. Purses down." They can also observe that at a corporate track, after the average patron has parked his car, walked through a turnstile, got a program, maybe a Form, a beer and a hot dog, he has spent the better part of twenty bucks, and not a dime has yet passed into the purse pools.

As a horseman, it seems obvious. The Keeneland model is The Model. It is so because the revenue it generates can be spent in its entirety on the organization's racing and sales mission. There is no group of stockholders, nor a single private owner, seeking to maximize their personal profits.

Now it seems to me that there is an extraordinary opportunity for another track to come into existence in Ocala that could follow Keeneland's example. Moves by the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company to obtain a state license for a Thoroughbred meet could ultimately have this outcome, but only if OBS’s vision isn’t too limited. Although there's been no recent news, OBS announced some time ago that it is considering ceding it's interests in a racing license to Magna Corporation, the racing conglomerate that already owns Gulfstream Park. I urge them to look at Keeneland, and think again.

OBS is uniquely qualified to the task. Its ownership is broad-based throughout the industry, no individual being allowed to own more than one of its outstanding shares. It already is one of the most active sales venues in North America. It maintains a one-mile track, used now for sales previews and an annual one-day non-parimutuel race meet. The facility also conducts parimutuel off track betting year round. It's a race track in all but name already.

Racing in Ocala is something that Florida horsemen, and others, have talked about and wished for for a long time. If OBS would take a leadership role, the united support of horsemen would go a long way toward overcoming whatever political barriers might stand in the way. And there WILL be political barriers, not a few of which will be raised by the corporate racing interests already entrenched in Florida.

Racing needs another model race track. It needs solutions to our economic problems FROM WITHIN, far more than it needs casinos and concert halls. Bringing Keeneland to Ocala could be a giant step.


Anonymous Steve Zorn said...

In addition to applying the Keeneland model to a possible new Ocala track, one might want to look at Woodbine as well. Yes, it's a commercial-type operation, and yes, it has slot machines, but it's still very focussed on the racing product, and keeps the profits to enhance the facilities and the purses. As a result, it now makes sense to think about racing in Toronto. My own partnership, which has focussed on New York, New Jersey and, despite our better judgment, Florida, is sending a horse to Woodbine for the first time this year.

When Tim Smith and the "Friends of New York Racing" were looking for appropriate models for the next incarnation of the racing franchise in NY, the places they looked were Woodbine and the Victorian Jockey Club in Australia. It doesn't hurt to admit that the US doesn't have all the answers.

Steve Zorn
Castle Village Farm

8:59 PM  

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