It took eight hours and 3,628 miles, but last week I found a way to feel just a little bit better about the state of Thoroughbred racing in the United States: I attended the annual Paris conference of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, and learned that we are not alone.
Things are tough all over in the world of racing. The United States foal crop declined 12.4 percent from 2009 to 2010, an alarming drop but actually less than the falloffs in New Zealand (-15.5 percent), Britain (-17.4 percent) and Ireland (-28.9 percent.) Wagering for the first half of 2011 was down 7.7 percent in the U.S., sobering but not quite so bad next to declines of 10.2 percent in Singapore, 10.4 percent in Japan, and 17.8 percent in Italy for the first six months of the year.
The cold comfort provided by these statistics comes not from the misfortunes of other s but from the similarity of experiences among so many of the 59 racing nations – from Argentina to Vietnam – represented by delegates or observers to the conference.
“When Gavin Glover of the Mauritius Turf Club got up to speak, I said to myself, ‘Here’s one guy who can’t possibly have the same problems we do in New York,’ ” said Charles Hayward, the chief executive of the New York Racing Association and a conference panelist. “Then he started to talk about intrusive interference by local politicians, and not having control over the retailing of his product, and I began to feel right at home.”
Mauritius, if you’re rusty on your high-school geography, is an island nation in the Indian Ocean about 500 miles east of Madagascar. The only known home of the famously extinct dodo bird, Mauritius has been an independent nation only since 1968 but has had a Turf Club and racing since 1812. Glover’s remarks about the troubled state of the MTC sounded eerily similar to the last couple decades of NYRA’s history:
“It still is politically incorrect to appear to have taken sides with the MTC, which is still viewed, albeit wrongly, as an elitist club restricted to a few nabobs of the upper crust of our society. Today our membership is such that this stand is preposterous. However the perception persists and the politicians remain very chilly when it comes to helping…”
Sound familiar? So did his remarks about competition from government-sponsored Lotto, poor infrastructure at outdated facilities, and insufficient signal revenue from competing tote operators. So did an Australian update from Andrew Harding of the Asian Racing Federation on an ongoing lawsuit between Aussie tracks and Betfair, the betting-exchange operator. Betfair is suing to lower its payments to racing, arguing that it should be taxed on its profits, not its handle – the exact same case being made these days by New York’s remaining OTB corporations.
What seemed to leave delegates most impressed about the near future of U.S. racing was Hayward’s report on the looming bonanza for New York now that it appears the Aqueduct racino is really going to open by the end of the year. Presenting updated and more optimistic projections than previously released, he talked about $99.9 million in new annual revenue – $27.6 million for capital improvements, $20.6 million to operating funds, $44.8 million to purses, and $6.9 million to the state breeding fund.
“All we hear for 20 years is things are so terrible in New York,” said an Italian delegate, “and now you’re getting $100 million!” That only works out to a lousy 75 million Euros, but he was clearly impressed.
The keynote speaker was the Aga Khan, who in addition to being the spiritual leader of millions of Shiite Muslims has bred or owned 36 European Classic winners and operates France’s largest breeding operation. He also got the biggest laugh of the afternoon, from delegates listening through headphones as his remarks were simultaneously translated from English into French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish:
“I was reminded the other day of a particularly generous and kindly lady,” said His Highness, “who took pity on one of the less fortunate people she encountered on the street as she took a walk one day. Impulsively, she handed him a 20-Euro note and murmured in a kind, quiet voice, ‘Godspeed, my good man.’
“The next day, the same man came up to her and handed her a 100-Euro note. ‘What is this for?’ she asked. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ said the man. ’Godspeed came in at 5 to 1 at Longchamp.’ ”