08/21/2007 12:28PM

A Half-Full Round Table Roundup


I highly recommend Matt Hegarty's news story for a full account of Sunday's Jockey Club Round Table, a two-part event that prompted a two-part reaction on my part. The first half of the session, on account wagering, featured an entertaining dustup but was ultimately depressing for providing no prospect of a resolution to the current mess. The second part, on medication, was at least somewhat more hopeful.

The Round Table began in 1953, with just 18 people in attendance at a meeting called by George Widener to discuss issues including "purse distribution" and "the use of hormones and vitamins." So there's some comfort in seeing that the game has survived the ensuing 54 years with only slight variations on those eternal topics. Today the event draws more than 300 invitees from all segments of the industry.

The account-wagering debate was a showdown between the CEO's of the two warring principals: Churchill Downs/TrackNet's Bob Evans and TVG's David Nathanson. Evans essentially called TVG a failure that has not sufficiently grown the market to justify the 5 1/2 percent it extracts from betting pools to pay for tv production and cable-tv carriage, money that would otherwise go to tracks and purses. Evans thinks a better model going forward is to eliminate the middleman and use rapidly-improving Internet streaming to disseminate signals. Nathanson kept repeating his mantra that "If you put it on tv, people will bet on it," and then showed a long promotional video about TVG's worldwide reach into many homes.

It's mildly amusing to see a couple of business titans hissing at each other like tomcats, but the bottom line is that neither side is budging. You won't be seeing Churchill and Magna tracks on TVG any time soon, and each will continue to insist that it's the other guy's fault. Customers in many states will still have to maintain more than one account to play and watch all the tracks they want to see, an idiotic situation that is crippling what should be the game's greatest growth sector. On this point, neither Evans nor Nathanson had anything encouraging or apologetic to say.

On the medication front, the most newsworthy development was The Jockey Club's call for a ban on anabolic steroids in both sales and racing, which could happen relatively quickly. All but four steroids have already been reclassified as prohibited Class II and III substances under model rules that there is increasing sentiment to adopt widely.

There also is promising movement on the testing front through the Equine Drug Research Initiative at UCLA headed up by Dr. Don Catlin. The lab has had some success developing tests for prohibited bronchodilators and is now focussed on the EPO family of blood-altering drugs.

There was a palpable sense inside and outside the conference that people at the highest levels of the sport have been jolted into action about the medication crisis. While a lot of customers understandably assume that "no one cares" and "no one is doing anything," that's really not the case today even if it may have been in the past.

The two biggest hurdles to more and quicker action? First, the fact that changes in rules and penalties have to be effected 38 times rather than once because everything has to be done at the state rather than national level. Second, the constant need for more funding for research and enforcement. Two disheartening facts were cited by Dr. Scot Waterman, director of the excellent Racing and Medication Consortium. Waterman said that at many tracks, trained investigators are "being replaced by minimum-wage security guards." He also noted that over the last 20 years, the gross amount spent on drug testing has increased by only 10 percent, actually a sharp decline when adjusted for inflation and the costs of increasingly sophisticated tests.