Updated on 09/17/2011 11:30PM

Budget priority: Fix the foundation

Email

NEW YORK - Six years into a new millennium, Thoroughbred racing faces a host of challenges that can be addressed only with significant and expensive capital investments. Whether those investments are made will go a long way toward determining whether the game will thrive in the 21st century or continue to fall even father behind the other gambling and entertainment industries with which it competes.

These challenges are disparate but all fall under the broad heading of infrastructure - shoring up key building blocks that have been neglected for years or decades by an industry that has always been short on long-term planning. A number of them seem to be coming to a head right now, demanding financial and strategic commitments. These are just a few of them:

* Drug testing: An end to the high-tech pharmacological cheating that some people believe is driving investors and customers away from the game is finally in sight, thanks to significant scientific advances already being implemented in other sports. Experts who have made gigantic strides in human drug testing say that racing could similarly police itself but needs to find a mechanism to fund research and world-class facilities. A compelling presentation on this matter at the Jockey Club Round Table last August seemed to spark a great deal of hopeful enthusiasm at the time but little follow-up since.

* Wagering integrity: More than three years after the Fix Six scandal, racing's bet-processing technology still looks slow and amateurish at best and open to fraud and manipulation at worst. Last month at Gulfstream, a winner raced around the track at posted odds of 13-1, a victory followed by an unsettling 10-minute delay in posting prices before the race was declared official with the winner at 9-1. Banks, online retailers, and even poker rooms don't seem to have these problems and have spent the money on upgrades that both reassure their customers and increase volume.

* Track surfaces: The early evidence about the benefits of Polytrack has been extremely encouraging in terms of reducing catastrophic breakdowns, but more time and careful study is needed before tracks hastily convert the bulk of American racing from dirt to rubber and wax. The welfare of the horses should be the paramount factor in deciding whether such a conversion should take place, and that requires money both now for a thorough examination of the issue and later for the significant cost of rebuilding the tracks.

The broader issue of animal welfare in racing is going to become more public and pressing in the coming years, beginning with the likely fallout from involving Yum!-owned Kentucky Fried Chicken, a flashpoint target of animal-rights groups, in the sponsorship of this year's Kentucky Derby. Individual philanthropists and animal lovers have made admirable strides in setting up rescue and adoption programs, but the industry needs to address the inflammatory issue of discarded racehorses on an institutional level to avoid an inevitable public-image nightmare.

* High-definition television: This may seem like a technological footnote now, but high-definition is going to revolutionize television viewing in the next five years as it becomes a mandatory standard in American broadcasting. Racing is already lagging far behind other sports - not just basketball, football, and hockey, but even volleyball and poker - which is a shame because no sport will enjoy the benefits of hi-def's wider field of vision, sharper resolution, and improved graphics more than racing. Again, it will require a multimillion-dollar commitment to bring racing up to par.

So who's going to pay for all these things? It's more than the usual do-gooders and nonprofits can fund, you can't raise the takeout any further without sending handle spiralling downward, New York racing is virtually bankrupt, and neither Magna Entertainment nor Churchill Downs Inc. is brimming with excess cash. Creative solutions will be needed, along with a reset of the absurd economics of simulcasting. Racing made a massive mistake in underpricing its product for export a generation ago, and there has to be a way to fix it now without violating antitrust laws.

One place to find some money would be from a different allocation of slot-machine revenue. With several major states likely to gain slots at their tracks in the next few years, now is the time to shape legislation to provide money for these infrastructural costs and to address issues such as integrity and animal welfare - issues that might win more political support for slots than the current pleas of tracks on behalf of their shareholders and horse owners. To date, most slot revenue earmarked for racing has simply been dumped into purses, which should be one of the beneficiaries but not the only ones.

Instead of spending the entire windfall of slots on $17,000 purses for $5,000 claimers and on unnecessary new million-dollar races for young horses, racing needs to invest in its future.