08/14/2011 1:51PM

Jockey Club will fund new national TV series focusing on racing


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – The Jockey Club will underwrite the production of a national television series on racing in 2012 as part of a multi-million-dollar effort to implement the recommendations of a report it commissioned to study strategies to reverse racing's declining popularity, officials said Sunday. The effort was announced at the annual Round Table Conference on Matters Pertaining to Racing.

Plans for the television series, including its format, have not yet been finalized, according to James Gagliano, the president of the Jockey Club, but he said the organization is in discussions with major national networks on a deal. The series could range from recaps of major races to a reality-type racing show. The Jockey Club is expected to pay the costs of producing and broadcasting the series, along the lines of a deal recently reached between the New York Racing Association and NBC to broadcast eight hour-long shows during NYRA’s popular Saratoga season.

The new series will feature advertisements and promotions of two other projects that the Jockey Club intends to launch and fund: an Internet site that will allow people to make cost-free wagers and a social-networking game on racing, Jockey Club officials said. The intent of the site and the game is to allow people to become familiar with racing and wagering at minimal or no cost, a strategy that was a recommendation of the report, citing complaints in focus groups conducted by the report’s authors that the game is too complex and intimidating.

The report, which was developed by the consulting company McKinsey and Company, was unveiled at the Round Table, an annual two-hour conference administered by the Jockey Club that often serves as a launching point for new industry initiatives. One year ago, the Jockey Club hired McKinsey to study the factors that have led to dramatic declines in racing’s core economic indicators over the past decade, and the result was a 100-page report, “Driving Sustainable Growth for Thoroughbred Racing and Breeding,” that included nine recommendations.

The report said that racing needs more presence on broadcast television, citing a reduced number of broadcast hours on national television over the last decade – although the report did not include the number of hours of televised racing produced by Television Games Network and HRTV, two competing horse racing networks that are available through satellite television and cable networks. According to the report, the programming on TVG and HRTV is aimed at “core fans” and does not adequately address racing’s need to reverse a 3 percent rate of annual attrition in its fan base.

“Putting more Thoroughbred racing on television could be a very effective way of raising awareness and improving perception of the sport,” the report said. “However, new TV content should be different from previous efforts.” The report went on to say that new national television broadcasts should be aimed at “new fan segments” such as single male sports fans, seniors who like to gamble, and adult females, and that the broadcasts should be integrated with the free-to-play web site and social game.

In the area of reversing persistent declines in handle over the last five years, the report recommended that racetracks avoid overlapping race schedules, especially for high-profile races such as graded stakes - a timely recommendation for fans who were betting on Saturday afternoon, when the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Stakes at Saratoga went off just as the horses in the Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park crossed the wire. To address those conflicts, the Jockey Club said it was developing a tool for its racing-office software that would alert racing secretaries to scheduling conflicts in the hopes that they will modify their schedules or the order of their race cards at entry time.

By underwriting the initiatives, the Jockey Club is asserting itself to a degree unmatched in its history despite rapid expansions by the organization over the last decade through its for-profit business subsidiaries, such as Equibase and Jockey Club Information Systems, and in its funding of committees exploring health and safety issues for Thoroughbreds. Jockey Club officials have said that the organization is taking the lead in the absence of any centralized authority in the sport and to advance its mission of protecting the sport and the breed.

“The Jockey Club is doing what it can to effect positive change in the industry,” said Ogden Mills Phipps, the Jockey Club’s chairman. “Undertaking this study and making a firm commitment to implement its recommendations is evidence of that.”

Also along those lines, the Jockey Club’s Thoroughbred Safety Committee announced several new recommendations on Sunday, including an endorsement of an ongoing effort by many industry organizations to ban the use of raceday drugs, including the diuretic furosemide, which is used to treat bleeding in the lungs. Stuart Janney, the chairman of the committee and the vice chairman of the Jockey Club, said that a ban on furosemide was necessary to align North American racing with the rest of the racing world, where raceday drugs are nearly universally banned, and to address public-perception problems regarding the use of drugs in all sports, not just racing.

“If we really want to enhance the safety of our athletes and the perception of our sport, our horses must compete only when they are free from the influence of medication,” Janney said. “In the eyes of the Thoroughbred Safety Committee, that day cannot come soon enough.” The remark was met with warm applause.

The proposed ban on furosemide is being opposed by most trainers, who argue that the ban ignores scientific studies contending that furosemide is effective in mitigating the severity and frequency of bleeding, a condition that affects racehorses worldwide. Janney attempted to draw further support for the cause by citing the recent results of a poll conducted by the Horseplayers Association of North America, which said that 74.5 percent of respondents to an Internet survey said they supported a ban on raceday medications. “That makes it pretty clear what our customers think,” Janney said.

The Thoroughbred Safety Committee endorsed ongoing efforts by racing commissions to pass uniform penalty guidelines, and Janney said that the committee supported penalties that would treat repeat violators of medication rules more harshly. In addition, the committee said that the industry would need to unite with veterinarians to change the business model for veterinary treatment so that owners and trainers pay for diagnostic work rather than for the administration of medications, which he contended has provided incentives for veterinarians to medicate horses instead of treating the underlying problems.

Earlier in the program, Dr. Tim Parkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Glasgow, outlined the results of an analysis of data tracking catastrophic injuries at racetracks. From the analysis, Parkin said that certain types of horses emerged as being at greater risk of suffering a lower-limb catastrophic injury, including horses who started their racing careers later in life. The most high-risk type of horse was an older colt who had started for the first time in the last nine months; had made 10 or more starts in the previous six months; and who had not started in more than 15 days, Parkin said.

While acknowledging that the highest risk horse represented a very small subset of horses, Parkin said that further analysis of the data, which is being collected on an ongoing basis at racetracks that represent more than 90 percent of the starts in the U.S., could lead to the more effective identification of horses who should be examined more closely.

The database project, called the Equine Injury Database, was launched in 2008, and Parkin is expected to conduct further analyses on a periodic basis. Late last year, the analysis revealed that, on average, horses running on artificial surfaces have a statistically significant lower rate of injury than horses running on traditional dirt surfaces, a finding that has proved controversial because of passionate debates on each side of the issue and an absence of any identifying factors in the underlying causes for the variation.