08/30/2012 1:48PM

Keeneland September Q&A: TOBA chairman Peter Willmott

The Jockey Club

Peter Willmott, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association, heads the 2,000-member organization at a turbulent time. The usual worries over how to attract new fans and investors continues, but another longstanding debate − race-day medication − has gained far greater urgency.

TOBA supports The Jockey Club’s effort to phase out race-day use of Lasix, but its efforts to promote that agenda have not been easy. In February, TOBA’s American Graded Stakes Committee rescinded its earlier decision to require a ban on race-day Lasix in juvenile graded stakes; the Breeders’ Cup remains committed to banning Lasix in its five juvenile championship races this year. The reversal prompted several high-profile resignations from TOBA, and since the graded stakes committee put its juvenile medication ban on hold, TOBA has publicly supported owner Bill Casner’s effort recruiting racehorse owners to pledge not to run their horses on Lasix.

Willmott, a former chair of the graded stakes committee, says the issue is one of integrity, and that is core to TOBA’s stated mission “to improve the economics, integrity, and pleasure of the sport on behalf of Thoroughbreds owners and breeders.” The Lexington, Ky.-based group has also played a role in integrity issues at horse sales through its Sales Integrity Program.

Willmott, 75, is president of the retail holding and consulting company Wilmott Services. He has two horses in training and five broodmares and has campaigned such horses as 2005 Pimlico Special winner Eddington.

What were the issues that prompted the American Graded Stakes Committee to reverse course on its plan to ban race-day medications in 2-year-old graded stakes in 2012? We were concerned about the perception of racing as not being drug-free, and we wanted to do what we could with our very best races to improve the perception, around the world, of American graded stakes races. I think that was the driving force.
We recognize that it is very difficult to make change in any industry, but in particular when you have an industry where the governance is at each individual state level. We felt that we could over time make this change. We had to take a step back because all of the state regulatory groups weren’t ready to move with the same time schedule we had. So we slowed down, but we’re still pushing forward.

I’m very proud of the momentum the Graded Stakes Committee has developed in this issue. And I’m very proud of what TOBA has done in term of spearheading an effort to get owners on their own to race their 2-year-olds Lasix-free. We have over 60 owners who have agreed to run their 2-year-olds without Lasix, and that’s something that came out of a TOBA meeting, and it’s a leadership position that I’m proud of.

Considering that grading races isn’t a regulatory process itself, how do you respond to those who think the policy should have come in force regardless of regulators’ hesitation? If we’re going to make changes in the direction of graded stakes, it’d be great to have the support of the regulatory world. I guess we could have jammed it through on our own if we’d had the stomach to do so, but I don’t think we did. I think we feel it’s something the whole industry should support.

When the AGSC decided not to apply the policy in 2012, high-profile TOBA members George Strawbridge, Charlotte Weber, and Bill Oppenheim resigned. How damaging have such defections been? Yes, we’ve lost some membership. But I know the overwhelming majority of our membership is supportive of our actions. Assuming we’re successful as I hope we will be, I think we’ll come out of this a strong organization. But, you know, this is horse racing. You don’t expect everybody to ride the same horse.

When you say the overwhelming majority supports your action, do you mean they support the decision to hold off on 2012? No, I mean the whole concept of elimination of race-day Lasix in graded stakes.

How valuable is it to carry out a race-day medication ban in 2-year-old graded stakes only, when those horses can come back and run at 3 and up with Lasix? If I had my way, we’d eliminate it in every graded stakes. But I don’t. This is something where we felt we need to walk before we run. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, but we aren’t anywhere close to that one yet.

As a breeder and a buyer, what kind of transparency would you like to see at Thoroughbred auctions? And what is TOBA working on in that regard? Before the Travers, there was a record kept of whatever each horse received, I think from the Wednesday until the race day. That seems like a small step, but it gives people more data about what’s going on here. So again, it’s an incremental step. We’ve got a great industry here, but we do have some perception problems. So whatever we can do to improve transparency is going to put us in a better competitive position.

What are your priorities for TOBA during your term as chairman? In the integrity field, we’ve discussed our top priority right now, and it’s taking a lot of our effort: to eliminate the use of Lasix on race day in graded stakes. We took a leadership role, we being the Graded Stakes Committee part of TOBA, and we’re working very actively to try and take this step. We’re a small group, and we’re working energetically in this area. That’s number one. Some of these other things that you and I have just discussed are lower priorities for TOBA right now because all our energies are on the Lasix race-day graded stakes issue. That’s where we are.

On economics, since 2008, it’s been tough in this industry, and we’d certainly would like to do everything we can, although we’re in the strategy-development stage here, to try and enhance the participation of our owners and breeders in the industry decision-making. For the same reason we’ve already discussed, this is a locally governed area, so decisions are made at the local level that impact our owners and breeders. I think we’ve got to strategize as to how we can get more and better participation on the part of our owners and breeders in this industry decision-making. I think that’s important, and I think TOBA’s going to help make that happen, maybe not directly but indirectly, but it’s something we’ve got to strategize on.

Then, for our own organization, we’ve got to enhance our financial stability, enhance our membership. I think we’re doing a lot to help the owners and the breeders right now. We’ve got to make the case to those who are not members that, hey, this is a group worth supporting.

Does TOBA have a potential role in specific strategies, such as trying to expand banks’ willingness to extend credit to breeders, in order to improve the economics? We’re not a lobbying organization, we don’t have any authority to lobby. But we certainly are supportive of anything legal that will enhance the economics of our owners and breeders.

I don’t want to leave you with the feeling that we’re going down a hundred different paths. We are right now focused on this graded stakes issue, and we’re trying to get this resolved. We’ll do whatever we can to enhance that. But in terms of a lot of other strategies in these areas, we don’t have them now. We’ve got to develop them.

Finally, what’s your pitch for why someone should join TOBA? I talked about enhancing the integrity and improving the economics. Those two things are very important for anyone entering this industry. So TOBA is taking a leadership role in trying to enhance the economics and the integrity of the sport. So you should be part of our group as we move forward in doing those things for our owners and breeders. If we’re successful, you’re going to be successful.