06/07/2017 1:00PM

Mixed reaction to Gutterman's aftercare-funding idea

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Just days prior to the Preakness Stakes three weeks ago, Allen Gutterman, a former racetrack executive, floated a proposal to add a surcharge to tickets sold on big-event days to create an additional funding source for Thoroughbred retirement programs. The proposal was received enthusiastically by attendees of the Washington conference where he unveiled the idea, but since then, reaction has been mixed.

In fact, the few comments posted below a DRF article outlining the idea were downright hostile to the idea. Most objected to the idea that racing fans should be asked to contribute to horse aftercare efforts, saying the burden should be borne by owners and breeders instead.

While comment sections on websites are hardly a representative survey of the majority opinion in racing – and often are extremely negative – the comments underlined the hazard in asking horseplayers to pony up for industry initiatives. Many horseplayers are openly critical of the high price to play the game, given admission fees and takeout rates that are already far higher than for other gambling options.

In an interview Tuesday, Gutterman said he did not expect the idea to get universal acceptance among racing fans, but he also said his proposal may have been misinterpreted by some critics.

“I think it’s at least starting the conversation,” said Gutterman, a former marketing executive at tracks owned by the New York Racing Association, Churchill Downs Inc., and The Stronach Group, all of which host Triple Crown races. “These are all things worth discussing. These are all surmountable.”

Gutterman’s proposal was to add a $5 surcharge to reserved tickets sold for big-event days, with all of the proceeds going to aftercare efforts. Specifically, he mentioned the high-dollar tickets sold for the Triple Crown races, drawing a comparison to surcharges that frequently appear on tickets to Broadway shows or airline reservations.

“We’re talking about tickets that are going for $2,500, that people are using corporate credit cards to purchase,” Gutterman said. “I don’t think those people are going to think twice about it. On the lower end, there might be some resentment, but that can be addressed.”

Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer of The Stronach Group, which owns Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, the host of the Preakness, said that his initial reaction to the proposal was lukewarm at best.

“Obviously, we’re a big supporter of aftercare efforts,” Ritvo said, citing the company’s policy to assess and match a $5 per-start fee on horses at its tracks. “But is the customer the one that is supposed to pay for it? We’re already asking a lot of them with high takeouts and everything else.”

Officials for Churchill Downs, host of the Kentucky Derby, and NYRA, the host of the Belmont Stakes, were not available for comment this week, but officials close to the organizations said the proposal has not yet been discussed within the companies.

Gutterman has estimated that the idea could raise as much as $1 million a year for aftercare efforts, a topic of increasing importance in the racing industry. Through a variety of funding mechanisms already in place, including a surcharge on registration fees, auction sales surcharges, and the per-start fees in place at many tracks, the industry is raising at least several million dollars a year for the effort, but that total is still far short of the amount needed.

Still, many officials involved in the effort, citing the recent decline in foal crops and the industry’s growing awareness of its need to take better care of its horses, have expressed optimism that the problem can be managed, provided there is more regular funding.

Gutterman, citing his less-than-fruitful experiences in trying to raise funds at the track with charity booths, hopes the tracks at least discuss the surcharge idea seriously.

“It’s a whole lot better than bothering people all year,” he said.

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