09/05/2014 7:00PM

PHBA’s Hannum optimistic about Pennsylvania racing


The Pennsylvania racing schedule is in the midst of a high-profile month, with seven graded stakes in September between Parx Racing and Presque Isle Downs. However, the statebred program also figures prominently in the equation, beginning with Pennsylvania’s Day at the Races on Saturday at Parx. The card features five stakes races for Pennsylvania-breds, highlighted by the $100,000 Mrs. Penny Stakes.

The Pennsylvania-bred program has seen some significant changes over the past decade, with the approval and installation of casino gambling at the state’s racetracks in the mid-2000s, the opening of Presque Isle Downs in 2007, and the state- and national-level foal-crop reduction that came in the wake of an economic recession.

John “Jeb” Hannum III has served as the executive secretary for the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association for the past three years. Prior to holding that position, he spent three years as a member of the Pennsylvania State Horse Racing Commission. Hannum earned his undergraduate degree from Hobart College, then earned a master’s degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute.

Hannum will be leaving his position with the PHBA at the end of September to move to the Washington, D.C., area and will be assisting the board in finding and training a replacement.

As he embarks on his final Pennsylvania’s Day at the Races in his current position, Hannum spoke with DRF Breeding staff writer Joe Nevills about the direction of the state’s breeding industry.

How would you assess the current state of the Pennsylvania breeding program?

The program is in a very healthy position right now due largely to the support of the horsemen’s associations in Pennsylvania. They are both contributing money from their respective purse accounts to support restricted races and maintain owner bonus levels, so the program has been able to essentially pay out twice of what it brings in. The breeding fund itself gets about $16 million to $17 million through slot revenue, and the overall program for the breeding fund is close to $30 million, so the difference is made up by the support of the horsemen. We feel that that’s been a very encouraging development over the last few years.

How do you see the Pennsylvania-bred market from an auction perspective?

There’s certainly a premium for Pennsylvania-breds at the regional sales. It’s a competitive area. The New York-breds are obviously popular, and we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm for Maryland-breds, but the Pennsylvania program has so much to offer that there remains a healthy demand for Pennsylvania-breds.

How has the Pennsylvania breeding industry reacted to the recent expansion of gaming at racetracks in nearby states like New York and Ohio and gaming supplements in Maryland?

It forced our association to do more marketing. Traditionally, the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association had not done a lot of marketing of the program because we didn’t have the budget for it, and it probably wasn’t as necessary as it is now. The board has approved a significant increase in the amount that we will spend annually to improve the program and to get the word out.

New York, for example, spends about a quarter of a million dollars a year promoting their program, and we don’t have that sort of budget, but we’re going to do everything we can to help educate horsemen regionally about the Pennsylvania program. We feel that once we reach out to people and they understand it, they’ll see that it compares very favorably to all the programs, if not one of the best.

In the eight years since slots were added to the state’s tracks, what would you consider to be the biggest success to stem from their addition?

Clearly, it saved racing in Pennsylvania. It took Pennsylvania racing to another level, and it provided another opportunity to make long-overdue investments in the backsides. At Parx, they’re rebuilding all of the barns, and at Penn National, they’ve made substantial investments in the backside. It’s one of those things you don’t see if you go to the races, but it’s just as important as the actual racing itself.

The purses have made Pennsylvania racing very competitive, and it’s brought in a lot of good horses. Going forward over the next 10 years, the tracks and the horsemen really need to look hard at enhanced marketing of the racing. The pari-mutuel handle has continued to fall, and that’s something I think the industry needs to look at very carefully. I hope to see more innovative marketing for racing, and I think the tracks need to look at the possibility of a circuit in Pennsylvania or regionally, in that the foal-crop [decline] will put additional pressure on filling races.

What is something from the racino era in Pennsylvania that you think could have been done better or can be improved upon for the future?

Clearly, there needs to be more promotion of live racing. It’s just not done very much, if at all. It’s a frustrating thing to see, and that’s often the fault of the tracks. They have plenty of marketing resources for table games and slots, but they just simply aren’t promoting the racing product, and I think they really need to get behind that. If they promoted live racing and put money into the customer experience, I think people would come back to the racetrack.

You’ll be leaving your post with the PHBA at the end of the month. What has been your proudest accomplishment in your three years with the organization?

Working closely with the horsemen and getting them to support the program through enhanced restricted races and maintaining the owner bonus levels. They are truly our partners in the program right now, and I think that’s been very gratifying to see that. We also have a very good relationship with the racing commission, and that’s very important as we all try to sit down together and work through the challenges facing the industry. The Pennsylvania Horse Breeders has a very healthy association with its colleagues.