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Updated on 09/17/2011 11:12AM
Phipps speaks out
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps is rarely quoted and likes to work behind the scenes. But his word carries heavy weight in the Thoroughbred racing industry. Currently the chairman of The Jockey Club, a position he has held since 1983, Phipps was also chairman of the New York Racing Association from 1976 to 1983 and remains a board member there and at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which he helped found.
Racing runs in his blood, from his grandmother, Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps and the powerful Wheatley Stable, to his father, the late Ogden Phipps, to his own stable today.
At a time of great change and challenge in the industry, he has pushed The Jockey Club well beyond its mandate to maintain the stud book. The Jockey Club co-founded and co-owns Equibase, the sport's official chartkeeper, and it has helped finance a variety of projects, including the consortium that is seeking uniform medication rules for racing's varied jurisdictions. More recently, The Jockey Club paid part of a $1 million price tag to hire Giuliani Partners and Ernst and Young to conduct a security audit of racing's electronic wagering network in the wake of the Breeders' Cup pick six scandal, a subject that will dominate the industry's Round Table discussions on Sunday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
In a recent interview in Saratoga with Matt Hegarty of Daily Racing Form, Phipps, who will turn 63 next month, spoke about about a broad range of racing topics. He declined to discuss the recent troubles encountered by NYRA, which was the subject of a critical report by the New York attorney general and which could face federal indictments in connection with the convictions of 19 mutuel clerks.
Daily Racing Form: In general, what would you say the state of the industry is right now? Is it better or worse than it was 20 or 30 years ago?
Phipps: Better or worse than 20 or 30 years ago? I think it's better than it was 15 years ago. I think the industry is on the ascension, in terms of the interest in horse racing. Even before Seabiscuit, even before Funny Cide, I think the numbers show that, I think the polls show that, I think we have more people interested in horse racing because of television. I think the extra advertising and the TV time has contributed greatly. So I think it's definitely better than, say, the early 1990's, and certainly better than the early 70's.
Q: What were the reasons for the decline over those years?
A: I think the OTB situation certainly hurt, in New York, because instead of people getting out to the track to cheer and root and think and enjoy the day, they were now in a sterile setting that didn't really bring the sport of horse racing to them. I think they were bettors, instead of lovers of the game. Now we have a new group of people who are coming to the racetrack that aren't just bettors. They are here for the "one-day vacation." They like the ambience, they like the experience of racing. The evidence of that interest doesn't show up very quickly. That shows up over a period of time. If you have minor gains like we have had, in terms of interest and awareness across the country, which we have had over the past three years, that will do a lot for us in the long run.
Q: With your various positions in the racing industry right now, what do you see as your primary role in the leadership or stewardship of the sport?
A: As chairman of The Jockey Club, that's my role. Other than that, I'm an owner and a breeder and a lover of racing. But as chairman of The Jockey Club, I think the integrity issues are paramount to successful horseracing in the long run.
Q: What are you focusing on right now in your breeding program? Are there certain races you are trying to win?
A: The Grade 1 races are the ones you want to win. Those are important to me. I have an affinity for the fillies. We are not big buyers at sales; we are breeders of our own horses, and therefore our fillies have to produce on the track or we don't have the ability to win in the future. So our fillies are the most important thing that we have. They are our foundations, for my children, and for the future.
Q: Most of your Breeders' Cup starters, or at least the majority of your starters, have been 2-year-olds. Why have you had success with those horses?
A: I really don't know, because I don't think we run as many 2-year-olds as a lot of others do. We've run two 2-year-olds this year, and by the end of the [Saratoga] meet, we'll have run two or three more.
Q: But you've only had four starters in Triple Crown races, and none since 1989, when Awe Inspiring ran in the Derby and the Belmont. What explains that absence?
A: We run our horses when we think they are right. If they don't happen to be right on the first Saturday in May, that doesn't bother us. Maybe Sept. 1 is the right day. The horse tells us.
Q: Why do you think the modern Thoroughbred is making far fewer starts than his counterpart of 30 years ago?
A: I believe drugs have had a lot to do with it. I sincerely believe that. I believe it has weakened the entire gene pool. I don't have any scientific basis for that; I'm not a scientist. But I firmly believe that our gene pool is being weakened by the intrusion of horses that in the old days would not have been worthy to be bred to, and therefore the drug situation is crippling the entire industry.
Q: Do you make decisions on which stallions you go to based on their history?
A: I do. It's one of the thoughts I have, absolutely. I do not like to breed to a horse that I know has had physical or other problems that have been covered up by the use of medication.
Q: What are the main culprits out there, as far as medications go?
A: I'm not an expert on drugs. But I believe that your clenbuterols, your acepromazines, your banamines, some of your steroids, I think they all contribute. I think Lasix contributes to it also.
Q: So if the medication consortium would come out tomorrow, or in a few weeks, or a few months, and say that the policy should be hay, oats, and water, what would your reaction be?
A: I'd love it. I'd love it. I don't see how they can do that, but I think there is a common ground between hay, oats, and water and the Kentucky rules. I mean, I have to ask you, I just don't understand why 2-year-olds, first-time starters racing in April, why every horse in the race is on Lasix? That just doesn't make sense to me.
Q: There's a perception that some trainers are using drugs that fall beneath the radar of what the industry can catch. Do you think there's validity to that perception?
A: I certainly am suspicious of it, but I certainly don't have any proof that that is going on. But be it baseball, be it football, be it the Olympics, there are always going to be things that people can't test. There are going to be people that are one step ahead of the chemist. So I'm suspicious. But I don't know factually that that is happening.
Q: Let's move on to some Jockey Club issues. The Jockey Club has expanded into a lot of different areas in the past decade. The Jockey Club formed Equibase, supported the founding of the NTRA, and is invo lved in the medication consortium. Why?
A: Our primary goal is to maintain the stud book, and to maintain the stud book, that means you have to maintain the integrity of the stud book. That is job one. But we can branch out from that, and once we do, then we have a lot of other things we can do to help the industry. We've looked at things in the Round Table. We've looked at medication - a long time before it became popular. Today, not a whole lot of people disagree with The Jockey Club on medication. And we believe very strongly in the NTRA, so we believe that we can be helpful in trying to get things started and getting discussions started, and we intend to do that, on lots of issues.
Q: The Jockey Club has also been mentioned, peripherally, as a vehicle to the establishment of a national betting hub. Is that a viable option?
A: That's something we are not striving to do something on, but we are certainly willing, ready, and able to help anyone with the technology to do that. We ha ve, I think, the best technical people in the industry in Kentucky. They have been helpful to racetracks, farms, owners, trainers, and have provided a lot of tools that those people have needed. We are ready to help the industry.
Q: Considering the Breeders' Cup pick six scandal, is that important to the Jockey Club, the idea of an industry-owned wagering network?
A: You mean to own a tote company?
Q: Right. Sure.
A: I don't think a tote company needs to be owned [by the industry]. I think a tote company needs to be a supplier of products that does what this industry wants. I don't think that this industry, just speaking off the top of my head, needs to own a tote company. But the industry needs to know more about it. And it needs to know how to tell the tote companies what it wants. I can't say what Magna and Churchill want. I think they would need to put out an RFP [request for proposal] that says these are the deliverables we need, these are the things that we want, and somehow or another competition does a pretty good job of getting tha t done.
Q: Do you consider yourself a horseplayer?
A: Am I a bettor? I'm not a bettor. I might play a horse four or five times a year. And then I might play one of my horses where I think the odds are wrong. So I'm not a bettor, even though I think I bet a lot every day when my horses are running out there. [Laughs]
Q: Do you think it's important for the chairman of The Jockey Club to understand the concerns of the everyday bettor?
A: Absolutely. Nobody, nobody, walked these stands as much as I did when I was chairman of NYRA. I believe in knowing our customers. I believed in knowing the bettors and talking to the bettors, to figure out what products they wanted and what services they wanted. I think that's very important. But do I have to bet every race to do that? No.
Q: What do you think was the biggest impact of the Breeders' Cup pick six scandal?
A: I hope that the biggest impact is that the industry comes together to put in the safeguards that are recommended to protect the netw ork. And they will. Unfortunately, this was something thatwasn't just page one of the sports section. But I believe that the industry got together and that they are trying to work out the process. There is more coming.
Q: What do you think the industry needs to do to restore confidence in the parimutuel network?
A: I think I'm going to wait to hear what Mr. Giuliani has to say on the subject [on Sunday at the Round Table].
Q: There has been some criticism of the price tag that came with hiring Giuliani Partners and Ernst and Young. Why did the industry need to spend that much money?
A: I think that Giuliani has a terrific name. I think Ernst and Young have the credibility, and I think we needed to make sure that the right people got into the system and took a look around to see what the problems are and suggest the right solutions. I think it's going to be very helpful to the industry to have them involved.
Q: So part of the price tag was his name recognition, so people knew that racing was taking this seriously?
A: And the authority. The aut hority to see what the problems were and how to rectify them. When you have a problem in an industry - forget about horseracing, because there's been lots of times people are picked to solve something, take the shuttle disaster - there are people with unquestionable reputations, and this industry needed that.
Q: You mentioned that you have been a big supporter of the NTRA since its founding. Why did you think, and why do you still think, that racing needs something like the NTRA?
A: The industry needed that kind of an organization because it can do things much better than all the other people doing things separately. We have gotten more TV time, more sponsors, better marketing, and we've gotten things done better together than we ever did by ourselves.
Q: Do you think the NTRA has been responsible for laying the foundation for the resurgence you mentioned earlier?
A: I do. Very much so. You know, a salad doesn't just have lettuce. It's got oil and vinegar and whatever else you want on it. I don't think you can say this one promotion or thatone promotion is the reason why we are up. But I think if you put the whole thing together, a lot of things that the NTRA has done have blended together to become very helpful to the entire industry.
Q: Is the NTRA a more effective organization because of its merger with the Breeders' Cup?
A: It has more strength. The big problem with the NTRA is that it doesn't have the regulatory power, and it never will. But it does have, with the Breeders' Cup, more clout in terms of how to bring racing up to a big day, how to market the sport over a period of time to a culmination point. And I think the Breeders' Cup has a lot of power to make people do things. They control a lot of purse money, and they control the locations. And the Breeders' Cup hasn't given up the power to do those things in the amalgamation. They still have that prerogative.
Q: When the NTRA was founded, did you envision a merger? Was that part of the plan all along?
A: It was just a natural progression. People saw how it w ould work together. People were skeptical at first, but they saw how it would work. When I first started in this thing, the horsemen's organization [the NTRA's predecessor, the National Thoroughbred Association], I wasn't a big proponent of that. I honestly believed that if you just had a horsemen's organization, you wouldn't be able to get the tracks at the table. So I fought long and hard to get everybody a seat at the table, where everybody could sit together and listen to the problems. And it's a wonder to me how few arguments have been created and how many solutions have occurred - and now you've got people saying it's too democratic! I really had no problem with the concept of the NTA, I just didn't think it was going to be successful in the form that was created. The industry needed an organization. But it was important to the industry that everybody could have a seat at the table to try to work these things out, and that's why the NTRA has been so successful.
Q: Have you s een "Seabiscuit," and what did you think?
A: I thought it was one of the greatest pictures I've ever seen. It was terrific - the story, the way it was shot. It was beautiful.
Q: Last question: How are you handling the smoking ban in the Saratoga box seats?
A: I have had absolutely no problem. And that's because I found out that you can smoke in the paddock. But I didn't learn that until after the first week. Now I know.