03/12/2016 7:26PM

Q&A: Jeffrey Cannizzo of NYTB


Jeffrey Cannizzo has been at the helm for New York Thoroughbred Breeders Inc. during one of the biggest turnarounds in the state’s history, fueled by the benefits tied to the opening of Resorts World Casino at Aqueduct in 2011.

Since Cannizzo took over as the breed organization’s executive director at age 30 in 2008, New York’s annual share of North American mares bred has risen from 3.4 percent to 4.5 percent in 2014. The average price at auction for a yearling bred in the Empire State rose to an all-time high of $57,440 in 2014. On the racetrack, gross earnings for New York-breds hit an all-time high of $88,920,281 in 2015, while the 3,232 New York-bred runners were the most since 2012.

Earlier this month, Cannizzo accepted a spot reserved for the NYTB on New York Racing Association board, replacing Chester Broman. Though the seat is a non-voting position, Cannizzo said he hopes to expand the voice of the breeder in one of the country’s most prominent and lucrative circuits, as NYRA transitions from a government-controlled entity back into a private non-profit entity.

A native of Auburn, N.Y., Cannizzo is the son of former Finger Lakes-based trainer Ronald Cannizzo, and he spent much of his youth working for his father’s stable. Prior to joining the NYTB, he held positions with Lockheed Martin, Dell, and Microsoft, and was Daily Racing Form’s web manager.

Cannizzo spoke about the direction of New York’s breeding industry, his roles with the NYTB and NYRA, and one of his favorite runners growing up.

How would you assess the current state of the New York breeding program?
One word summarizes today’s environment: competitive. This is not your mom and pop’s program anymore. It’s become very competitive playing on all fronts; those who have upped their game are taking advantage of the lucrative environment. 
The mare population is evolving, better stallions are coming to the state, and the marketplace value of statebreds has soared. The New York-bred population is also showcasing its quality on the racetrack. Our statebred stakes program is second to none, and our statebreds regularly headline open and graded stakes across the country and overseas.

What would you say is the most important issue facing the state’s breeders in 2016?
The most pressing concern for New York’s breeders at this moment is the scheduled opening of the Lago Resort and Casino less than a half-hour down the road from Finger Lakes.
In 2015, about 70 percent of the Finger Lakes purse account was derived from VLT revenue. When the new casino opens, the Finger Lakes facility is projected to lose up to 40 percent of its business. Given that last year, for example, New York-breds earned 73 percent of the total Finger Lakes purse money, made 70 percent of the starts, and 52 percent of [the state’s] breeder awards were earned on Finger Lakes races, it is quite obvious the effect could be devastating for horsemen and breeders alike.
Equally important for breeders is the long-term future of NYRA. We are waiting eagerly to hear the details of NYRA’s reorganization plan after it passes from state control.

What do you hope to accomplish with your new position on the NYRA board?
I would like to use my new position on the NYRA board to ensure that the concerns of breeders and owners are represented to NYRA both now and during privatization. The needs of the New York breeding program need to be addressed, especially in all substantive discussions of statebred racing, purses, and race days.
Also, I hope to play a role in seeing the long-term plans formulated before the state takeover of NYRA are initiated and completed. This would include substantive capital development plans for the facilities at all three tracks, expanding wagering with NYRA Rewards, and pursuing a modernized strategic plan to open offtrack betting/restaurant facilities throughout the five boroughs [of New York City].
Additionally, it’s crucial for NYRA to play a strong role in developing new owners and enhancing the experience of existing owners in New York. Nationally, the industry is dependent on the growth of new ownership, and New York is in a unique position to lead in this area. I hope to help make that a reality.

The number of New York-bred starters last year was the highest since 2012. To what do you attribute the increase, and how important is it to the state’s racing program in general?
As the national foal crop has declined, every racetrack in New York has become more and more reliant on New York-breds to fill both open and restricted races. In 2015, for example, New York-breds accounted for 55 percent of all starts at racetracks in the state. New York-breds are not only important, but essential to racing in New York.

Please discuss maintaining the balance between putting out an attractive in-state breeding program to keep horses in the state while marketing New York-breds as viable commodities on a national level.
Quality New York-breds have to be recognized not just as quality New York-breds but as quality horses whose New York-bred status adds value to breeders and owners. The incentives are designed to keep these horses racing in New York, but at the same time it is essential that the horses maintain a high profile outside the state. Both objectives are being met.
Statistics from The Jockey Club show that the vast majority of New York-breds make at least one start in the state, with the number hovering between 80 percent and 85 percent. At the same time, New York-breds make headlines across the country these days.
Last year, for example, New York-breds won stakes races at 17 different racetracks in the U.S. and Canada, including 15 graded stakes worth $4.9 million in purses. Three New York-breds were prominent on the Kentucky Derby trail in 2015 [Upstart, Tencendur, and International Star]. New York-breds delivered a pair of strong runner-up performances at the Breeders’ Cup [Effinex in the Classic and La Verdad in the Filly and Mare Sprint], and, for the second year in a row, New York had an Eclipse champion [female sprinter La Verdad]. I expect these types of top-notch achievements to continue. Just recently, Moanin, a New York-bred son of Henny Hughes, set a track record in Japan in the Group 1 February Stakes. Anyone in the market to buy a horse, whatever their objectives, should be looking at New York-breds.

New York-breds have performed increasingly well at auction in recent years, highlighted by a record-setting edition of the Fasig-Tipton New York-bred sale last year. What are your expectations for buyer demand for New York-breds in 2016, and how far do you think it could go in the future?
The marketplace for New York-breds is pretty much where we want it to be, and I fully expect it to hold on to the dramatic gains made in recent years. Just as we see increasing competition at the top end of the market nationally, I expect that the best New York-breds will command top dollar. While the key to overall success, however, is to keep the average and median at their current robust levels, I think the trends will stay the course for the foreseeable future.

You grew up in the Finger Lakes area and have been around the industry your entire life. Do you have a favorite blue-collar runner that you followed growing up?
For me, it would have to be the late 80s, and the first horse that comes to mind is Lordofthemountain. He made 55 starts from 3 until 9 and won 20 races, including a handful of stakes at Finger Lakes and races at Saratoga and Belmont Park. He was [the Finger Lakes] horse of the year in 1992 and 1993 and was inducted into the Finger Lakes Hall of Fame in 1996. Lordofthemountain always put on a show. He was the quintessential “catch-me-if-you-can” style of runner and clearly a blue-collar hard-knocker.

If you could change one thing about the North American Thoroughbred industry, what would it be?
As there is a laundry list of things that need to be done in our sport in North America, the one thing I would target is a nationally organized strategy to develop future horseplayers and take better care of the existing ones. They are the cornerstone to our financial system that makes the entire wheel turn. 
Without people wagering on our product, the sport will cease to exist as we know it. Purses will suffer, owners will disappear, the marketplace will collapse for breeders, and racetracks will close. The attrition is unbearable. For the most part as a collective industry we do minimal to develop new handicappers. 
As I see it, the key is embracing the horseplayer experience for what it is –gambling. Capture how great it is to play the races and the value it offers from a wagering perspective. Invest in new technology and a better-structured distribution model enhancing the experience of betting. Then, market that at the highest national level with true forms of media such as television, within targeted audiences, like Wall Street, and specific entertainment venues.