12/30/2010 1:58PM

Q&A: Mike Ziegler

Benoit & Associates

Executive director of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s Safety and Integrity Alliance, which has accredited 19 tracks since its inception in the fall of 2008.

Birthdate: Feb. 9, 1970, in Oakland, Calif.

Family: Wife, Jessica; sons Aaron, Nathan

Got into racing because . . . “I really fell into horse racing. I was laid off by the Oakland A’s because of the baseball strike in 1994 and ended up helping out on giveaway days for the marketing department at Bay Meadows. The track president, Jack Liebau, and I hit it off, and he offered me the position of assistant to the president. He was looking for an energetic person to whom he could teach the racing business, and I was looking for a career. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Before going to work for the NTRA, what other positions did you hold? “I’ve held executive positions at several racetracks in my native California, including Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields, Santa Anita, and Hollywood Park. Prior to taking on the role of managing the Safety and Integrity Alliance, I was a senior executive at Youbet.com. Exposure to a number of facets of the racing industry has been extremely beneficial to me in my current role.”

What are your responsibilities with the safety program? “My focus is on accrediting racetracks that have met the standards as detailed in the Alliance Code of Standards. Accreditation involves compliance in six basic areas, including injury reporting and prevention; safety equipment and a safer racing environment; medication and testing; jockey health and safety; aftercare of retired racehorses; and wagering security. I communicate daily with tracks around the country, with the goal of accrediting as many as possible.”

How did the safety program come into being? “In the wake of the 2008 Kentucky Derby when Eight Belles died, and the admission around that time by Big Brown’s trainer, Richard Dutrow Jr., that he was legally giving anabolic steroids to Big Brown, our sport came under a great deal of scrutiny − from customers, the media, Congress, and others. Industry leaders acknowledged that there was a need to reform, and a self-regulatory organizational structure was identified as the best approach to take to enact reforms quickly. The Alliance was the mechanism put in place to self-regulate − to create standards to which tracks could adhere. Sixty tracks and nearly every major horsemen’s group in the country pledged their support of the standards of the Alliance.”

What are the goals of the program? “The main goal is for everyone in the industry to acknowledge that the safety of our human and equine athletes and the integrity of our sport are horse racing’s highest priorities. After that, the goal is to make sure that industry members walk the walk in addition to talking the talk.”

How does a track get accredited? “Accreditation is sought voluntarily. We have found that tracks seek accreditation for varying reasons. The Alliance Code of Standards and application for accreditation are available on our website at www.ntra.com/content/safetyalliance. The application is very comprehensive and completing it requires a tremendous amount of cooperation from a track’s regulatory authority and horsemen. Once we receive an application, we schedule an on-site inspection during a track’s live race meet to confirm that what they say they are doing in the application is in fact being practiced. The inspection team, made up of a regulatory veterinarian, a track manager, and a representative of the Alliance, spends at least two days at a track examining facilities and interviewing management, racing officials, horsemen, veterinarians, jockeys, regulators, stewards, and fans. If it is proven that a track satisfies the standards, it gets accredited.”

What happens if a track does not pass the initial inspection? “For starters, tracks know the answers to the questions before they take the test. It is unlikely that a track would seek accreditation unless it had a high degree of confidence that it was meeting the standards set forth in the Alliance Code of Standards. In some cases, we have found that tracks are exceeding the standards. In two cases, tracks were awarded provisional accreditation, which is an acknowledgement that while a track might be deficient in an area, it is working diligently with its horsemen and regulatory authority to fulfill the standards established in the Code within a designated period of time. This is what took place at Pimlico and Sunland Park, where real, substantive changes took place in order for the tracks to be awarded full accreditation. This is where the Alliance has been at its most effective. If not for the existence of the Alliance, significant changes to long-standing policies and rules would not have been implemented.”

Can you offer an example or two of how tracks have been made safer as a result of the accreditation process? “Alliance-driven improvements range from improving the padding on the starting gate at Turfway Park − which was completed before our inspection team left the grounds − to our being the impetus for all licensees now wearing safety helmets on the racetracks in California. Every racetrack we have visited has made some tangible, positive changes as a function of the accreditation process.”

Are you satisfied with the pace of tracks being accredited? “No. The industry as a whole needs to move with a greater sense of urgency. We can’t afford to allow the passing of time to dim our memories of where we were as an industry in 2008. The cost of accreditation is minimal, particularly given what is at stake. And the benefits to all stakeholders are numerous. In virtually every instance, we have been told that the process of accreditation has improved a track’s operation. Best practices are shared. Rules and procedures are codified from one jurisdiction to another. I am an optimist, and I am confident that in due time, customers and horsemen will gravitate to those tracks that have demonstrated through their actions that safety and integrity are their highest priorities.”

How much pressure can the NTRA put on tracks yet to be accredited to become accredited? “At this point in time, accreditation is voluntary. Any pressure put on a track needs to come from within − by management, horsemen, regulators, or fans. Beyond encouraging other tracks to seek accreditation, our primary focus will be on publicizing and promoting those tracks who are accredited.”

What is former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s role in the accreditation process? “Gov. Thompson is the independent monitor of the Alliance. His job is to judge whether the industry is sincerely doing what it said it was going to do.”

Was he brought on board to bring some gravitas to the process, to impress government officials that racing was sincere in wanting to keep its house in order without need for government takeover? “After studying other industries and organizations that had responded to a crisis situation, we knew that our independent monitor had to be a respected figure who possessed a reputation for honesty and integrity. Gov. Thompson fit those qualifications to a tee, and his long-standing interest and involvement in Thoroughbred racing made him even more desirable.”

Best horse seen? “I remember some of the best horses that came through Bay Meadows − Charismatic ran second in the El Camino Real Derby, and Big Jag, who is one of my all-time favorites, came through for sprint stakes a few times. Lost in the Fog was awesome. In Southern California, I never thought I’d see a nicer mare than Azeri until I saw Zenyatta. I vividly recall her maiden win on Thanksgiving 2007 because I got a hot tip from a friend of mine on a filly named Carmel Coffee, who ran a distant second. I would have to put Zenyatta at the top of my list.”

Hobbies? “My wife and I have been running a lot lately. We ran three half-marathons this year and are hoping to run a full marathon in 2011. My real hobby, though, is hanging out with my boys, Aaron and Nathan.”

Future ambitions? “Once all the tracks who originally pledged to the Alliance get accredited, I think I’d like to go back to the racetrack. I used to get paid to see horses run every day. I really miss that.”