03/09/2010 12:00AM

Sadly, joint venture comes to an end


INDIAN WELLS, Calif. - Indians gave this lush desert oasis its name almost 200 years ago, and gold prospectors came later by stagecoach, long before realtors and the wealthy discovered it.

This week, almost 100 executives of North American Thoroughbred and harness racing are here, along with some of the world's best tennis players gathered for a major tournament.

The tennis players are seeking fame and fortune.

The racing executives are seeking answers to their grievous problems. Even before the first of a formidable list of speakers begins to give them answers, they have found one, and are about to discard it.

For six years now, the Thoroughbred Racing Associations and Harness Tracks of America, two major trade associations of race tracks, have been holding joint annual meetings. They have discussed the many issues common to both, and approached them with common purpose.

Far longer, for almost 20 years, the running crowd and fanciers of the gaited trotters and pacers have shared an annual simulcasting conference, organized and operated by the TRA, which have helped educate and enlighten track specialists on how to best manage the myriad problems of that aspect of racing, now accounting for the vast majority - 85 to 90 percent being popular estimates - of racing handle in North America.

Now, returning to more provincial and traditional comfortability with their own, the Thoroughbred folks have decided they will abandon the joint annual meetings and return to their own exclusive company, leaving the harness people to seek answers in the solitude of their more mundane ways, perceived as less lofty than the sport of kings.

Good ideas can be shared or shunned, of course, the latter with sometimes costly consequences. An example: Forty years or so ago, before anyone realized what simulcasting would do for and to horse racing, the TRA decided it would go its own way with saddle pad colors, rather than adopt those used by the harness sport.

The trotters, having substantial money and recognition value already invested, chose not to change to the running horse color system.

Then came television, with the runners using one set of colors and harness racing using another, creating a confusion of color that still exists today, as the two sports share TVG and HRTV time, asking their fans to accommodate inconveniently to the different systems in alternating races on the same medium.

Larger issues will be discussed here in Indian Wells this week. Two of the most interesting, both because of the subject matter and the mirthful and forceful personalities of the speakers, follow one another.

Jeff Gural, the entertainingly blunt Manhattan realty magnate who runs Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs harness tracks in New York state, will discuss "Things racing should be talking about, but isn't."

Then the vastly knowledgeable racing historian and former New York state racing commissioner Bennett Liebman will discuss "Things racing doesn't want to talk about."

Other experts this week will tackle management issues that should be of interest to all track operators.

Mark Thurman, of California Horse Racing Information Management System Inc., will talk about "Trust accounts and simulcasting partners," which should be of great interest to all track operators.

Lee Amaitis, the president and CEO of Cantor Gaming and one of the most creative of all racing observers, will make a presentation on Cantor's new technology advances, along with his chief technology officer Sunny Tara. Ian Penrose, CEO of England's Sportech PLC, will join them on the panel.

Gural will return, along with Nick Eaves, president and COO of Woodbine Entertainment, and Drew Shubeck, president and general manager of Lone Star Park, to talk about "Suggestions for change and other improvements to racing."

Todd Gralla, principal director of equine services for Populous, also is on Thursday's program, telling track executives how they might improve monetizing their facilities.

Before that, TRA's executive vice president, Chris Scherf, will discuss the critical issue of wagering security, and two ardent California fans, Billy Koch and David Pascale, will give their views on improvements needed in racing.

Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, will update the track operators on Washington doings, including Barney Frank's bill to legalize Internet betting, and Whittier Law School professor I. Nelson Rose will share his expertise on what's happening and is likely to happen in Indian gaming.

Liebman will return to give his views on interstate compacts as an answer to uniformity.

In the midst of all this I will be honored to present my Messenger Award, named for the English stallion who contributed so much to both running and harness racing in this country, to Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, who enriched both sports by his sponsorship of slots and table games in his state.

Then, after 49 years as executive vice president of Harness Tracks of America, I will slip into semi-retirement to look after the treasure of my life, my long-suffering wife June, but will look forward to continuing these bi-weekly visits with all of you.