In the movie Field of Dreams, the theme was “If you build it, they will come.”

Before 1968, that theme also built a lot of golf courses with events to lure professional golfers. Then golf was a facility-centric sport.

The pros started the PGA TOUR, with a new theme: “If you agree to our terms, we will come.” Golf became talent-centric, because if a golf course did not agree to their terms, the talent played somewhere else.

Today, successful sports are talent-centric. It gives them central authority, uniform rules and control of their distribution. Racing is still facility-centric.

At this year’s Jockey Club Round Table, I hoped the McKinsey & Company presentation would say, “Racing is facility-centric. But if you develop a talent-centric structure, you will have a growing, powerful sport.” Although they advise the NBA, NFL and other talent-centric sports, McKinsey never mentioned the benefits for racing developing the same structure.

Because racing is facility-centric, it cannot have central authority; cannot control its own distribution; nor implement national rules, such as medication policy.

Twenty years ago, The Jockey Club hired McKinsey to advise them on how to get medication out of racing.

Trainers did not like a medication ban. With a strategy against the track-centric structure, the trainers did what the PGA TOUR had done to the golf courses: they leveraged the jurisdictions against each other.

The Jockey Club leadership is rooted in NYRA and that state was the last to fall. Trainers moved the talent out of New York and brought track-centric NYRA to its knees. Picking off one state at a time, the trainers did what many say cannot be done — they implemented a national medication policy.

The trainers used the talent-centric strategy to weaken racing rules, instead of The Jockey Club using it to strengthen them. The ability to move the talent to another jurisdiction is the most powerful force in this sport.

The question is, “who will control the talent in the future?”

In the 1950’s, television changed sports forever. With national distribution, sports were no longer limited by location. The other sports quickly moved to a talent-centric structure, where pooled talent rights became the basis for television contracts, thus new revenue, popularity and growth for their sports.

But, racing’s leaders were conflicted. If racing was televised, bookies could steal some wagering revenue.

Racing did not change to the talent-centric, major league structure, and missed out on all the benefits. Through expanded wagering distribution, the sport survived, but starting the predictable fall of a failed structure. Racing was tied to facilities, thus as a sport it had no central authority, no control of its distribution, no national rules or scheduling of events.

The track-centric structure, while prohibiting all the benefits, makes racing vulnerable to those wanting to leverage it in a bad way. That includes companies that hijack racing distribution and pay little to those putting on the show. A sport must control its distribution.

The Jockey Club leadership has been rooted in NYRA, and in my opinion, they have supported the track-centric structure. But their role in the sport and most of their members are breeders and racehorse owners, the talent side of the industry.

The talent side funds TJC’s breed registry and data services. It is past time for quid pro quo for the talent side from The Jockey Club.

For our Jockey Club to protect, nourish, and improve the breed, the best way to assure these shared international goals, is to assist its members and racehorse owners in forming a modern, talent-centric structure in the sport.

No national medication rules, no central authority and no control of distribution are all symptoms of a bad structure that rules the entire sport at all talent levels. The major leagues in other sports only control the highest level of talent with central authority, but that structure is the successful, public face of their sport.

Racehorse owners, who have few horses at the highest level and many at the lower levels, must decide whether the sport goes forward with a new public face driven by a desire to protect, nourish, and improve the breed, or continues with the structure that is failing. McKinsey warns that without change over the next ten years, revenue to racehorse owners will fall a devastating 50%. Maybe more.

Each time our leaders have had the opportunity to restructure the sport with a talent-centric structure they have rejected it in favor of the status quo. Now is the time for leadership, whether it comes from The Jockey Club, or from like-minded racehorse owners determined to not let this sport die because it lacks a structure that is available. This is the only country in the world where racehorse owners are free to form and operate their own talent-centric major league.

The soul of Thoroughbred racing in North America is on the line.

Fred A. Pope owns Pope Advertising in Lexington, KY


© Fred A. Pope 2011