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Harness Racing Congress Begins

Published: March 2, 2013 9:50 pm ET

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The first day of the sixth Harness Racing Congress, held Saturday morning (March 2) at the Westin Beach Resort and Spa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was filled with panel discussions on government relations, medication research and casino cross-marketing.

The opening panel kicked off with an introduction of the day’s topics by USTA President F. Phillip Langley, followed by a presentation by Harness Racing Museum Executive Director Janet Terhune, who took over the Goshen, New York landmark in July 2012 after serving as USTA registrar.

Jay Hickey of the American Horse Council gave an update on legislation of interest to equine shareholders. Four bills are set to be introduced in Congress this year, pertaining to banning horse slaughter in the U.S., banning transport of horses in double-decker trailers, a Horse Protection Act primarily dealing with Tennessee Walking Horses and racing horses, and the Interstate Horse Racing Improvement Act, which will look to ban race day medications in racehorses.

In the legislative forum, titled “Surveying the legislative landscape in the wake of Ontario,” the theme among the panelists was clear: Educate sympathetic lawmakers on the economic impact of harness racing, and support their campaign efforts through the use of political action committees.

“You need money to save your money,” said Ron Battoni, executive director of the Pennsylvania Harness Horsemen’s Association.

The other panelists: Joseph Faraldo of the Standardbred Owners Association of New York, Rod Seiling of the Ontario Racing Commission, and Bob Schmitz of the Ohio Racing Commission echoed that sentiment.

“In order to preserve what you have, you have to educate people about the benefits,” said Faraldo, who referred to a joint effort between New York Standardbred and Thoroughbred horsemen to create the New York Horse Racing and Agriculture Industry Alliance, which produces videos and reports extolling the economic benefits of horse racing in the Empire State.

Speaking on the situation in Ontario, where the Slots at Racetrack Program has been slashed, Seiling gave his advice to those in attendance: “Government found an easier way to put three numbers on the board, so racing needs to promote its other benefits: agriculture and jobs.”

In the medication panel, titled “Limited funds, maximum vigilance: How the industry can best address the medication issue,” researchers and regulatory executives came to a single conclusion: “We should concentrate on research, research, research instead of testing, testing, testing,” said Paul Fontaine, president of Harness Tracks of America and the forum moderator.

The panel consisted of Dr. Dionne Benson, executive director of the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium; Ed Martin, president and CEO of the Association of Racing Commissioners International; Dr. Richard Sams, director of HFL Sport Science, which provides testing services for tracks in such jurisdictions as Virginia and Kentucky; and Dr. Lawrence Soma, senior investigator of the Pennsylvania Racing Commission Research Program.

Martin underscored the “limited funds” aspect of the forum’s title by saying that research and testing facilities should team up with facilities outside of horse racing in order to best maximize resources.

Soma said that his team at the University of Pennsylvania is studying new avenues of illegal medication detection, including biomarkers, protein changes and cytokines, which are essentially the “signaling molecules” between cells.

Benson said that while medication testing is some of the most stringent in all of sports, it is largely ineffective if the tests can’t detect the illegal substances.

“The research being done is wonderful, but we need to find out what is actually going into the horses, then we can develop a test for it,” she said.

The final panel of the morning dealt with a question facing racetrack management since racinos first came on the scene more than 20 years ago: how (and if) slots players can be encouraged to wager on racing. Titled “Searching for the Holy Grail: Converting slots players into horseplayers,” racetrack managers Jason Settlemoir of Tioga Downs, Vernon Downs and Meadowlands Racetrack; Mark Loewe of Raceway Park and Beulah Park; Kevin Decker of The Meadows; Stacy Cahill of Scioto Downs; and Steve Wolf, formerly of Pompano Park, discussed techniques that have worked and offered suggestions to improve the racing experience for the slots player.

Cahill and the team at Scioto Downs are responsible for a success story when the Columbus, Ohio, track opened its video lottery terminal area in June 2012. The track saw a 45 per cent increase in live pari-mutuel handle over 2011. Cahill said the success is due to judicious planning when laying out the VLT portion, including placing the most popular machines near the racetrack side of the building and placing the building within easy access to the racetrack. “VLT players liked to take a break from the machines to see the live action,” she said.

Wolf presented a successful promotion held at Pompano in 2008. The track made a concerted effort to get people excited about the Kentucky Derby, including giving away $10,000 to persons picking a straight trifecta ticket and broadcasting the live audio and video of the race on the casino floor, resulting in handle of $1.3 million for the day. He also said that the introduction of a Hummer starting gate with ride giveaways resulted in a “weeks-long waiting list” for rides.

Several panelists suggested reducing time between races to better engage the slots customer during her initial racing experience. Decker said that his track fills that time by having a DJ on the apron and giveaways.

When asked if slots players could be converted to horseplayers, Loewe was skeptical. “I’d say you can’t,” he said.

He recommended instead appealing to the egos of those already participating in skill games, including chess, bridge, poker and fantasy sports, which he said would be a much more receptive audience to the cerebral game of handicapping.

Settlemoir said that the “marriage of slots and racing is a good one,” and is beneficial to both sides of the business. He reported that VLT revenue and restaurant receipts were up considerably on days with live racing.

The Harness Racing Congress continues its panel sessions on Sunday, with discussions on globalization of racing, social media and innovative ideas.

(USTA)


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