NTRA survives to debate another day

On Horse Racing

January 23, 2000|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the so-called league office of horse racing, avoided possible demise when, first, Frank Stronach's tracks and, then, the Mid-Atlantic tracks decided to renew membership for 2000.

Led by spokesman Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, the dozen Mid-Atlantic tracks agreed last week to remain NTRA members after NTRA leaders promised to address members' concerns.

Earlier, Stronach committed his racetracks, including Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park, to the NTRA until the end of the year.

Had Stronach's tracks dropped out, the Mid-Atlantic tracks might have followed.

That could have led to the demise of the NTRA, launched in early 1998 amid fanfare as being the coordinating body and slumping sport's potential savior.

"If we'd gotten to the point where shots were fired," De Francis said, "where certain tracks had dropped out or blocs of tracks had dropped out, it'd have been like the beginning of a nuclear war. After the first missile is fired, the situation quickly escalates. In my mind, that would have created a situation where there wouldn't have been any winners."

Although the Mid-Atlantic tracks and NTRA issued a joint letter spelling out concerns and potential solutions, the problem is and always has been the NTRA's alliance with TVG (Television Games Network), the cable and satellite home-betting network.

The Pennsylvania tracks, which thrive because of their home-betting system, the Racing Network, regard TVG as fierce competition. So do the New Jersey tracks, whose owners want to create their own home-betting business.

The NTRA, meanwhile, aligned itself with TVG, viewing the fledgling network as a potential source of money for its many projects.

Those projects, however, have led some in the industry, including De Francis, to question whether the NTRA is taking on too much too soon. It was created primarily to market the sport nationally.

"By and large, they've done a good job," De Francis said. "But they need to focus and concentrate on a few things and do them really well before branching out into too many other areas."

The NTRA agreed to meet no later than April with representatives of the Mid-Atlantic tracks and other NTRA members to discuss the organization's leadership and direction, and out of that meeting, to form a committee to address continuing concerns.

The NTRA also agreed to share contracts, loan agreements and other business documents with Mid-Atlantic tracks and other members.

The Mid-Atlantic tracks are Atlantic City Race Course, Charles Town Races, Colonial Downs, Delaware Park, Garden State Park, Laurel Park, The Meadowlands, Monmouth Park, Penn National, Philadelphia Park, Pimlico Race Course and Timonium.

Scratches checked out

After receiving complaints from De Francis, the Maryland Racing Commission has investigated trainers withdrawing horses from races, commission chairman John Franzone said.

De Francis, concerned that stewards might be too lenient in allowing horses to be withdrawn, complained after two races at Laurel Park last summer scratched down to four horses, Franzone said.

Once entered in non-stakes races, horses can be scratched because they're sick or lame, he said. They can't be withdrawn because the trainer doesn't like the post position or believes the race came up too tough.

Franzone said commission investigators drew blood from the first 10 horses scratched after racing returned this fall to Laurel Park from Virginia. Trainers had informed the stewards that all 10 were sick. Analysis of the blood showed that the 10 horses had been treated by veterinarians, Franzone said, meaning none had been scratched improperly.

"They all came back just as the trainer said," Franzone said, "and that's great. That shows the trainers were being truthful, and the stewards were doing the job the public and track expect of them."

MATCH likely for 2000

Despite a recent Daily Racing Form article headlined "MATCH future a question as NYRA declines to join," Alan Foreman says he is "relatively certain" MATCH will take place in 2000.

Foreman, the Baltimore lawyer who founded the series known as the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred Championships, said New York's decision not to join won't kill the series. The two Pennsylvania tracks, Penn National and Philadelphia Park, dropped out this year.

"The future of the series was not in the least bit dependent on New York joining," Foreman said. "We had talked to New York about joining in previous years, and we will continue to try to get them into the series."

At worse, Foreman said, MATCH may drop one race this year in each of its five divisions. Tracks in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia participate.

Laurel team 28th in contest

Laurel Park's four-man entry in the inaugural Daily Racing Form National Handicapping Championship finished 28th out of the 40 teams representing tracks in 22 states.

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