Craig Bernick is president and COO of Glen Hill Farm, in Ocala, Fla. He also serves as a board member for the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and the Breeder’s Cup. One of the most passionate advocates for the sport, Craig recently sat down for an interview with 5minutestopost.com. The 5minutestopost team thanks Craig for his time and honesty.
[5MTP] There have been numerous discussions on the declining interest in horse racing. We recently interviewed Dare Sutton of Nexus Racing Club. You played an important part in advising and helping to launch Nexus Racing Club, which is focused on those between the ages of 18-25. What initiatives do you think racing needs to focus on to continue to draw in new fans?
[CB] It needs to come from a variety of places. The horse business is disorganized. So the idea that the industry, as a whole, is going to be able to come up with some great plan to of outreach to meet fans and bring them to the track and get them interested in the sport is too big and unruly. For starters, we need people who have a passion for horses and want to share their love with others. There are many people who share our common interest, but we need to leverage that to generate interest and buzz. The Internet and social media are terrific ways to connect people with a shared passion and also bring in new fans. Additionally, racing clubs such as Nexus Racing club, partnerships, and syndicates are another great way to draw in new fans. There seems to be quite a few new initiatives, as well as people that are frustrated with “normal” channels and they are taking it upon themselves to generate interest, which I think is great. The best way to get new fans is for current fans to try recruit people.
[5MTP] You have been heavily involved with TOBA (Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association) and played an important role in establishing the Owners Concierge. What was the driving force in creating this service?
[CB] There was a precursor to the Owners Concierge, which was the Owners Action Committee. The Owners Action Committee was your typical horse committee, consisting of 30 people, who met twice a year and they never would accomplish anything. I was asked to take over the committee. It was important to keep the committee small (six members), to ensure that we could accomplish things. We brought in committee members from different parts of the country and who also had different backgrounds, as far as how they got into the sport. Each had a different way of ownership. In addition to myself, the Committee members included: Jack Wolf (Starlight Racing – to represent syndicates/partnerships), Garrett O’Rourke (Juddamonte Farm – established owner/breeder), Daisy Phipps (Her dad was chairman of the Jockey Club and she represented politics, the horse business, state’s rights and horsemen’s rights), Maggi Moss (total opposite end of the spectrum of Garrett), and Mike Caruso (a newer owner, who is partners with Michael Dubb).
The reason why I wanted to put the six of us together is because I felt a lot of ideas in the horse business come out of group thinking. With our diverse backgrounds, we actually didn’t agree on much. We tried to do medication, we tried to do charity, we tried to do aftercare, and uniformity in licensing, but the one thing we all agreed upon was that the ownership experience was not as simple as it should be, especially for a sport that needs more owners and needs more investment to grow. Unless you are going to your home track, where they know you and you know them, you likely don’t know where to go, where to park, where to sit, etc. It isn’t a great experience and it’s not that easy. That is how the Owners Concierge was conceived. I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job executing it, but it’s there. If you call, they will help you with anything, from licensing, to getting tables at track, to organizing dinners, organizing paddock passes, whatever you need. I just don’t think enough owners know about it. We need to do more work to let owners know this service is there for them.
[5MTP] Particularly a problem at the Mid-Atlantic tracks, with competing/overlapping meets, field sizes tend to be small and races often don’t go. What can these tracks do to not monopolize each other?
[CB] They have to do more. We have a barn at Fair Hills, so I know exactly the frustration. It’s an opportunity for horse owners to keep entering until a race goes. We end up with too many small fields, overlapping races and same conditions. New Jersey is in charge of Monmouth Park, Maryland is in charge of Laurel Park, Pennsylvania is in charge of Parx, etc. They need to do more, working together to figure out horse populations in the area, the stables, the training centers, the tracks and then do a better job cooperating so that their inventory of horses can run in competitive races that people are going to bet on. They obviously don’t do a good enough job. The states see their neighboring states as their competitors and they like to cannibalize each other’s business. That is part of the problem with the horse business. There isn’t a central body in charge of improving racing.
For ownership groups and owners that want to race at their home track, it’s frustrating, but at the same time, as an owner, you have to race your horse. They need to find their level and keep racing. It’s not a good situation. Everyone thinks the solution is having fewer race days, but that is just going to exacerbate the problem because the horses will run less often, there will be less opportunities and there will be more full fields. One of the nice things about small fields is that horses get through their conditions quicker. And, it gives owners more opportunity. I wish all fields were big, but we just don’t have it, so you just have to use it for what it is.
Everyone would like for Racing secretaries to cooperate more. They routinely run the same conditions and stakes races on the same day at tracks 100 miles apart. They are going after the same pool of horses. It would be better if there was a central committee or body that decided when the races should run and then let each track select their slot. There definitely needs more cooperation for the good of everybody and it obviously isn’t happening. If it’s not happening for Graded stakes, how in the world can it happen for maiden, claiming, and allowance races? It’s a big problem.
[5MTP] On July 30th, Grade 3 Shuvee ran at Saratoga with just a three horse field, yet many races fail to go with more entries than that race. Do you think the Shuvee should have been run with just a three horse field? What are your thoughts on field sizes, in general?
[CB] It’s a bit of a catch 22. The reason the Shuvee only had three horses is because the three horses entered were all horses with outstanding records. It was only a Grade 3 race with a $200,000 purse, but the three horses running were all very good horses that had run in multiple stakes races. If you’re sitting there with a horse that isn’t outstanding, realistically the horse doesn’t have a great chance to crack the top three and so it really isn’t worth running for 4th money. The sheer quality of those three horses kept it from getting a big field.
The allowance races at that level for older fillies and mares that have won multiple races, well…most of those horses are going for black type, so it’s difficult to get more than 5 entries because if they’re good horses, they are going to want to run in a stakes to get the black type. Now, if the horse has already gotten the black type and you aren’t going to win a graded stakes, that’s when you want the allowance race to go. They ran the Molly Pitcher for $100,000 at Monmouth on the same day as the Shuvee. The Molly Pitcher got eight horses, while the Shuvee got only three. It was surprising that eight would run for $100,000 and only three would run for $200000, but they did. I don’t think there is a good reason.
We also run in California. Unlike the North East, where there are different tracks, in California, if the race doesn’t go, it’s not like you can van the horse to another track. For example, we recently brought a horse to run at Del Mar. It cost $6,000 to fly the horse to California and then the race didn’t go. They suggested we either run in a Grade 2 or a $62,500 claiming race. Well, he isn’t a Grade 2 horse today, but if he gets back into form, he may be. He doesn’t need to be running against those horses when he is hopefully coming back into form, but at the same time, we also didn’t want to lose him for $62,500. So, we had to fly him back East to run at Saratoga. Most owners can’t afford to do that. It’s a frustrating place to be when horses are not quite stakes level, but they are worth more than claiming.
[5MTP] With some tracks struggling to be profitable, what are your thoughts on bringing slots to racetracks? Are there “better” ways for tracks to be profitable?
[CB] Slots have provided purse supplement in horse business for 20 years. Delaware Park and Praire Meadows have slots. Slots essentially provide welfare to purse accounts, without developing horse racing, without developing a new generation of fans, and without bringing in new bettors. It’s a bit of a cop out from everybody in the horse business. The horsemen want purses, so they support slots at the racetrack, but long term, as slots proliferate into video poker machines in bars and more states having slot machines, it’s not such a unique draw to have slots at a racetrack. The slot revenue isn’t what it used to be. Politicians ask, Why are we allowing slot machines to support horse racing, when our state has all these other problems…our roads are no good, our schools need investment, if we are going to tax our citizens, let’s support things in the state that matter.
The bigger issue is that we have to figure out a way to promote horse racing. People come to the track…it’s dirty, the food has been the same been for 50 years, the wagering menu of available bets is the same as it’s been for 50 years, and the takeout is high. We haven’t done enough to develop horse racing customers who can hopefully grow the business that way, without relying on slots. We know racetracks aren’t profitable, but there are lots of other ways to be more profitable. For example, there are many people in racetrack offices; working on things like licensing, bookkeeping and these are probably things that one computer program could handle.
Arlington Park has been asking for slots, saying they can’t be competitive with states like Indiana, which has slots. Monmouth and Arlington are both great facilities in great areas. There’s a history of people going to the racetrack, with their friends, with their families and there’s great racing. Everyone hopes they get slots, but at the same time, we need to figure out a way to make it work.
At Tampa Bay Downs, the racetrack promotes the poker room, the food is better in the poker room, the service is better in the poker room. The racetrack doesn’t have to share the earnings from the poker room with purses. There’s a lot of frustrating things with racetrack management. Unfortunately, they are in a different business from racehorse owners and there’s not a lot of cooperation going on.
You have racetracks that consider themselves an entertainment venue, where they happen to have horse racing and they also make some money betting. And then on the flip side, you have tracks that consider themselves a betting parlor and they have to give their bettors what they want, which is good service and good food. It’s two corporate owners with diametrically opposed views of horse racing. It’s a frustrating experience for everyone. Why don’t they want to develop their horse play? Tracks get in their head that if they don’t get slots, it’s over. In the meantime, there are people who own horses and there are fans that want to watch the horses run and the tracks don’t care about nurturing their customer. Why would anyone go back? If you go to the PGA event, they go out of their way to take care of their customers. They are focused on hospitality. They let people who walk around the course. They have gourmet food. They want people to have a great experience. In the horse business, they don’t. Every day…it’s amazing how non-customer/consumer/fan focused the horse business is.
[5MTP] Recently Keeneland raised their takeout, which to no surprise, caused uproar amongst the hardcore horseplayers. What are your thoughts on this?
[CB] Keeneland actually doesn’t have a high takeout. They used to have good takeout and now they are just like everyone else. The only time takeout comes into effect is with customers that are playing on a regular basis. For the new fan or occasional bettor, the takeout doesn’t matter because they don’t really understand it or care about it. The takeout has the most impact to the serious horseplayer and we are going to grind those guys down. Long term, it’s a huge death sentence for the wagering portion of our business. We talk about customer service, ownership and fan experience, but we don’t do a good job at that. If we don’t do a good job with outreach and experience at the racetrack and then we raise the takeout, it’s hitting the pockets of your core customer.
Keeneland is a bit different from other racetracks. Keeneland, more than any other racetrack, has a 360 degree view of business. They are a sales company, they are in Lexington, Kentucky, where the breeding industry is, and they have a racetrack. They are trying to protect their purses and they want sales and breeders to get money for their horses, but long term, raising takeout is a doubling down on a big problem. The big problem is we don’t have enough fans, we don’t have enough gamblers and our population is aging. By raising the takeout, you basically make the game less appealing for new people.
Whether or not they realize it, when they win a bet, you win less money with a higher takeout. The regular players see that, but the new people don’t see that. The new fan is just going to put that money right back into a later race anyway. The churn is what is going to drive the handle. With higher takeout, we are going to have less churn. In 5 years, we’ll have way less handle in our racing. The higher takeout will have cost customers more money and there will be less top line gambling. It will be a smaller industry. The way to fix horse racing is to actually fix horse racing, not to penalize our gamblers with higher takeouts. I’m disappointed that Keeneland raised their takeout, but they have just gotten to the same level as Churchill Downs. Santa Anita raised takeout 5-6-7 years ago and now they have smaller purses in California than we did then and we have a higher takeout. It just defers the problem, but doesn’t solve it. It’s a Band-Aid. You are selling something to pay for what you need to do to cover your expenses this year, but down the road, you have less ways to grow your business. I’m disappointed.
[5MTP] In states such as New Jersey where the quality of state-bred horses tends to be mediocre and foal crops are declining, many New Jersey-breds don’t perform well in open company and the restricted races gives incentive to breeders. What are your thoughts on having state-bred restricted races?
[CB] I understand that states need to incentivize people to breed in their states. The horse racing industry is a vertically integrated business, where there are people employed at farms, there are feed companies that supply the farms, there’s money generated from stallions standing in those states and there’s horses boarding in those states. At the same time, state bred racing is prevalent across the country. Every state has their state bred racing and in every state, the quality of those state breds is not as good as the horses that can run in open company. It not only hurts the overall quality of racing, but also state bred races prevent horses of equal ability nationwide from running against each other.
Say you have state breds from NJ, OH, LA and “bad” horse from KY, those horses are very likely of equal ability and they can all run for maiden 25K, but they will never run against each other because there are walls around these states to protect the state bred horses from leaving. So, we end up having state bred races for fewer and fewer horses born in each state every year. Too much money awarded, but the quality of the horses generally isn’t great. But look, there’s California Chrome from California, Irish War Cry from New Jersey, good horses come from anywhere. State bred racing is a way in, but not a way out.
States should award all the state bred money, but restricting races is a big problem nationwide. They need to figure out a way to let state breds run versus open company, and run for much higher purses, like they do in Kentucky and Florida. All states can do that. Opening the state borders is what we absolutely need. I know it’s not a popular view amongst peers, but that is how I would do it.
[5MTP] For the Saratoga meet, there have been numerous fatalities. What should the industry do to address this?
[CB] Each horse that breaks down is different. We’ve had horses break down on a safe track that were completely sound horses. It does happen and obviously you want to avoid every case, but sometimes it does happen. When there seems to be more breakdowns than there should be – more horses per thousand, you need to start looking at why. I don’t know enough about the actual specifics with Saratoga. It is a fast track and they run for a lot of money. Your horses have to run really fast to win at Saratoga. There are a lot of good trainers and their horses have to be so incredibly fit to be competitive. Maybe they are prepared differently, but I can’t say specifically why. I know they do their pre-race inspections, the outriders are supposed to notify stewards if horses look sore or don’t look right. They have a lot of checks in place that is there to prevent just that.
We have a horse at Del Mar that is on the vet’s list. In my opinion, she is totally fine. She is a beautiful filly, she trains well, her head doesn’t fly around, she doesn’t get hot, she doesn’t pull and she works well. She has a little bit of hitch in way she jogs, but that is just her. If you go to a football or basketball game, sometimes the players may initially be a little gimpy, but once they warm up, they are fine. They won’t let the horse run. That is the track’s way of protecting the horses. It’s a constant balancing act. There are certain trainers, especially those with horses that can’t run for a lot of money, and they need to get those horses off the vet list and they probably cut some corners, so the horse passes the vet. We don’t do that. We follow the old school way of taking care of our horses. There’s nothing wrong her, but they won’t let her run. She’ll have to get off the vet’s list and they’ll have to say she is ok to run. Tracks are doing what they can to ensure safety, but sometimes the horses do break down.
[5MTP] You are a board member of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, which has made great strides in raising awareness. With all the aftercare options available to owners today, we still see story after story of horses ending up abused or in kill pens. What more can be done to make owners accountable?
[CB] The TAA does a great job. They accredit these aftercare organizations all over the country and they get money from the industry to fund these rescue organizations. They have very low overhead and 90% of the money that comes in goes right to horses. If we raised our fundraising, our overhead would go up 5 cents, so it’s a great business. It’s actually not a charity and it is run like a business. It’s a huge service to the industry. There will always be bad people out there. There are people who are well aware of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, but they make money shipping these horses to a slaughterhouse and make money. There are brokers and there are van companies that make money off of old horses and horses that can’t make it at the lowest level. 99.99% of horse owners/trainers are good people and they know about these rescue facilities, which are fully accredited. There are TAA signs everywhere at the racetrack, posted at the barns, ads in racing programs, etc. There’s a lot of awareness about the TAA. We do a pretty good job of getting the word out to people who are going to have horses that can no longer race. It’s generally the horse that has been run through the claiming game and when those horses are no longer competitive at the lowest level, we need to rescue those horses.
There are horses fall through the cracks, but that is not as a result of a lack of facilities or a lack of people wanting to help these horses. It is bad people. It’s very much the last trainers, the last owners not taking responsibility to make a phone call. Every van company will ship a horse for free. Every facility will take in a horse. Even though there is no excuse not to take care of a horse when their career is over, it still happens. That is why I wanted to be involved with the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance. TAA is great because they follow through. They account for every horse that goes through these rescue organizations. These rescue organization will rehabilitate and re-home a horse. They will then donate the horse to someone who has the means to care for that horse. Once they move that horse to their new home, that opens a new stall to take in another horse. We also give money to horses that can’t be re-homed, so they can be cared for properly. It is important that we give horses to organizations that take the time to get the horse healthy and they re-home the horse where it is no longer acting like a thoroughbred, but acting like a riding horse and then they give the horse to someone who wants it. Some horses fall through the crack, but when someone claims a horse, the horse is ultimately their responsibility.
[5MTP] There have been many discussions on whether or not horse racing needs federal oversight. From your perspective, what are the pros and cons?
[CB] Pros – simplicity of rules across states; streamline/standardize the licensing process across states; a governing body that will to rule on infractions for whatever situations warrant it — there would be a process to support your case. The drug testing – if they can get it right with an independent company with world class labs that can produce accurate results and can handle the volume of racing would be good too.
Cons – what are the rules going to be? I understand both sides of the Lasix issues. I would be for the oversight because I think the rest of the business would get so much better. It would spur a lot more investment and it would simplify the process. It would get us up to international standards. I understand the other side of the argument, too. Our horses bleed. Our style of running in America is different from the way racing in the rest of the world races. Also, cheaper horses tend to bleed more, so obviously they need it. And then, there’s a lot of questions about the investigations versus the lab testing and who will they go after, per se. Who makes those decisions? These concerns need to be addressed and listened to and they need a major seat at the table or it will never happen, much less work. I would lean towards having a governing body over all the states, the racetracks, owners, and sales companies. If it’s funneled up to a commissioner or major committee, it would make business better, but I totally understand the concerns of the other side. If it is not addressed and there’s not some compromise, it will never happen.
[5MTP] What do you feel are the biggest challenges that face the racing industry (from your viewpoint of an owner, breeder and horseplayer)?
[CB] We really don’t have anything figured out yet. It’s a great sport. There’s nothing like the thrill of being involved in a horse that is racing. There’s nothing like the comradery with the people you share the horse with – the owners, the trainer, the barn workers. There are two stakeholders in the sport that don’t live off of the horse, but have volunteered participation – horse owners and horseplayers. Every decision in this sport needs to have those two people in mind. They are the ones that don’t need a horse. They can find something else to spend their money and time on. Everyone else in the industry that works with horses – works at the racetrack, works on the farm, works at a sales company – they would benefit from the business surviving and growing. But the two people that spend their money – the horse owner and the horseplayer – they are often the last people that the industry thinks of when they make decisions.
[5MTP] In a 2015 article posted on Thoroughbred Racing Commentary site, you mentioned War Front as being the most important horse in the country. Do you still feel the same way?
[CB] It’s a shame that Scat Daddy passed away. There is this international feeling that American horses are tainted and not competitive and they are drugged up. That is the perception that people like to feed into. People like to pick on American racing. When a horse like War Front that doesn’t breed a lot of mares, but consistently produces a lot of high class horses in Europe, he’s a horse that waves our flag. It brings international buyers to Kentucky to purchase yearlings and they will buy other horses here. A horse like that is so important because they can break through internationally. The breeds between dirt and turf in major races are really starting to separate and it’s important that people come to America to buy horses and that we remain strong internationally.