Five questions for USTA presidential candidates

February 12, 2017

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Freddie Hudson, Ryan Macedonio, Joe Pennacchio, Jason Settlemoir and Russell Williams tackle some of the biggest issues facing the sport.

compiled by Bill Finley

Can’t make up your mind who you will vote for or support for the presidency of the United States Trotting Association (USTA)? Maybe this will help. Harness Racing Update (HRU) asked each of the five candidates — Freddie Hudson, Ryan Macedonio, Joe Pennacchio, Jason Settlemoir and Russell Williams — to give their answers to five questions that cover some of the more important issues facing the sport.

USTA directors will elect a new president on Feb. 27 at the Association’s annual meeting in Las Vegas. For more information, please see: http://www.ustrotting.com/usta-elections.cfm

The questions:

1. Do you believe the industry should do more to market sport and, if so, who should pay for it?
2. How serious do you believe the problem of illegal drugs is in the sport and what can or should be done to combat it?
3. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the sport’s future? Why?
4. While the USTA is not a commissioner’s office, some believe it should take a greater role in leading and promoting the sport. Has the USTA done all that it can for the betterment of the sport? In what areas would you like to see it do more?
5. Aside from a lack of marketing and drug issues, what do you think is harness racing’s biggest problem and what should be done about it?

FREDDIE HUDSON

1. Do you believe the industry should do more to market sport and, if so, who should pay for it?

“We need to substantially fix our product/sport before we can effectively market it. I can spend an hour on this one question. On-track racing is repetitive with long wait-times between races, there’s no entertainment or live drivers/trainers/horses to interact with, and suffers from a general lack of excitement. The atmosphere in many racetracks is not conducive to an evening out experience, particularly for couples and/or families. Often, the upkeep of the restaurants and facilities is lacking in comparison with other venues and can be relatively deserted in terms of attendance. An improved betting system, fans closer to the race and paddocks for viewing, interesting food choices and possibly tailgates and specialty-nights. The facilities need upscale outdoor patios and seating that encourages patrons to get away from a proliferation of indoor monitor watching. We’ll need faster action on the track and entertainment indoors, such as live music. Our current product, unfortunately, is nearly the same as it was 30 years ago. Our fans have pretty much left us and we now have to develop a new fan base and bring some of the ones back who have left us. In order to fix the product/sport, we are going to need the cooperation of the racing commissions, racetracks, owners, trainers, drivers, journalists, judges, veterinarians, officials, horsemen associations, and everyone involved in the sport. We have to do a complete overhaul and re-invent our sport from the race itself, including the on-track and the on-line experience. After we fix the sport/product we can address how to pay for the marketing of the sport. We will have to tap into the casino money to assist in the marketing and hopefully fixing the sport would generate other sources of revenue through increased betting, charging admissions for special events including parking, and possibly open up a door to selling merchandise. It would be good to see harness horses on ads on buses and subways. It would be interesting to bring the sport to the people by adopting Europe’s approach of ad-hoc, two-horse races in the heart of a city or in a town. These races offer unlimited possibilities for close viewing by fans and people who have never seen harness racing, with the true excitement that horse racing is. I have spoken with a CEO of one of the most successful worldwide marketing companies who is ready to assist us. I also have a strategic planner available to put together a one-year, two-year and five-year plan for the USTA.”

2. How serious do you believe the problem of illegal drugs is in the sport and what can or should be done to combat it?

“The problem of illegal drugs and the bearded trainers is a significant problem and it does fall into the category of fixing our product/sport. We have to stop it. Currently our penalties are too light. We also need to hold the owners responsible when a horse comes back positive. I know of too many owners that have moved a horse to a trainer knowing that the trainer drugs his horses. My initial thoughts on this is to change our licensing policies to applicants agreeing to arbitration in a dispute, an added fine that would increase with more drug positives, and the possibility of a lifetime ban and criminal charges being filed. This issue and all others will be developed into a strategic plan with collaboration.”

3. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the sport’s future? Why?

“I see two futures for our sport. If we continue on our current path, we will pretty much be out of business within five years. I do not think that our sport is going to entirely disappear and stop altogether, but, It will be of a much smaller scale and probably only have short race meets, fair racing, and the Grand Circuit racing at fairs and some tracks. It will be similar to as it was in the 1930s. The other future I see is new fans coming out to the harness races with our races focused as events. I see the new fans paying to attend our events. There are many event-themed ideas to bring our fans out to the tracks and also to have them betting on-line.”

4. While the USTA is not a commissioner’s office, some believe it should take a greater role in leading and promoting the sport. Has the USTA done all that it can for the betterment of the sport? In what areas would you like to see it do more?

“I have attended the steeplechase races in Northern Virginia. They have these races every weekend in the spring and fall. I am amazed at the attendance — the places are packed. At the smaller events, they have 5,000 – 10,000 people and at the bigger events over 50,000 people — all paying $30 for parking and $40 per person for general admission and others paying thousands of dollars for VIP sections. The tailgating is very big and that gave me an idea to have a Tailgate at the Track event. The USTA has never had the required financial resources to do large-scale marketing. When you take that into consideration they have done an excellent job in promoting the sport with the limited amount of resources available to them. After we fix our product, we need a national commercial promoting our sport in the targeted markets of our country that have harness racing. We also need to have our Hambletonian as our flagship race on a network broadcast station such as NBC, CBS, ABC or FOX. Other races that need to be promoted are the Yonkers International Trot, The Meadowlands Pace, The Breeders Crown, The Grand Circuit and all six of our Triple Crown races. We also need to continue using other marketing sources that are available to us, including social media and print ads.”

5. Aside from a lack of marketing and drug issues, what do you think is harness racing’s biggest problem and what should be done about it?

“It comes back to the fact that we have to fix our product. We also have a horse shortage, with breeding in decline. I feel if we fix our product we will, in turn, fix half of all of our other problems, and more people will want to be in the industry. A substantial benchmark of our business is financial success and what level of revenues we can reach in implementing changes. We will assess how effective funding is from casinos, in purses, in fan betting, and in all other aspects to determine what works the best. Our collective livelihoods depend on this planning and action. We will need an aftercare alliance for the post-sport care of our horses as an ethics responsibility. We must take care of our retired horses and stop our horses from being sold to kill buyers. We need to set up a commission to oversee this. The leaders of The Standardbred Retirement Foundation and New Vocations could be key contributors. We additionally need to review our use of the whip in relation to changing or more progressive interests of the public. We will include in our plan a review of many of the details within the sport that may be ineffective in reaching our goals. These can be changing elimination races to non-betting events without purses, ending passing lanes, ending low bet pay-offs, changes in bike design, pool distributions, rule enforcement, the way owners can enter the sport by claiming a horse, and other obstacles/aspects of the sport. Let’s get a dialogue going on as to what can help us. Our promotion is that ‘harness racing is America’s first sport,’ and I know that together we can match that experience and advance our future racing lives.”

RYAN MACEDONIO

1. Do you believe the industry should do more to market sport and, if so, who should pay for it?

“I think that marketing shouldn’t be a cost. We should have long-term goals in place to add different revenue streams so that we aren’t pulling from our pockets. Our advertising, promotions, and commercial space do not bring in nearly enough as it should. All track websites and broadcast can be renovated to include a better home for outside advertising. We cannot continue to advertise among ourselves without advertising to the world beyond harness racing. There is not enough data to determine advertising rates. We need to learn how many consumers we have watching our product, which can translate into a definitive Ad Rate that we can search out.”

2. How serious do you believe the problem of illegal drugs is in the sport and what can or should be done to combat it?

“I’m unsure if you mean banned substances or drugs that are legal but administered in an illegal time window close to the race. Drugs will always be a problem in every sport. The public perception isn’t as harsh as it used to be. Nowadays you see football players being shot up with Toradol at halftime and the media barely blinks an eye. The younger generation isn’t as outraged about Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds allegedly using Human Growth Hormone. Andy Pettitte sobs and says that he’s sorry and all is forgiven. We are too small of an industry to try and go outside of the box or innovate in anyway, so I suggest we follow what tests are already in place and make sure that all of the procedures are carried out in the most effective way. This includes transfers and retrieval in the paddock. I would like to hope that we can figure out a way to put aside money to further research, but we can’t go about that alone. I think reaching out to other sports and joining their cause would be the best method.”

3. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the sport’s future? Why?

“I’m mostly pessimistic all the time about most things… Why would good things just randomly happen? If you don’t do anything, nothing will happen. I force change and I work towards positive behavior. I do not hope or wish. I am not superstitious. There hasn’t been one thing in my life that has happened, positive or negative, that I couldn’t find a chain of events to lead to that result. I’m going to fight for what I believe in and I’m not going away.”

4. While the USTA is not a commissioner’s office, some believe it should take a greater role in leading and promoting the sport. Has the USTA done all that it can for the betterment of the sport? In what areas would you like to see it do more?

“I don’t know if the USTA has done all that it can, mostly because I believe that their actions haven’t been made public enough. We can all use a good dose of transparency, pull back the curtain, and see what really goes on. A quick example, we have recently had district meetings discussing rule changes, yet there were no discussion reports or any media coverage. Just short press releases saying which rules what accepted, tabled, or rejected. No acknowledgment of which directors sided where and what the actual talking points were. How can the membership elect a proper district representative when they can’t find info on how their elected directors voted or their stance on each issue? This is the world we live in now, people want more info and data. Speaking of data, I think Pathway needs to be seriously evaluated as a free service, or at least offer different subscription packages.”

5. Aside from a lack of marketing and drug issues, what do you think is harness racing’s biggest problem and what should be done about it?

“The biggest problem in harness racing is the complacency and apathy towards innovation along with the failure in cultivating the younger generation into fans, drivers, trainers, vets, breeders, administrators, USTA Directors, Horseman’s Reps, etc, etc. etc.”

JOE PENNACCHIO

1. Do you believe the industry should do more to market sport and, if so, who should pay for it?

“Quite obviously, the answer is ‘yes.’ It is very important to create a revenue stream dedicated solely to the marketing of our sport. I have a track record of doing this several times in the past with some of the nation’s leading retailers.”

2. How serious do you believe the problem of illegal drugs is in the sport and what can or should be done to combat it?

“It is serious, no doubt. Let’s not be naïve about this. Other sports have taken notice and have serious penalties with relation to the problem. We can follow their lead and improve on them. Personally, my stand is that there is no room for illicit drugs in sport, especially one where the public’s trust is paramount.”

3. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the sport’s future? Why?

“Of course, I am optimistic. That is why I am seeking the USTA Presidency. I am hoping my enthusiasm will rub off on the naysayers. This is a grand sport with both human and equine athletes as participants. There are no prejudices in this sport. Whether you are a man or woman, whether you are 16 or 97, as Leo Burns was when he won a race a few years ago. This is a grand sport for all. If I weren’t optimistic, I wouldn’t have spent money at the recent sale to add to my stable and I certainly wouldn’t be engaged in the sport as an amateur driver. With proper, enthusiastic leadership, hard work and programs designed to attract new fans and owners, there is, no doubt, that this sport can reach higher plateaus of success.”

4. While the USTA is not a commissioner’s office, some believe it should take a greater role in leading and promoting the sport. Has the USTA done all that it can for the betterment of the sport? In what areas would you like to see it do more?

“Look, there has never been any successful company that has ‘rested on its laurels,’ so to speak. Great companies and great organizations continually strive for new plateaus of success. So, to answer your question, the USTA has not done all it can for the betterment of the sport simply because there is always progress that should lie ahead. Again, that is where the creation of a viable revenue stream comes into play. I have the time, energy and will to do that.”

5. Aside from a lack of marketing and drug issues, what do you think is harness racing’s biggest problem and what should be done about it?

“The biggest problem is lack of cooperation from all sides of the fence — from track owners with attached casinos to the technological advances provided to the bettor so they do not have to come to the track to make a wager. Lotteries, even with their 50 per cent take-outs, simulcasting, cable television, cell phones and attrition as our fans age and pass on, are just a few of the situations that face our sport. New programs targeting the younger generation are a must and we need leadership that will embrace the future, not fear it.”

JASON SETTLEMOIR

1. Do you believe the industry should do more to market sport and, if so, who should pay for it?

“Yes. I believe that we have to spend more time and money focused on marketing our sport. Most outside of our sport do not even know harness racing even exists. We must all work together locally, regionally, and nationally to let people know we exist as a gambling sport. I believe that all shareholders including racetracks and horsemen need to step to the plate to work on an equitable marketing plan between industry stakeholders. We need to take five per cent of the gaming money and form a major marketing effort if we are to have any chance of a long-term future.”

2. How serious do you believe the problem of illegal drugs is in the sport and what can or should be done to combat it?

“This is the first issue we need to combat! We need a system that works between the regulatory bodies that has the same types of rules and enforcement. I believe that we need to be effective in out-of-competition testing in all jurisdictions, as well. If done correctly, out-of-competition testing can be our biggest asset against those that try to skate the rules.”

3. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the sport’s future? Why?

“I am a glass half-full type of guy; I am never done until it’s completely over. I believe that we need realistic and attainable goals and we need to stop the bleeding and start to rebuild the fundamental building blocks from the ground up. We did not get here overnight and Rome was not built in a day; it’s going to take a lot of time and effort but I believe with the right tools in place we can move the needle back in the right direction. We must focus on creating new fans while keeping our current fan base happy. It is also critical to recruit prospective owners that will eventually evolve into customers for the yearling breeders. A modern approach through social media is an important component of this initiative, along with fractional ownership programs and much, much more.”

4. While the USTA is not a commissioner’s office, some believe it should take a greater role in leading and promoting the sport. Has the USTA done all that it can for the betterment of the sport? In what areas would you like to see it do more?

“I believe the USTA has met its core mandate over the years and the employees of the USTA are some of the hardest-working individuals I have ever met, with a great passion for our sport. I also believe that the USTA can do more — a new mission statement, a new vision, and our objectives need to be updated. With a new leader these issues should be tackled with input from the staff of the USTA and the executive board. We must begin thinking that the USTA is more than a record keeping organization. The USTA, in my opinion, is uniquely positioned to once again lead us in the right direction.”

5. Aside from a lack of marketing and drug issues, what do you think is harness racing’s biggest problem and what should be done about it?

“We don’t understand our customer (the gambler) and their wants and needs. I believe we must get our customer into meetings with the USTA and listen to their logical ideas and if it makes sense try to implement. Without understanding this customer we will never succeed again.”

RUSSELL WILLIAMS

1. Do you believe the industry should do more to market sport and, if so, who should pay for it?

“Marketing includes market research, sales strategy, public relations, advertising and social media, customer support, and community involvement. The USTA has done foundational work in all these areas. Tracks, horsemen and breeders have also done considerable work on marketing. These efforts take place on the local, or track level, and the national, or USTA level. We are progressing pretty rapidly towards a unified and comprehensive marketing strategy that incorporates best practices at all levels. It has to be paid for somehow, so we’re constantly debating how to fund it all. The better the plan, though, the easier it will be to get its components funded. Common sense tells us that a specific track and its horsemen (in some appropriate ratio) should pay for marketing specific to that track, while more general costs should be borne by regional or national entities. Where the USTA comes in, I think, is in harmonizing all the moving parts and getting us to that comprehensive marketing strategy and making sure that it is executed well. We’re already working towards that, and the USTA is paying for its role in the process. I don’t think there’s a lack of marketing at all. We’re just in the phase of assembling it, revving it up, and making it work.”

2. How serious do you believe the problem of illegal drugs is in the sport and what can or should be done to combat it?

“Doping shows up even in today’s most sacred sport program of all: the Olympics. Who knows, maybe Coroebus, who was a cook, had a jug of wine before winning the 192-meter run in 776 B.C.E. This is a serious problem, but I think we’re combating it effectively. In fact, we’ve arrived at a good coordination of national and local activities as described in my answer to the marketing question. The USTA monitors and, in certain instances, funds general medication research. The racing commissions conduct testing and apply their rules to obtain compliance. The USTA also plays a role of communicating best practices. Two things should get done as soon as possible. First, out-of-competition testing has tremendous (and obvious) value, and the commissions to put it into effect. Second, penalties should be extended in appropriate cases to owners, where they are complicit in violations. Both the first and the second things would go far to eliminate the use of rogue, unlicensed trainers in order to circumvent the authority of the commissions.”

3. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the sport’s future? Why?

“Easy one: optimistic. When dealing with the popular taste, you tend to have slow downturns but, if you can make them happen, dramatic upturns. I saw a great talk on TED.com recently about classical music. Their marketing experts said that classical music could achieve an increase from about three per cent of the population to four per cent. But the evolving efforts to promote classical music are seeing much more dramatic increases, at least so far on the local level. If something is good, and people like it, it can beat expectations. Horse racing is good, people like horses, and if we keep developing our contact with the culture, we’ll see surprisingly good results.”

4. While the USTA is not a commissioner’s office, some believe it should take a greater role in leading and promoting the sport. Has the USTA done all that it can for the betterment of the sport? In what areas would you like to see it do more?

“The USTA is a customer service organization. The membership and other segments of the sport use a simple, but effective, method to determine what our role is: they pay for it. Everything the sport has asked us to do over the years we’ve done extremely well. Harness racing is fortunate to have such an asset; in fact, maybe we’ve been too busy with everything else to stop and communicate our successes. I’m very happy with what’s on our agenda right now. I would change this first: I’d like to see every one of our 60 directors function at his or her maximum productivity. There’s considerable untapped potential on our board.”

5. Aside from a lack of marketing and drug issues, what do you think is harness racing’s biggest problem and what should be done about it?

“Our biggest problem is history. The horse has been passing out of the public consciousness for a century. For example, about 268,000 left here for Europe when the U.S. got into World War One. How many of those horses do you suppose came back? In that conflict, motorized transport defeated equine transport once and for all. The solution, to paraphrase one of our greatest Presidents, is to be the change we’d like to see in the world. People still have a natural love for and interest in horses.”

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