Hertrich on what the Breeders Crown can learn from the Breeders’ Cup

All American Harnessbred’s Fred Hertrich III is in a unique position as the chairman of thoroughbred racing’s Breeders’ Cup and as a board member of the Hambletonian Society that operates harness racing’s Breeders Crown.

by Dave Briggs

As a dual-breed specialist that serves both on the board of the Hambletonian Society and as the chairman of thoroughbred racing’s Breeders’ Cup, Fred Hertrich III has unique experience when it comes to the best way to grow harness racing.

The owner of All American Harnessbreds based in Delaware — breeder of top 2018 2-year-old pacer Stag Party, among others — said the biggest thing the Breeders Crown can take from the success of the Breeders’ Cup is to make harness racing’s year-end championship a huge event.

“I think what we’re learning now is that events are what we need in the industry to give it a broad brush and try to bring more people into it,” Hertrich said Saturday at Sunshine Meadows training center in Florida. “It’s difficult to take somebody and say, ‘You want to get into ownership, you want to get into breeding…’ whatever it happens to be, and take them to a racetrack on a Wednesday night and get 100 people to sign up. But if you take them to an event, a weekend event, and involve their families; take them and show them the stands are full, excitement is here, and brand that, then bring also the people that are going to promote it to the world, whether it be USA Today or the television networks and broadband and broadcast that, then all of a sudden that brand becomes more important.”

Though the Breeders’ Cup is now one of the world’s greatest horse racing events, Hertrich said some 10 years ago the Cup was effectively broke.

“When we had the last recession, the purse money that was going out was twice the number of nominations. They were financially in a very difficult position — and this is a 30-year institution. From that day, we’ve grown in that we’re now the world championships in thoroughbred racing. It’s a lifestyle. It’s an event. It’s exciting… you see the greatest racing in the world and you see horses that are, to us, legends.”

Hertrich said the secret was making the Breeders’ Cup about much more than the racing.

“What transpires that weekend is just very, very exciting. It is a lifestyle event. We’re paying out 30-plus million in purses and we’re giving people a weekend of events,” he said. “We have Taste of the World, which is 15 chefs coming from around the world and cooking with you, right in front of you, with people coming around and sampling the food, getting menus, buying books. Bobby Flay was instrumental in putting that together for the organization.

“From that, we have a breakfast marquee, which sits right on what is normally the finish line and people congregate for the entire week and are able to participate in watching the horses come out and jog or work, network back and forth with everybody within the industry. It’s just kind of a neat time at a neat place.”

Hertrich credits the thoroughbred industry for banding together to turn around the fortunes of the Breeders’ Cup.

“The industry puts the show on and now the brand is so powerful that we’re getting outside vendors and companies to support it because it is that important of an event and a venue,” Hertrich said.

He said the Breeders Crown is still at the point where, “we’re just racing for our own money and the industry knows about us, but we haven’t gotten to that next level.”

That said, Hertrich said he’s seeing the Crown start to adopt some of the Cup’s ideology and is particularly bullish about this year’s Crown event at Woodbine Mohawk Park (finals on Oct. 25 and 26), which is being sponsored by prominent Canadian breeders and owners Marv Katz and Al Libfeld.

“Not only is it going to be the championships of harness racing in North America, but what it’s going to be is probably the greatest event we’ve ever had and I give Marv and Al credit… taking the impetus from a lot of different things and working with Woodbine/Mohawk and management there and putting this vision out of what they are trying to accomplish. It’s going to be fabulous.

“If you’re not doing anything when the Breeders Crown is on up at Mohawk, you better book tickets and get there because it’s going to be a heck of a weekend.”

He said the racing can’t get any better, so everything else around the event has to be improved.

“It’s the best racing we have all year. It’s our heroes – four or five stallions come out of it, the greatest broodmares, so it’s the greatest event that it can be, as far as the horses going around the racetrack. We’ve got the premier drivers, the premier trainers. We’ve got all of the above, now what we’ve got to do is take that out to the world, because all it’s going to do is to improve the event and the game because we’re going to get ownership, going to get fans, and, God forbid, we get somebody to gamble on our product, because that’s what fuels it.

“The only reason we exist right here is because people gamble on our sport and we have to do whatever we can to make it better for them. What we’ve done with the Breeders’ Cup that we’d like to get out to the Breeders Crown is the betting challenges, because, in the end, that brings all these people to the game. People don’t understand that it’s not that $500 or $1,000 contest, these gamblers will bet outside of the contest and that’s what fuels our game. I talked to (WEG CEO) Jim Lawson about an over-under of what the handle is going to be on the Breeders Crown because they’re going to set a record. They will. If we get and accomplish that then, again, it broadens the sphere of everything that’s going on.”

Hertrich is one of the largest automobile dealers in the United States. His Hertrich Family of Automobile Dealerships operates 17 locations. He also breeds both standardbreds and thoroughbreds and given the different economics of the two games, he long ago discovered the secret to having success with both breeds.

“We always say breed (and sell) thoroughbreds and race standardbreds,” he said, explaining that owning and racing top-end thoroughbreds is more challenging when competing against some of the world’s richest people and sometimes paying millions for top stock.

“You have a lot more fun (in standardbreds), because the thing that we also know about them is that you get to watch them race every week. You can jog them and just be more involved. You’re involved at the barn level. This morning, I was over at the thoroughbred training center and you’ve got a guy over there running 150 horses. That’s his business and he’s a great businessman.

Hertrich and prominent Canadian owner and Woodbine board member John Fielding bred three thoroughbreds that were Grade 1 winners in 2018 — Catholic Boy, Rushing Fall and Diversify. All three are coming back this year and Hertrich said, “they may race three times this year… The opposite would be taking any great standardbred. Even if they are managing the schedule, they are going to start 20 times. That’s a lot more fun for an owner, to watch his horse race, as opposed to showing up at the training center today and we’re in to go sometime in April or May. Big difference.

“When I first got into the thoroughbred game, I was with a good friend and we were playing in a golf tournament. I didn’t realize that he had bought into thoroughbreds for 10 years. He was the top orthopaedic surgeon in the Washington, D.C. area and did all the professional athletes. Here’s a guy that bought for 10 years, pieces of horses. He and his friends went to Saratoga every year in hopes that one of his horses was going to race. They rented the same place for 10 years and they played golf when they had dark days. It was a great deal. He enjoyed the whole thing. They enjoyed betting at Saratoga, everything, but, you know what, he never won a race at Saratoga in 10 years. Yet, he kept investing.

“I expound to anybody, if you really want to race your horse, buy a standardbred or buy into a standardbred or get with someone really knowledgeable in the business and maybe buy four, you know, take a leg of maybe four different ones. If you buy four quality standardbed yearlings, the odds are probably that three of the four are going to race and one is probably going to be pretty good. If you use the right advisors, buy the right horses, in the right jurisdictions, you can be successful.”

Hertrich said he’s optimistic about both breeds, but sees, “so many positive things in the standardbred industry that, you know, the cap is going to come off the mushroom. This thing has the potential to explode.

“New Jersey’s program has now picked up, so now those racetracks in New Jersey can really show their politicians exactly what this means to the state in open acres, jobs and economic development. Hopefully, they do that properly. We know Ontario has settled down and we think we’re in a very positive place there. The Midwestern part of the United States is very positive, look at what’s happened in Kentucky. So I’m very bullish on where we’re going.

“What we have to do a better job of (in harness racing) is where our races occur and the event of it. If I could take him and his wife or family up to Mohawk this year and show them the Breeders Crown, I think we can attract some people like that.”

In the meantime, Hertrich is immersed in the Santa Anita tragedy, where 22 horses have died on the track since Dec. 26. The track has been closed temporarily for live racing, but is expected to resume the live schedule on March 29.

Santa Anita is also scheduled to play host to this year’s Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 1 and 2 and Hertrich was adamant the Cup will “absolutely not” be moved to another location.

“We’re working with Santa Anita and the industry to make it the safest venue that we can possibly have. It’s very, very, very important for the industry, in total, to get together and not just make some statement that we’re going to do this today or that today. That’s not the answer. This is a huge issue that we all have to get behind and figure out,” Hertrich said.

“There are huge challenges. I’ve been on conference calls for the last two days, all day long, and I’ll be back on this afternoon. The industry is trying to get their arms around this and do whatever is best for the animals and the safety of the jockeys and on and on.

“It’s very complex. It’s not just one issue. You can’t just say it’s lame horses, you can’t just say it’s the track condition, you can’t just say it’s medication… there are so many things. They’ve got the top scientists in the world out there. They are taking this surface down and putting it back together. Again, what people will never understand is that is just one component. There are many, many things.”

Hertrich said the reality is it’s an industry-wide issue and horse deaths on the track, like concussions in the National Football League, cannot be completely eradicated.

“Horses are going to break down. They are going to have a frailty in a joint. They are going to have a bone disease that we don’t know about until we do an autopsy after the fact. Horses will die on the training track and on the racetrack. Is that good? Absolutely not, but what can we do to make that environment as safe as possible? That’s what we all have to strive to do.

“(The NFL) will never eliminate, totally, the concussion. What they’re doing is putting a medical person upstairs watching the game, one on each sideline and a medical tent where you’ve got people going through the test immediately… They’ve done a lot to correct that issue, but these athletes today are big and strong and there will always be concussions in the NFL today. In the end, it’s what can we do to make it as safe as we possibly can?

Hertrich said the solution to reducing horse deaths isn’t simple, will require the industry to work together and won’t come quickly.

“Can you sit down with 20 people and write down something that is going to be the cure in two weeks? Absolutely not, but can we strive to get there? The answer is yes if we work to do it in the same direction,” he said.

He stressed the harness industry needs to educate people on the differences between standardbreds and thoroughbreds.

“George Segal and I were chatting and the standardbred industry doesn’t really want to be tainted by (Santa Anita) because we don’t have an issue, but the reason we don’t have the issue is because they are completely different animals. (Standardbreds) are sturdier, sounder, obviously, we can race every week.

“All horses aren’t the same in this sense, so we can’t taint the entire horse industry with what’s happening at Santa Anita. Whether it be quarter horses or Arabians, every breed has its own characteristics, so don’t put them all together.”