Corey Johnsen Op/Ed: My Trip to Colombia

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By Corey Johnsen

Last week, I made a presentation on the Dynamics of the Horse Industry in the United States to a group of horsemen at the Equine Congress in Bogota, Colombia. It was sponsored by UNAGA, a division of the Department of Agriculture which oversees the cattle, horse and goat industries in Colombia. The Equine Congress was part of the Agroexpo, a major agricultural event in Bogota which resembled a state fair in America with attendance of more than 10,000 each day.

Colombia is a country with a human population of 48 million who care for more than 1.5-million horses. Most of the horses are Paso Fino, and Colombia boasts the best bloodlines in the world for that breed. Major Paso Fino horse shows draw 10,000 people who are extremely vocal in their appreciation of the nimble-footed breed. I was fortunate to visit a world class Paso Fino farm and was able to view their fascinating discipline, which is a cross between tap and ballet dancing.

There is no pari-mutuel racing in Colombia at this time, although there is a rich history of Thoroughbred racing. At one time, Los Andes was a major track outside of Bogota. Some of the best jockeys and horses in South America campaigned there, including Jose Santos, who was a four-time champion jockey before coming to the United States. Unfortunately, Los Andes closed in 1986 and the sport began to decline. There are only a few 100 registered Thoroughbreds, although there still remains an organization for that breed led by their enthusiastic President Luis Felipe Triana.

In Colombia, an operator must have a pari-mutuel license to offer off-track wagering, so there is no official simulcasting of North American signals. There is some hope, because a non pari-mutuel track has opened near Valledupar in the northern part of the country. The ownership of Hipodromo San Fransisco would like to gain an official pari-mutuel license, so they can open OTB’s all over Colombia.

Beautiful Paso Fino horses. A major agricultural exposition. No recognized Thoroughbred racing. So why is this column in TDN rather than a travel magazine?

The fourth race at Belmont Park.

After my speech at the conference, I was sitting in the audience listening to the excellent presentations by University of Kentucky representatives Dr. Ernest Bailey and Dr. Tom Tobin. To my surprise, the gentlemen sitting in front of me was studying the Daily Racing Form past performances for the next day’s fourth race from Belmont Park. I asked him about it, but he did not speak English. However, I believe he was fluent in the international language of horseplaying.

So, here is the question for us to ponder… This gentlemen from Bogota, Colombia, was going to make an educated wager and probably watch a race run at Belmont Park. Just how much did NYRA and the horsemen receive from that wager? Just as important, where is the coordinated effort to develop legitimate wagering in Colombia or many other countries, so North American tracks and horsemen can receive much needed additional revenue and get their fair share for producing an excellent racing product?

I was fortunate to attend the Pan American Conference in New York City in June. The event was sponsored by The Jockey Club and the Latin America Racing Channel and focused on the globalization of Thoroughbred racing and breeding. NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern shared his thoughts with the group on the international growth of the NBA, which now receives revenue for its product in 215 countries and territories. The NBA has offices in 12 countries, but it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1970’s, the league generated about $100 million in annual revenue. Today, that number is $6 billion. To place that in perspective, Thoroughbred racing in North America generates around $2 billion per year in pari-mutuel wagering commissions. Stern had the correct vision into the future. Every major American corporation said the future is global. The US population is 300 million, which means billions of potential fans lived in other countries that could now be efficiently reached via satellite communication and the internet.

As the NBA made its worldwide progress, Stern noted that in virtually every major country, they had to work with local government. This was especially so in China, where a governmental official left Stern waiting in the lobby for a meeting for three hours. But, he understood the dynamics of progress and persevered in China, which is now one of the world’s hotbeds of basketball. Stern described the international development process as having to “go country by painful country” to build distribution channels. He also mentioned that progress was hastened by the NBA taking control of its rights worldwide, rather dealing with myriad middlemen.

Will it take time to develop international business for North American horse racing? Of course.

One of the great lines I heard at the Colombia Congress was as follows: “Members of the horse industry always want to eat the cake before it is baked.”

It will take some time and will take a coordinated effort, but I am convinced that “if we let the cake bake” there is a substantial long-term return for Thoroughbred racing much like the NBA.

There is one other major development that will assist in this effort. The Thoroughbred Racing and Protective Bureau has developed a tote security system, which should be ready for a full implementation in 2016. The software package captures all necessary bet transaction information from the receiving site. This is a major upgrade from the previous situation. Host tracks were basically “flying blind” with a lack of timely information from the growing number of hubs, outlets and ADW’s throughout the world. As in any business, sound accounting systems must be in place to ensure that the correct rights fees are being paid for the product.

North America features some of the best horse racing in the world. Through the TRPB tote security system, we have the means to account and audit wagers internationally. Through Roberts Communication, we have a system that can provide secure and encrypted signals worldwide. So, the only missing piece is a coordinated development plan. Based on my experience in Colombia, I believe the industry needs to build on the momentum begun at the Pan American Conference and make sure we receive our fair share of the gentlemen’s wager on the fourth race at Belmont.

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