If you’ve read the recent news reports about the new National Thoroughbred League that gets underway this fall, you might have a lot of questions.
So did I. So I talked to Tom Ludt on Wednesday. He’s a former chairperson of the Breeders’ Cup and the former president of Santa Anita. And now he’s the president of horse operations for the new league.
The NTL race dates are two-day events in five cities: Nashville by name Sept. 2 and 3 for races held at Kentucky Downs, Seattle at Emerald Downs on Sept. 15 and 16, New York-New Jersey at Meadowlands on Oct. 13 and 14, Los Angeles by name at a Southern California track Nov. 10 and 11 and the championship at Tampa Bay Downs on Dec. 31.
“It's all about trying to create event weekends capped with racing,” Ludt said. For the Kentucky Downs events, centered in nearby Nashville, the events will have a country-music theme. In New Jersey, there’s a food festival and attendees will have special access. There will be after parties and VIP seating. And fans will have separate seating at the tracks.
The idea, he said, is “to change the on-track experience. We're not excluding current horsepeople, but this is very driven to attract new people. And they've done studies. They're not unique to this, obviously, the tracks have done this, the industry has done this, trying to study why people do come or don't come and how long they'll stay and what they'll do. And (NTL officials) believe that they can create a model that will create new interest.
“And as a guy that used to run Santa Anita, I can tell you, that's my passion. There's obviously great people that sit at home on the couch and bet on their ADWs, and that's wonderful. But I still believe we need atmospheric tracks. I don't ever want us to think that this industry can lose that. And that's their ultimate goal, is creating a great on-track experience by drawing in new fans.”
Battling the negative feedback
Ludt said he welcomed the opportunity to “address some of the lovely, great negative news,” associated with the league.
“I've read that we're taking over the track, and we're going to destroy racing. But what we have is a contract with the track that we will run National Thoroughbred League races within their card. ... This is where my background comes into play. We want to work within the system.”
The league will have three-race series at each track except for Kentucky Downs, where “they run gigantic fields because of the purses. We're putting two horses per team in those races so they have 12-horse fields … It'll be in the middle of their card, whether the first two or the third and fourth or the ninth and 10th. We work with the horsemen on that, and so the contract is an agreement where we have the ability to run these races. The track and the horsemen get the betting handle, we supply the purse income for our races.”
Another bit of negative feedback: “Someone told me racing secretaries are going to hate this. They've already signed off on it. We didn't just wing this and hope that people are going to accept it.”
And, he said, “the idea that this is a bad thing is just mind boggling. It's not costing the league or the industry anything. We're spending a lot of money to promote racing.”
Ludt said that in negotiating the contracts, league officials worked to be cooperative. “Especially at Kentucky Downs, giving up two races is a big deal there, because they don't have that many races in their meet. But we also didn't want to hurt the horsemen. So they get the handle benefits. So that makes it a win-win there.”
Say a fan shows at the track and has never heard of the National Thoroughbred League. Would they realize it’s a different kind of arrangement?
“Obviously, we hope to God we've done a better marketing job than that,” Ludt said. “But yeah, if you truly didn't know anything about conditions, and you didn't listen, and you blindly sat down in the grandstand? Let's assume they're running 10 races that day, we’re two of the 10. And so the Pick 3s, Pick 5, we're just blended right in with the other races.”
Formula 1 tie-in
The league’s co-founders are Randall Lane, the chief content officer for Forbes and a long-time events creator, and Robert Daugherty, an investor and educator.
“In part, their logic was, looking at the horse industry, that there is no structure, no teams.” Ludt said
An interesting note from the conversation with Ludt is that the inspiration for the National Thoroughbred League was the Netflix documentary series “Drive to Survive” about Formula 1 racing.
Ludt said the series took viewers “behind the seat of the driver, his personal life, the strategies, all the different things that go on. And so they took that idea and wanted to implement that into horse racing. And what it is, is it's weekend events.”
“Obviously,” he continued, “that model is very different, because we're not car racing, and we're not all over the world.”
Ludt said the partners are “modeling it after that series, and we're going to have a documentary series. They've contracted with a producer. … Honestly, it's one of the greatest selling points that I got excited about.”
They’re counting on the series to generate interest in the league. “Unfortunately, they're going take two or three years, just because we’ve got to spend a year getting the film, they’ll edit it, start creating the episodes. And then people have to watch it and then find any interest in going to racing.”
But the partners are committed to that time frame, Ludt said. “Bob Daugherty is a financial guy, and he's got a very strategic financial plan and it loses money for I think 2 1/2 years, somewhere in that range, before they start cash flowing under his business model. But he sees it as a wise investment for the long term.”
Another thing. What if one of these horses becomes a super horse? Will we see him or her in the Breeders’ Cup?
“Our current rules and regulations require the horses to only race in NTL races, and so it'd be a great problem,” Ludt said. “I've had a few people say, 'oh, you'll change your mind.' And I'm like, 'Listen, at the end of the day, the league is owned by the owners.' But the goal is to … get those kinds of horses in the league running against each other, because that will draw. If you look at the purest part of racing, having great rivalries is what draws people to the track.”