History of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA)

Early Horse Racing in America

The sport of horse racing has a long and illustrious history. Although hard to trace back to a specific place or date it is widely believed that competitive horse racing first began soon after the initial domestication of horses around 4500 BC.

Spreading throughout various ancient empires across Asia the sport became popular in medieval England thanks mainly to the interest in the horse racing by aristocrats and royalty. Organised horse racing dates back to the reign of Charles II (1660-85) in England who created the ‘King’s Plates’ races at Newmarket racecourse.

New Market

English settlers first brought horses and the love of racing over to America as early as the 1600’s. It is believed the first formal racetrack established in the New World was one laid out on Long Island, New York, as early as 1665. It is even recorded that New York’s colonial governor awarded the first racing trophy there which was a silver cup.

the history of horse racing

Organised horse racing in America gained mainstream popularity in the years following the Civil War. This was boosted mainly thanks to the huge appetite for gambling at the time with people attracted by the potential large winnings.

By 1890 there were more than 300 tracks in operation across the US but corruption was widespread. So in 1894 the American Jockey Club was established to help clean up the sport. However it failed to gain control over the sport nationwide and many states began to ban bookmaking.

By 1908 there were a total of just 25 racecourses across the US and the sport was in major decline. A turnaround began with the Kentucky Derby where pari-mutuel betting was introduced. State legislatures quickly realised that form of organised betting could be monitored and taxed and therefore approved of it greatly. So now racecourses were owned and operated privately with the state providing governance over the sport.

Formation of NTRA in 1997

Throughout the early 20th Century horse racing enjoyed its golden age in the US but began to see a decline in attendance and interest after the 1970’s. So in the mid 1990s a number of thoroughbred organisations came together and devised a plan to establish a ‘league office’ to help reinvigorate the sport nationwide. This would be similar to other major US sports associations like the National Football League (NFL), The National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball.

NTRA beginings

The NTRA was formed in December 1997 and sponsored by five founding organisations. The Breeders’ Cup Ltd., The Jockey Club, Keeneland Association, the National Thoroughbred Association and Oak Tree Racing Association all came together to help save the sport of horse racing in the US. Each of them contributing $1 million to the NTRA’s start up fund.

The key idea of the NTRA was to create a national structure for thoroughbred racing in the US to unify the sport. A business plan was drawn up which included a national TV strategy, marketing plan and methods to enhance revenues and cut costs across the industry.

saratoga-springs-horse racing

In 1998 a $10 million national ad campaign was launched in an attempt to spike interest in thoroughbred horse racing in the US. Then in 1999 the NTRA brought out Winner Communications who produced all of the horse racing programming for ESPN and ESPN2. This enabled them to better control how horse racing was portrayed on American television.

Just 2 years after the foundation of the NTRA signs of financial trouble began to show. A proposed 1% tax on the sale of race horses caused major upset amongst owners and breeders and was eventually reduced to effectively 0.1% of the sale instead. This severely dented the projected income of the organisation and caused distrust with many major players in the industry.

The accumulated deficit of more than $4 million that the NTRA now had meant it was far from achieving its goal of becoming self funded in its fifth year. It was time for something to change if the organisation was to succeed.

Breeder’s Cup merges with NTRA in 2000

The Breeders’ Cup organisation were responsible for thoroughbred racing’s one day season ending showpiece event of eight championship races. The organisation had a considerable amount of money in the bank and a guaranteed annual income of around $30 million. Therefore many saw it as a logical step that the NTRA should merge with the Breeder’s Cup to create a financially stable industry body for the sport.

The NTRA and the Breeders’ Cup announced what both sides called a hybrid merger in 2000. The agreement would see the Breeders’ Cup retaining control of its signature season ending event. However any revenue created from the sale of broadcasting, sponsorship, wagering, admissions, and merchandising of the Breeder’s Cup would become part of a merged budget. This meant that the NTRA would receive enough incoming cash to make up for its accumulated deficit and be able to continue functioning.

racehorse history of horse racing NTRA

NTRA Structure and Strategy

With the freshly merged structure the NTRA were able to pursue a number of exciting new initiatives. It launched a $750,000 promotion campaign to encourage new people to get involved with horse ownership and breeding. The organization also stepped up it lobbying efforts with an innovative Internet Gambling Prohibition Bill that provided an exemption for pari-mutuel betting. It was hoped that this could open up the huge potential of online wagering.

The NTRA also announced a strategic alliance with prominent European race tracks, Ascot in London and Longchamp in Paris, in 2002. This was all aimed at widening the appeal of the sport and attracting the best horses and riders to compete in the US. Winners of certain British races would be awarded a new ‘Ambassador’s Cup’ if they then won at the Breeders’ Cup race in the US.

A horse named Funny Cide helped to capture the public imagination in 2003 and came close to winning the triple crown which had last been achieved 25 years previously. Combined with a major Hollywood film, Seabiscuit, that year thoroughbred racing was certainly regaining popularity in the US.
Weather this popularity can continue to rise over the long-term is yet to be seen but the formation of the NTRA has certainly been key to growing engagement in recent years.