Trainer Tim Keefe is the new president of the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. Keefe, a Maryland native who has been on the MTHA board since 2005, has in recent years trained local stalwarts such as Eighttofasttocatch and Red’s Round Table. We set down with him on September 12 to discuss his ideas on the key issues facing the MTHA and what Maryland racing’s future looks like. In this first of two parts, we focus on Keefe’s priorities and some of the other external issues facing the organization. In the second part, we address governance and internal issues.
THE RACING BIZ: You’ve been a board member of the MTHA for nine years and have now become the president. What do you see as the organization’s role?
TIM KEEFE: The role of the MTHA is to make sure that everything is moving forward: that our industry as a whole is moving forward, getting better, meeting the needs of the owners and trainers, improving our product. I think the MTHA’s role is to make sure that those of us who make a living here in Maryland through racing are able to continue to do that.
TRB: What are your top priorities as you enter your first term?
KEEFE: In the short term, obviously it’s racing dates, making sure we can sustain what we call our year-round racing schedule, 146 days. Trying to figure out the racing schedule for 2015 and beyond. I think what we need to do most importantly is try to find a way to get some of our summer dates back. One of our biggest assets is the turf course that’s hardly ever utilized here. I think moving forward we try to get some August dates next year; I mean, everybody always wants to run — we’re dark from June through September. It gives us a big block where we’re not racing here in Maryland.
So if we can figure out a schedule within the 146 days where we can race some during the summer time, I think that would be huge.
TRB: If you add August days and stick to a 146-day schedule, those days have to come from some other time of the year. How do you navigate that?
KEEFE: You look at last year’s schedule — last year was the first year that the horsemen bought days under our 10-year contract — we bought January, February, and March, and what happened? It was a horrible, horrible winter. So that didn’t quite work out. Certainly, August days are going to be a priority in my mind. I’ve heard that, not just myself, but I’ve heard that from countless other horsemen that want to run here in August. So we’re going to have to try to pick some of those days first and work around that. Whether it’ll be an abbreviated winter schedule, that’s not determined yet.
Next year we had to choose from January, February, August, and December; those are the four months the horsemen have to pick from. The racetrack picked up the other months. So you pick up some days in August, maybe some days in December as well. We’re talking to the Maryland Jockey Club about trying to pick a few days in this month and maybe half-days in another month, rather than just buying three block months. So maybe there’ll be some days in August and some in December along with January and February.
TRB: And your longer term priorities?
KEEFE: The continued improvement in relationships between our group, the breeders and the racetrack, the [Maryland Jockey Club]. I think we’ve made great strides in the past year in getting all three groups to come together. It’s just open communication between the groups and working together. Keeping the slot allocation money going towards the purses; trying to keep our relationships positive down in Annapolis.
KEEFE: Keep good positive relationships in Annapolis. Get along in our organization. Show how we’re using the slot money to improve the business and make it better for the state of Maryland. If we do that, I think we can hang onto it, at least as much of it if not all of it. I think you can always improve relationships (among groups); I think the MTHA’s relationship with the Maryland Racing Commission is very good right now. I think our relationship with the breeders is getting much better. I think we can still go further. I think with the racetrack – again, it’s communicating, your thoughts and ideas, what you agree and don’t agree on, and trying to come to a resolution — I think all four groups, we’re all working together right now, we’re all on the same page.
TRB: The relationship between the MTHA and the breeders has, at times, been a difficult one over the years, and by all accounts it’s better now than perhaps in the last few years. How do you see that relationship developing?
KEEFE: I think the new board that was just elected — seven new people on the board — you have some of those are breeders. Every one of them on the board, they’re energetic, they’re looking to voice their ideas, thoughts, and opinions. They’re looking forward to bridge the gap; that maybe wasn’t there before between our group and the breeders. It’s talking to the different groups. We each have at times different ideas on how to get to a certain goal — year-round racing, bigger purses, improving the breeding industry in Maryland, a better product. Sometimes we take different paths to get there; it’s trying to get our paths more together in going down to that ultimate goal of great racing.
TRB: One of the issues that many horsemen are talking about is the status of the barns at Laurel — whether they’re getting built, and what that means for Bowie. What’s your take on that?
KEEFE: That’s part of the [10-year deal between the horsemen and the tracks]. Bowie needs to close at some point; I think everyone is in agreement with that. According to the contract, as long as 300 stalls are built here at Laurel, when those are built, Bowie closes. The stalls haven’t been built yet.
Until those stalls get built, Bowie is going to stay open. The most important thing, I think right now is, to sustain the year-round racing, is to have the proper number of stalls so horsemen coming in here can sustain four days of racing a week and fill the races. You can’t close Bowie, having less stalls — if you have less horsemen here in Maryland, you’re not going to fill the races, you’re not going to make your 146 days. You need those stalls so that there are enough horses here in Maryland to make the races. And there are plenty of people especially in the wintertime coming from Monmouth, Suffolk, and the other tracks that prefer to be here. I mean, Maryland is a great place to run — great facilities, great horsemen, great racing office, good jockey colony. It’s a really good place to have horses and to want to run.