A few minutes with… New ARCI chair Mike Hopkins

by | Apr 11, 2018 | Breaking, Business, Maryland, MD Business, National news

Mike Hopkins.

From an Association of Racing Commissioners International release

Mike Hopkins, the Maryland Racing Commission’s executive director since 2002 after spending 18 years as deputy director, is the new chair of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, the only umbrella organization of the official governing rule-making bodies for professional horse and greyhound racing in North America and parts of the Caribbean. Hopkins last year was honored with the ARCI’s prestigious Len Foote Award, which recognizes exemplary service and contribution to racing integrity by a commission executive director as chosen by his or her peers.

Hopkins grew up on his family’s farm in Maryland, helping care for six stallions and more than 100 broodmares. At age 12, he was working the Fasig-Tipton yearling sales at Saratoga for famed Windfields Farm. His first racetrack job came in 1980 at Pimlico, taking tickets from fans entering the infield tunnel on Preakness Day. Hopkins also spent 12 years as a steward and remains an accredited official. As best that can be determined, he is the only racing regulator who has wrestled a 500-pound black bear. That came back in his early 20s, when an old professional wrestler toured towns and taverns with a declawed bear, challenging young bucks to wrestle the animal.

“My brother called me and said, ‘What are you doing tonight? … We’re all going to this bar. We’re going to wrestle a bear,’” Hopkins recalled last year after being honored with the Len Foote Award. “The way it was described to me is that to beat the bear, you had to get the bear on his back, feet up in the air. That wasn’t going to happen. I think the bear won; the bear did win. Let’s put it this way: I was watching my brother try to tangle with it a little bit, and the next thing I know, my brother’s head is bouncing off the wrestling mat like a sack of potatoes and the bear jumping on him.”

Hopkins sat down at the recent ARCI Conference on Equine Welfare and Racing Integrity with turf publicist Jennie Rees for a Q & A about being ARCI chair as well as the importance of the regulatory process, building aircraft and rebuilding Ferrari engines as good preparation for problem-solving.

Of all the many jobs you’ve had in racing, which one has prepared you the most to be chair of ARCI?

I think all of them have been preparation for that, because it’s provided me experience in almost every aspect of horse racing that we regulate in the state and throughout country. Racing office, horse identifier, stewards stand, driving a truck for 20 years delivering horses all over the country, working on my parent’s farm, at Windfields Farm, which was a great experience. And being around good horses and good horsemen and good owners.

Why did you decide to stick with the regulatory side?

I just thought it was fun. I’ve enjoyed it. I had opportunities to go to racetracks in other states. Chick Lang was my mentor. Chick would say, “I got a job for you in track management.” He’d say, “I know your family is here, you have deep family ties to Maryland and you don’t want to go. I just want you to know the opportunity is there if you want to take it.” And I’d always turn him down to go different places. I think it was the right choice, and the right choice for me. My family got to grow up with the horse business. I’ve met some amazing people on every step of the social ladder imaginable. They’ve all been very gracious and very good to work with.

Your tenure as ARCI chair is a year. What are your priorities to push?

What I foresee doing over the next 12 months is that continued collaboration with all the industry stake-holders. Medication uniformity is extremely important. We’ve done a lot of good things over the last 15-20 years. They just need to continue to be nudged down the road. I don’t see any one particular issue that stands out above the others. But I think continued communication with every stake-holder in this industry is important, that we all come out on the right end of it in thinking of the safety and welfare of the horse and safety of the riders, and to make sure we’re protecting the wagering public.

You mentioned medication uniformity. The Mid-Atlantic and Maryland have been at the forefront of developing a regional compact to where regulations would not just be close but identical. Do you see that as a model for national uniformity?

I do. I’ve got to give Alan Foreman (chair and CEO of the Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association) a lot of credit, because he’s been formulating these meetings and pushing for it for years. What he’s done with these meetings we have, it’s not only the horsemen’s organizations that are represented but actual horsemen who show up. They get a full description of what direction we want to go and the changes we want to make. They get answers to their questions or concerns they have. Or maybe we overlooked something. They might come back and say, “Have you thought of this?” And we can say, “Yes, we have” and explain what the process would be at that point, or “No, we haven’t. That’s a great point, let’s add it.”

That type of communications and collaboration with horsemen’s organizations, and racetracks, in those large meeting has translated to the local horsemen’s organizations. We can come back to Maryland and have separate meetings with these organizations and describe what we plan on doing — to get buy-in and trying to make a level playing field for those people. That’s all they want: uniformity, the same rules from one state line to the next.

Put in perspective the speed of getting uniformity.

Legitimate question, a great question. In Maryland, when I currently go to make a rule change, it takes around three to four months. That’s if everything falls into place and at what time of the year. That four months could turn into seven or eight. New Jersey has incorporation by reference, where once ARCI adopts a (model) regulation it becomes regulation in their state. West Virginia, everything goes through their legislative process, and they meet once a year. If they get a regulation change in the middle of September, they have to wait an entire year, almost 18 months before we come back to their legislative process. So that is a challenge for everybody, and it’s also a challenge for the horsemen, because you try to translate that information and educate them about what you’re trying to do.

You do lose sight that when one thing takes place in one state and it hasn’t happened in the next state, next thing they do is come back to you and say, “I thought you said everybody has adopted this.” Oh, they have. But you’ve got to look at their process.

Some pushing for federal legislation say the state-by-state process is too slow. Others point to how quickly all major racing jurisdictions banned anabolic steroids in the wake of the Big Brown steroids controversy that blew up after he won the 2008 Preakness.

It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do. The regulatory process is a slow process — deliberately slow — because it wants to provide (input and educational) opportunity for the public, stakes-holders and primarily the general public. We’re a government agency, and you have to keep in mind that we service the public. Irrespective of how expeditious people want rules to get into place, there’s a process in place for a reason. That reason is so those regulatory changes are fully understood by the people they are going to affect before they become effective. They have that opportunity to come back and ask questions.

What is your position on proposed federal bill H.R. 2651, speaking for yourself?

I think the introduction of the compact this time, without the “opt-out” provisions in it, would resolve many of the problems. The compact and/or the federal legislation doesn’t solve other problems we have in regard to medication. Research and development is imperative, including as far as growth hormones, peptides. More research money has to be found to accomplish that. I don’t see anything in the federal bill that would alleviate that issue as far as research is concerned.

As far as other things the federal bill does, I think that from our regulatory standpoint, with the introduction of the compact, we’d be accomplishing the same thing as the federal bill.

Any state can join the compact, correct?

Anyone. Kentucky has a form of legislation passed; I don’t know if they can use that to join the compact. Virginia has it. Colorado has it. Washington State is going through the process of adopting language. New Jersey. Pennsylvania. New York. Delaware. The more you have, the better off you are.

What’s the most difficult aspect of being a racing regulator?

Making sure that the changes you’ve initiated are communicated well, and (getting) people to pay attention to it. Probably the most difficult thing to do is to make sure the people you are trying to regulate read the information you’re giving them.

You also said it’s fun being in your job. What’s fun about it?

This is a great game. Are you kidding me? It’s the greatest show on earth.

Are you allowed to bet?

I am allowed to bet, but I don’t. It never really appealed to me. It was just being around the horses when I was a kid; it just got in my blood. I love talking to the grooms and hotwalkers. It’s good to see them every once in a while. It’s good to see the trainers I’ve known for a long time. Same with owners — “How you doing? You got any problems, issues?”

But you don’t get to stay on the backside or grandstand. You’ve got to go to an office.

That’s correct. But technology is a great thing. iPhones are great. I spend time in the office but I also spend time out in the field. There are duties you have to do, governmental aspects of the job. But you spend a lot of time educating people about what you’re doing and responding to people who have questions. It could be anyone: legislators, other government officials, other states. We work together, and you grow those relationships with other states. It’s great to come a meet like this and come together face to face and have discussions with them to work on problems.

Is being new chair of ARCI an honor or an added burden of work?

I’m humbled by it. I’m humbled to the fact that I was nominated to be put in that rotation to take the position. Actually Frank Zanzuccki (executive director of the New Jersey Racing Commission) is the one who recommended me. I look at it as an opportunity to try and further the commitment we all have to protect the integrity and welfare of the horses that we’re overseeing and the riders and all the participants.

We can’t let you go without mentioning the time you wrestled a bear. Did that experience in anyway prepare you for A, being a regulator, and B, being chair of ARCI?

(laughs) It’s one of those things you don’t know about me from boats to building airplanes that have created other aspects of my thought process.

Tell us about the boats and building airplanes.

A friend of my father’s always needed help taking his boat, a 42-foot trawler, from Fort Lauderdale back to Baltimore every year and then back to Florida for the winter. So we’d spend two weeks, four weeks a year, coming up and going back.

As far as the airplanes, they were all experimental aircraft. When my wife and I made a collective decision so she could stay home with the kids, I’d work part time in addition to working for the racing commission. One of the jobs I had was with the local airport building experimental aircraft for them out of kits. It was pretty fascinating. I learned a lot.

What are you doing now off the job?

That’s off the chart? Getting ready for my daughter to get married. A number of years ago a friend of mine would come over behind the house with his dogs. He had a couple of Labradors that had been trained for field trials. I had never done that with a dog. My wife said, “You ought to get one.” I said, “OK.” He happened to have a litter of puppies, and I got a dog and started training dogs. I had a lot of fun with them. I don’t train them now, because I’m down to one old dog. But I do want to get another one. It’s a great concept. It’s you and the dog. You have competitors, but it’s up to you and up to him, and you work together…. I’m on the national Field Trial Gunners Guild. I get invited twice a year to the national championships with these dogs, where they run 100 of the best dogs and at the end of the week there’s one winner. That’s it. There are no seconds. They are “finishers.” So when I’m not working in racing, I’ll spend as much time as I can with some dogs or with other friends helping their dogs get better. They’re field dogs, and I train them for field trial competitions and hunting tests.

With these interests, what was your college degree?

I earned a two-year degree, playing football for three years until sidelined with a knee injury. I grew up on a farm. I was always the one everyone came to when something broke. It was all hands-on practical experience, just working with people. I guess I have a knack for it. I have a cousin who runs a high-end automotive shop that we’d do a lot of rebuilds on motors, engine compartments of Ferraris and old cars that he’d be sent that didn’t work. That was great experience, too.

People coming to you to fix something that’s broken, is that analogous to what you do now?

It could be. Very possible. I like to solve problems. There’s always a way to fix it.

OK, what is the state of horse racing?

Horse racing, overall, I think it tells a good story. I think horse racing is certainly on a resurgence in a number of regions of the country. I think it’s because more attention is being paid by track management, that it slipped for a while. I think horsemen are paying more attention to it, being more likely to negotiate in a fair manner. The breeding industry, because the number of horses being produced is flat, and I think the primary reason is you don’t have that many owners out there who are willing to step up and make the investment. That’s one of the aspects we’ve seen over the years, where you had four owners with four different horses, now you have four owners with one horse. Certainly the supply and demand is not there at this point. Racetracks would certainly like to see more. Full fields and larger purses seem to be what’s driving this train right now.

As long as all the parties involved in this industry are willing to sit down and have discussions, whether they agree or disagree, there’s always room for compromise. Always room to move forward. You never sit still, never sit stagnant. There’s always a way to improve some things. Unless you stay at the at the table and contribute one way or the other, you’ll never reach that goal to continually improve what you’re doing.