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An Interview with Racing Commissioner Christine White23 November 2005
Recently, I was given the opportunity to interview Christine White, Michigan's Racing Commissioner. Ms. White was appointed Interim Racing Commissioner and took office in January and, thereafter, was officially appointed to the post for a term expiring December 31, 2008.
Ms. White previously served as the deputy director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture, and is a former administrative officer with the United States Department of Agriculture Veterinary Services. She received significant industry support for her appointment to the post from the many sectors of this complicated industry as a result of her performance as Interim Racing Commissioner.
Ms. White is a self described "life long horse person" and has been active in the pleasure and show aspects of the equine industry. In her role as the Racing Commissioner, she has found this experience with horses to be enormously helpful in dealing with some of the day to day regulatory matters such as the oversight of the use of various medications on horses.
It is clear that Ms. White views as her primary responsibility the proper regulation of this industry. "The primary purpose of the Office of Racing Commissioner is to ensure the integrity of racing," she said. She also noted, however, that the Office has a role to play in assisting the industry in its efforts to promote racing. "Where we can be of assistance to the industry in its attempts to succeed, we will do what we can," she said. For example, she noted that she has been working with the Legislature on the potential creation of some agricultural renaissance zones that could benefit the industry. She also has sought greater exposure for the industry from the Michigan Travel Bureau.
"A key to the success of racing in Michigan is the ability to appeal to a new demographic group. We have an enormous number of people who love horses in this state who have had limited contact with horse racing. We need to find ways to appeal to this group," Ms. White noted.
Ms. White faces a number of challenges in her new role. Given Michigan's budget crisis, the Office of Racing Commission received a 16 percent decrease in its budget. Additionally, the passage of Proposal 1 now means that the tracks will not be able to add slot machines or VLTs any time in the near future. Ms. White noted that the industry is regrouping and is now looking internally for solutions. Despite the challenges, Ms. White expressed great confidence in the potential of the industry in this state.
"It is in a slump, not dying. We need to focus on growing the fan base and it will come back," Ms. White noted. She also said there are some positive signs suggesting that the industry is poised to make a comeback. "A recent ESPN poll shows an increase in interest in horseracing," Ms. White said. "Additionally, there is statistical evidence in Michigan suggesting that the handle for live racing is growing. This is a direct result of the efforts of the industry to modernize and market more effectively."
Ms. White said that her office has helped administer a $1.8 million capital improvement program at the tracks resulting in improvements to the grandstand facilities and the stall and barn areas. She noted that to compete with other entertainment venues, such as casinos and sports bars, tracks need to continue to improve their venues. "The key is to look to the future and work on expanding the demographic fan base by attracting new visitors," Ms. White explained.
She said that there are a variety of ways of doing this, including working on new fan promotions, creating greater awareness among the equine industry, and promoting the people and personalities of the horse racing industry. "Horse racing has many interesting trainers, such as D. Wayne Lucas," she noted. "Michigan has many interesting people involved in the industry, such as Julie Krone, the most successful female jockey in history, who recently won induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame," said Ms. White. She also gave praise to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Michigan Harness Horsemen's Association for their work in promoting jockeys and drivers to the public.
Perhaps one of the more difficult tasks Ms. White had to undertake as a result of the budget decrease was a corresponding reduction in race dates. She noted, however, that the industry understands the situation and that there has been very little outcry. She also said there may be a bit of a silver lining in the reduction of dates. "A reduction in the number of live racing dates can lead to an increase in purses and better quality races, thereby increasing fan interest. By increasing fan interest, there will be even better purses, creating a positive upward cycle," she noted.
Ms. White ended our interview by emphasizing the importance of the industry. "This is a $1.2 billion industry that accounts for 26,000 jobs and $142 million in personal income and $23.5 million in tax revenue. It is an extremely vital part of our agricultural industry in this state. My job is to assure integrity and help the industry help itself."