It has been a long and interesting ride for Mark McDermott, the Executive Director of Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association (PHBA). After 35 years, McDermott is stepping down from the organization that has undergone remarkable growth and change during his tenure. In 1976, McDermott was working in Louisiana for the Louisiana Breeders Sales Company. “The fellow I was working with and for down there ran into Russell Jones, who said they had just gotten a program in Pennsylvania, and were looking for someone.” Jones and his late brother Richard were founders of the Walnut Green bloodstock agency.
The program that McDermott joined in Pennsylvania had actually incorporated in 1948, and was beginning to change its focus, he explained. “It was mostly a southeastern Pennsylvania social club,” he says. “It did a lot with point-to-point races and horse shows. It was the Pennsylvania equivalent of the American Horse Shows Association.”
A New Landscape for Racing
But things were changing in Pennsylvania, as interest in thoroughbred racing was growing and the organization that would become the PHBA was poised to assume a leadership position in the industry. McDermott, who has owned horses for as long as he has been associated with horse-centered organizations, reflected on the many ways horseracing has changed since 1976. “The money has changed an awful lot,” he says. But the quality of racing has changed as well. “The growth of Pennsylvania-breds supporting racing in the state has changed dramatically.”
He says that the industry has developed a much more recognizable brand, with a loyal following. “People who started going to the races here as kids are now ensconced in the business.” And the Pennsylvania racing brand has attracted -a lot of talent from other states, too. “People who have trained in other places have come to Pennsylvania, too.”
He’s especially proud of the role PHBA has played in the growth of the state’s Thoroughbred industry. He points to the establishment of the identity of the state’s breeding industry, and the value of the product they offer, along with the extensive support that Pennsylvania-breds provide for live racing in the state. “Those were all the purposes of the program 30 years ago,” he says. “The foal crop back then was much smaller. There were probably more race dates then in the northeast corridor,” he says. “And there just weren’t the horses to support all the racing in the region.”
The Past as Prologue
Even as he touts the many outstanding achievements of the PHBA over the past 35 years, McDermott says the future holds the promise of even greater success. “With all things being equal to where they are today—and not much else changing in the landscape of racing in North America—I see Pennsylvania as being the major breeding area in the country,” he says. He points to several factors that make him so confident. “There are a lot of people who breed horses that don’t own farms,” he explains. “So they’re paying board somewhere. So why not keep horses in the state where there’s a bigger payout?”
He points to the many ways slots legislation has reshaped racing in Pennsylvania. “There’s a huge attraction here. There’s a very broad spectrum of races. Prior to slots, there was no real attraction for a relatively high-priced yearling to come back to Pennsylvania and race here.” But slots changed the equation. A high-priced yearling racing in Pennsylvania has enormous earning potential with the payouts supported by slots revenue.
McDermott looks at the state as a land of promise for the Thoroughbred industry. “Pennsylvania is such a big state,” he says. “There are several areas in the state that could become what Ocala has become to Florida.” He has clearly given this a lot of thought, adding up all of the levers that Pennsylvania now has to exercise nationwide clout in the Thoroughbred racing and breeding arena. “The potential exists in several places in Pennsylvania. The industry is already established here. New Bolton Center is one of the premier equine hospitals in the world. The potential exists that Pennsylvania could be incredible as far as a Thoroughbred breeding center in America.”
A Job Well Done
In the span of 35 years, McDermott can still pick out moments of extraordinary success. “The high point of my career was probably overriding Governor Casey’s veto of legislation that would have allowed for off-track betting.” In November, 1988, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill that legalized off-track betting. The Governor had vehemently opposed the controversial bill and, to nobody’s surprise, he vetoed it. That veto spurred an enormous effort by the racing industry and breeders—led in part by PHBA—to reverse the governor’s decision. “It was the only override during his eight years as governor,” McDermott says. “You know how conservative Pennsylvania is. The industry worked very hard to get the legislation passed, and the way the session was ending, they were down to the last three days when he vetoed it.”
The stakes for the racing industry were high, and they had never engaged in such a massive, eleventh-hour effort to galvanize support for what seemed an impossible quest. “We had just three days to make our case for the override,” McDermott recalls—his memory as clear as if it all happened just last week. “It was a Herculean effort to make the case. In the waning moments of the session—it was a Wednesday morning—that they actually did it. It was a job well done.”
An Optimist Who Sees Opportunities in Challenging Times
McDermott says there have been many exciting high points in his career at PHBA, and he doesn’t focus on negatives. So he can’t identify any time in the past 35 years that he would call a low point. That’s not to say there are no significant challenges facing the Thoroughbred industry in the state. “The economy is such right now that it’s a difficult task for breeders to face what it takes to get a horse to the races.” There are forces of nature that humans just can’t overcome. Sometimes, he says, breeders’ plans and nature’s outcomes don’t balance out. “The breeders fund is performance-based. Breeders whose horses never get to the track have the same financial investment as those whose horses race successfully.”
The economy today, combined with the realities of horse breeding present significant challenges for the industry. “Breeding is a four-year deal,” he says. “It’s a long term deal and a lot of different things can happen in the racing dynamic in that period.”
From Horses to Courses
June 1 will be McDermott’s last day on the job at PHBA. On June 2, he expects to be “up and healthy and enjoying life.” An avid golfer, he’s looking forward to more time on the golf course. “I enjoy the game. I enjoy being that close to nature away from the telephone ringing.”
After 35 years, though, he doesn’t expect to get too far away from an industry he loves as much as horseracing.