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Thursday Thoughts: Q&A with USTA Director, Jim Miller

by Al Cimaglia

March 22, 2018

USTA Director Jim Miller has a wealth of experience in harness racing as a part of race track management. He was also an owner on the thoroughbred side. Miller has worn many hats since 1997 when he started at Arlington Park. Currently Miller is the Director of Media Relations at Hawthorne Race Course and has been a USTA Director since 2017. In my view Miller has the perfect resume to be an effective USTA Director.

It was a pleasure to interview Jim as he is candid and committed. Now I have a better understanding of the current state of the USTA, and my optimism concerning the future of harness racing has grown.

1. Jim, you have recently attended your second USTA Board of Directors Annual Meeting. How would you access the current state of harness racing compared to last year?

I would say there has been a good amount of progress from what I have seen from year to year. Being this was my second year as a Director, I was focused on getting to know the Directors along with getting an understanding of the USTA last year. This year I was much more active in committees and in open meetings. For the organization, last year was also a bit of a transition year as elections at all positions of leadership of the USTA were conducted. This year the leadership has been in place for a year and I have seen progress on numerous initiatives.

2. I would think having 60 directors would make it a complicated process to get a majority to decide on lunch. Can the structure be streamlined to be more effective? Does having so many directors cause more of a need for sub-committees?

This was discussed during the course of the meetings. 60 Directors is quite a bit for this board. I think it could be trimmed down but the question comes in what manner would that take place. There are currently 12 districts represented by directors for the USTA. I think it is important to have input from both a track management and a horsemen's end. Maybe if districts were trimmed to one track director and two membership directors to bring the total to 36, would be a start.

At the same time, while there are 60 Directors for the USTA, president Williams has made it very clear that any director wishing to be a part of a committee can request to be added to that committee and will be added. I feel that while total amount of directors is one discussion, making sure you have active directors becomes far more important.

3. What do you feel is the most pressing issue today?

The most pressing issue in both breeds I feel is the strive for uniformity of rules when it comes to both racing and medication. One thing I was really impressed with coming out of these meetings was to see that there truly is a collective effort being made on behalf of the racetrack and membership Directors to bring this uniform policy back to tracks and have it implemented. While the USTA has a lot of Directors (59 total currently), having a mix a track operators, drivers, trainers, owners, and breeders all in the same room and all with a voice led to a lot of great open discussion and will bring about results, in my estimation.

4. I don't understand the self-policing involved with the WEG/Gural Rule which was reeled back. Which direction do you see regulations going on a more national basis?

Regarding the WEG/Gural rule, I can say that I don't have an issue with any track operator or horsemen's group that wants to protect the integrity of the game. Knowing the time and effort that both jurisdictions put into this sport, I can guarantee that there was a ton of research put forth in crafting this rule and looking toward the implementation of it. When it comes to rules on a national basis and where the USTA is involved, I think things are in place now for the implementation of uniform rules in the standardbred industry.

5. Do you foresee a time soon whereby there is one body which can rule over all jurisdictions in North America? Do you think one rule book is possible?

I do foresee a time soon, and I spoke to this issue in front of the full board of directors in Ohio, where there can be oversight and rules from a single organization. The USTA has done a tremendous job when it comes to putting forth the time, effort, and research for every single rule. The USTA staff has done an excellent job in crafting rules and this year great strides
were made with rules brought forth by an Ad-Hoc committee headed by John Campbell. The USTA should be the body to
oversee standardbred racing in the United States. At our meetings, the full group of Directors had every rule brought forth,
discussed, and voted upon for recommendation to the rules committee. The rules committee then discussed further every
rule and supported the recommendations made by the full board. Those are great strides as the group as a whole had input and I believe these rules should be adopted by all tracks for uniformity.

6. I have noticed the tracks which have carved out a niche on certain days of the week have done well this year. Pompano Park and Cal Expo with horizontal bets and Northfield has also made early in the week a key time for their features. Can there be a more national schedule whereby all tracks can benefit instead of strictly competing against each other?

Tracks are doing a great job and there is an effort to continue to improve things. For us at Hawthorne, I have a great relationship with Jason Settlemoir at the Meadowlands. We are in communication already to make sure we do not run races on top of one another. The most important thing for tracks is to know where we all fall in the pecking order. I know that Hawthorne is not going to do well if we run a race at the same time as Meadowlands or Woodbine/Mohawk on a Friday or Saturday night. At the same time, it is equally important for us to work with Pompano or Cal Expo on a Thursday or Sunday night to enhance the handle for each track. It is being done now but can also be improved. Additionally, with outlets like TVG and TVG2 giving a focus to harness tracks in the evening, we want to make sure to work into their schedule as well in increase our exposure. Similar coverage from Xbet TV-360 or any site taking our races online is equally important.

7. To go along with everyone pulling on the same rope. Years ago, tracks had combined Pick 4's. Yonkers does a NY Daily Double with a thoroughbred counterpart. Do you think holding hands with another track and combining pools makes sense?

It makes sense if done properly. While tracks work together for wagers like this, there comes the work with tote companies, breakage for commissions and purses and marketing efforts put forth. I wouldn't be surprised to see tracks give wagers like this an opportunity again in the near future.

8. It seems harness players come out the woodwork to bet Pick 4's and Pick 5's when there is a carryover and a larger guarantee. Can the USTA provide funding, or possibly breeders or by drawing from purse accounts so there is the ability to raise the guarantees at different tracks?

Actually, the USTA already has a great program that is utilized by some tracks. The USTA Strategic Wagering Program provides assistance not only with guaranteed pools but also providing free past performances for races where the program is used. We had discussion at our USTA meetings in regard to being more aggressive with these guarantees also with working to find a way to better disseminate the word on carryovers and guarantees to the player. I expect to see great strides on this end made in the next year.

9. Has there been any progress on having a national marketing plan? This sport has had a negative stigma attached dating back decades, more so than on the thoroughbred side. Is there anything happening on that front?

There is, and kudos to USTA president Russell Williams for leading the charge on this. The USTA as an organization is in charge of promoting the sport to all. Russell helped to create a program in Pennsylvania that could be expanded to other states. The USTA has staff on the publicity end to get word out in a timely manner and committees have been formed to focus on broadcast and social media. Being one of the younger Directors, I was pleased to see these things put into
place.

10. I know Hawthorne has stepped forward with the own a horse sweepstakes and other initiatives to grow the fan base. Are there any plans on national basis to have harness racing classes to educate the public? Possibly having drivers, trainers and owners involved?

Education is the biggest thing, when it comes to horsemen and to players. The USTA has hosted a driver's school and has been much more active with travelling to major events and getting the word out. What I am excited about was the overwhelming support of the new USTA Youth Delegate program that was introduced by Gabe Wand at the meetings. Those between the ages of 16 to 20 can apply to be a youth delegate for a district. This group will not only be able to attend and be involved in district meetings but will also be a part of our board of director's meetings beginning next year. The program received unanimous support.

11. Do you think having an oversight committee made up of bettors, owners, drivers and trainers makes sense?

I think you need to add track operators into this and then I would say yes for sure. We had discussion at the meetings about bringing forth the input of the player to the group. For this industry to survive you need not only the support of the horsemen and the track, but without the bettor we have nothing. I don't see any reason why we wouldn't want to have the player involved in discussions either. To take that one step further, I would think players would feel much better about the sport if they were involved in watching the discussions that take place in the USTA meetings on all ends. There is a lot of great input being put out there all with the goal of improving the sport.

12. Where do you think harness racing will be in the next three to five years?

I think the industry is headed in the right direction as a whole. There is a strive toward unification and cooperation which is very positive. In Illinois, it is tougher for a track like Hawthorne as we are sorely in need of assistance from our legislature to allow us to be on the same playing field as surrounding states when it comes to gaming. If we can compete, purses will improve which leads to more breeding and ownership, which in turn leads to fuller fields and a better product to wager on.

Jim-Thanks for your time!

Jim Miller is the director of media relations at Hawthorne Race Course and Suburban Downs and the general manager/racing at the Illinois State Fairs. Miller has spent 25 years in the sport. He worked at Arlington Park from 1993-1997 and has been at Hawthorne/Suburban Downs since 1997. Miller served as the assistant general manager at Hawthorne from 2000-2012 before taking a brief leave to work for a Thoroughbred owner. Additional positions he has held include back-up track announcer, racing analyst, clocker, morning-line oddsmaker, horsemen relations, and stall superintendent. Miller has been a past president of and currently serves as treasurer of the Racing Industry Charitable Foundation. Miller has been a Thoroughbred horse owner for 13 years and was named to the inaugural Thoroughbred Times "40 Under 40" list. Prior to his involvement in the sport, Miller graduated from Carthage College in 1997 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications. He became a member of the Carthage College Athletic Hall of Fame in the fall of 2017. He was an NCAA All-American baseball player in 1997 and was drafted in the 11th round of the June free agent draft that year by the Milwaukee Brewers. He played four years in the Brewers organization (1997-2000). He and his wife, Joanne, have two children, Hannah (13) and Owen (10).

Check me out on Twitter, @AlCimaglia.