Longtime Lafayette attorney Bob Wright is on his second time around as chairman of the Louisiana Racing Association, having earlier served under Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
A former president of the Louisiana Bar Association and the Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association, Wright, who heads the firm of Domengeaux, Wright, Roy and Edwards, was a charter member of the Louisiana Bar Association’s Hall of Fame.
He recently talked with The Advocate about his interest in racing and issues facing the enterprise in the state and the Fair Grounds in particular.
The Advocate: How did you get involved with horse racing?
Wright: I started investing in horses 30 years ago, buying them at sales and stuff like that as a hobby. Never had much success.
One thing they kid me about is having to change the rules. When I was chairman the time before, the commissioners could run their horses on local tracks under our jurisdiction, and I thought that presented a possible conflict of interest.
So we got the law changed, and a lot of people were telling me, “That’s a good thing. Looks like it’s going to be well-received from a government standpoint.” Truth of the matter is, my interest was being able to get rid of my horses. I sure wasn’t making any money off of them.
Advocate: What made you want to become chairman again?
Wright: I like to do things. I like to get involved. I’ve developed enough interest in it now; I think I know enough about it now to be of help. I enjoy it.
And plus, I’m at the time in my legal career (when) I’m not working as hard as I used to. It gives me something to concentrate on. I have a pretty large law firm, and for the last few years I’ve spent 12 hours a day at that. I don’t have to do that now. I have the time and the interest.
Advocate: The Fair Grounds recently announced substantial cuts to the purses for the upcoming season. What was your reaction?
Wright: I don’t know if it’s justifiable for them to come to this decision that they can reduce the purses by a certain amount. That’s the reason we want to go into the numbers with them, to make sure it’s not just a plea to the public that they need help, which is probably reducing the number of racing days. They’re saying, “We’re having problems, so you’ve got to let us do this.” I don’t want them to be doing things that aren’t justifiable.
Advocate: A few weeks ago, there were reports that the Fair Grounds was for sale. Nothing has happened since then. What do you think was going on?
Wright: I think they were interested in seeing what they could do to raise money to get into the gaming market in the Northeast. If they can get the $175 million they’re asking for, they could reduce the debt they’re going into for the casino they’re trying to get into up there. But they’re not going to sell this track for what they hoped they would.
Advocate: What would you want out of a potential owner?
Wright: Someone who has a great interest in the racing industry, as opposed to making money off of gaming. Somebody who really wants in there for the purpose of promoting horse racing from a monetary standpoint as well as for the love of the sport.
I’m seeing that Churchill Downs is nothing but a big, major corporation now. They started with Churchill being their one asset and only interest. But with this casino and gaming coming along, as a corporation and a business, they see that they can get more quick revenue from that then the regular horse racing.
So what my hope would be is that anyone who takes it over would do so for reasons of love and interest in the industry, and not its offshoots. But right now, it’s strictly hearsay.
Advocate: Whether or not the track is sold, do you believe Churchill Downs Inc. is focused on doing that at the Fair Grounds, as its representatives have stated?
Wright: Well, I was very, very pleased at the report they gave us at the last meeting and what they’ve given us on an ongoing basis — that they were dedicated to doing this as well as making improvements at the track and OTBs. But now, if this indication is correct, that they’re trying to get rid of the track, then I have a different feeling about it.
They’ve already committed to spending, I think, $175,000 more on promotion this coming year than they have in the past, so I do think they’re obligated to and will do that. But whether they’re going to have as strong a long-term interest in developing interest in the track, I’m not sure.
Advocate: You were born in Kentucky, but a basketball scholarship to Centenary brought you to Louisiana. What do sports mean to you?
Wright: I love athletics. I think they’re good for young people for disciplinary purposes. It causes you to maintain an interest outside of the bars and things that college people get involved with.
But I just grew up with basketball. Did you ever see the movie “Hoosiers”? That movie depicts my life. Life in the Midwest is basketball. Everybody played basketball. The fans love it. You’d have a high school game and there’d be 5,000 people there.
I got involved as an infant, stuck with it and, of course, it got me a scholarship and allowed me to go to college and get an education. So athletics have been very good to me.
Advocate: What has changed in Louisiana racing since your first go-round?
Wright: We’ve gotten a better grade of horses to come to Louisiana, and the breeding here has improved a lot because of the breeders’ awards that we give to Louisiana-bred horses. That’s encouraged people to breed horses here that otherwise wouldn’t.
It allows these people with good horses to come down here for the bigger tracks and the $1 million, $500,000 purses, which we didn’t have years ago. Very seldom did you have Grade I or even Grade II horses running on the tracks in Louisiana, but now it’s commonplace for us to have several races with them a year. So it’s improved the status of racing here quite a bit.
Advocate: What do you want to do as chairman?
Wright: My main objective is to get away from this thought that Louisiana allows the use of drugs in horses to enhance their quality. That’s one thing we’ve worked hard on to stamp out, and we’re still working on that, to clean up the industry’s image. It’s not a fact.
A large percentage of the betting on these Louisiana tracks comes from outside of Louisiana at OTBs. If the image out there is that we have horses that are doped and you can’t really evaluate them accurately, that hurts your take. We have to clean up that image. I think we’ve accomplished quite a bit in that regard and are continuing to.
Advocate: Do you perceive the sport’s popularity as suffering?
Wright: There’s no question that the competition for the entertainment dollar is much higher, with slot machines and things of that nature.
Football has become so popular along with other sports, getting a lot of TV support. So yes, the live attendance for horse racing has gone down quite a bit.
That’s a secondary purpose that we’re trying to accomplish, is trying to improve live attendance at these tracks. Now that one’s going to be a tough one to accomplish.
Advocate: How do you do that?
Wright: Just like anything else, it’s promotion. Doing things that entice people who heretofore have not been racing fans to come out to the racing industry and get interested. To do that, you sometimes have to add to the racing itself entertainments of other sorts, like your music groups or things of that nature.
Some of the biggest racing nights here (in New Orleans) for example, are when they entice families to bring their children to watch the camels and all those strange animals run. Kids get such a big kick out of that when families bring them, and we hope that will then spill over to them coming back to the race track for other reasons.
I don’t know if we’re going to be able to bring it back to where it was years ago, but we certainly assist the owners of these tracks in encouraging attendance more than we have in the past.