Mike Smith wasn’t looking for a job—and certainly not one as potentially controversial as the one he accepted earlier this month.
Four months after retiring as the executive officer of the Casino Association of Indiana, the 62-year-old Rensselaer native was hired to replace Indiana Horse Racing Commission executive director Joe Gorajec, who had been in the position since the commission was formed in 1990.
Gorajec was dismissed in October when he and IHRC board members couldn’t agree on his job priorities. IHRC board members want the director to spend more time marketing and promoting the sport.
Gorajec had become renowned for his efforts to enforce regulations. Some of those efforts put him at odds with area horse farm operators.
Smith is no stranger to discord in the workplace. Before spending 13 years as chief executive officer of the Casino Association of Indiana, a lobbying organization representing casinos, Smith served as a member of the Indiana House of Representatives from 1993-2002, including a stint as Republican floor leader.
During that time, Smith said he learned a lot about consensus building.
“You’re always going to have conflict,” he said. “The best way to build consensus is to focus on the common good.”
Smith isn’t running into his new position with blinders on.
“I realize there are lots of complicated issues,” Smith said.
Among them: There are multiple sets of industry regulations across the country and determining which of those to follow will be key to the industry’s future here.
Never mind that Smith's former employer (casinos) and current one (horse tracks and breeders) haven't always seen eye to eye. Smith said he is squarely focused on his current job and the constituents he serves.
Despite the cries from IHRC board members and area horsemen alike for more marketing, Smith said his top priority will be enforcement.
“First and foremost, you have to be a regulator,” Smith told IBJ. “That’s the No. 1 issue; 1a will be promotion.”
Smith thinks there’s no conflict with the IHRC promoting and regulating the industry.
“I truly believe [regulations and promotions] can coexist,” Smith said. “You have to have the integrity piece. People have to be comfortable with the product.”
Smith added that properly regulating the industry can be a form of “promotion in and of itself.”
“People want to know they’re on a level playing field, that things are on the up and up,” Smith said. “People will buy a lottery ticket that has 290 million to one odds if they think they really have a chance to win, that the game is being played legitimately.”
Smith is more than a politician and lobbyist. He’s also a long-time horseman himself.
“My father and I were really involved in racing horses for 25 years, so I really wanted to be a part of this,” Smith said. “Even though I could be sitting on a beach, this is an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often. I wanted to give back to a sport that’s given so much to me and my family.”
Much like bicycle racing, distance running and myriad stick-and-ball sports, performance-enhancing drug use has also become a problem in horse racing. In this case, it’s the horse getting drugged.
Smith doesn’t think the problem in this region is wide-spread. “That’s my initial impression,” he said.
But he vows to crack down on it where it is found.
“I promise you I won’t be soft on illegal drugs,” Smith said. “If someone breaks the rules, they will pay the penalty. That’s the way it has to be.”
Smith also promises to apply the rules evenly to all involved in the sport.
Smith said by regulating the sport fairly and launching new promotions to attract new horse farm operators and a new breed of—perhaps younger—bettors to the sport, he can reverse the two most troubling trends for the local horse racing industry.
The number of Indiana-bred foals has been in decline since 2011, when it was 2,733, according to the IHRC. Last year, the number was 1,717.
Also, the amount wagered at Indiana tracks and off-track-betting parlors has dropped each year, from its peak of $190 million in 2005 to $83 million last year.
IHRC Chairman Thomas Weatherwax thinks Smith is the man to reverse those trends.
“His hands-on background in horse racing coupled with his successful business experience and as a leader in the Indiana General Assembly make him uniquely qualified to lead the IHRC,” Weatherwax wrote in a letter he addressed to industry stakeholders.
“The Commission continues its commitment to maintain the highest integrity for Indiana’s racing along with fostering and promoting an environment that will encourage investment and growth of Indiana horse racing to expand the industry’s role in Indiana’s economy,” added Weatherwax. “Knowing that Mike shares the commission’s goals, we believe his leadership will continue our progress.”
Already, Smith and his staff are preparing to launch a more aggressive social media marketing campaign. He said Jessica Barnes, the IHRC’s director of racing and breed development, has brought him a stack of ideas on how to grow the horse racing industry in Indiana.
“You’ll see us try to work with every stakeholder to leverage every possible dollar for promotion,” Smith said. “We want to have the best place in the world to come and race.”