Chatting At the Track with: Najja Thompson

Executive Director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders Najja Thompson stands in the horse path at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday.
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Executive Director of New York Thoroughbred Breeders Najja Thompson stands in the horse path at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs on Wednesday.

Najja Thompson, the executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, brings an eclectic background to the position. He worked for the New York Racing Association in a variety of departments, including communications, marketing and even human resources, where he had the important job of recruitment and employee engagement right after the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a three-month shutdown of racing in 2020.

“I was in charge of developing an employee onboarding program,” Thompson said from Saratoga recently. “I also worked with the I-9 identification system, making sure every worker had the proper identification. My role was helping the company to bring employees back in. And for those who had no experience with racing, try to acclimate them to what we do every day at every track throughout the year.”

He was born on Long Island, but moved to Florida during middle school. He’s a New York Giants and New York Knicks fan, “but my parents said you have to have one Florida team,” so he not only chose Florida State, but ended up graduating from there as well.

He chatted with The Daily Gazette recently:

Question: What appealed to you about the NYTB position?

Answer: At first I saw the position was open after Jeff Cannizzo, who’d been with NYTB for over 13 years, was leaving. With my experience of working 10 years in the industry, and – a lot of people don’t know – my uncle was a small-time breeder in Florida and introduced me to the game. Once I saw the position open up, once I spoke to counsel – trainers, fellow industry workers – they said, ‘Hey, just put your name in the hat and see how it goes.’ Fortunately enough, I had great conversations with Jeff and the board and was able to be named the executive director and lead the breeding program to build on what they had done previously and continue the trajectory, hopefully, of getting more foals and working with legislators in the state to see the importance of the horse racing industry, and all that we do for creating jobs, protecting green space and, of course, increasing the foal crop so we can get the great racehorses that can race here at NYRA tracks and at Finger Lakes.

Q: Jeff Cannizzo did a great job in that role, but you’re expected to add to it. Is that both exciting and a little intimidating?

A: I’ve been thankful [Cannizzo] is a mentor, and I depend on his counsel, because now he’s at NYRA as senior director of government affairs. So we interact on a day-to-day basis, so I can go to him for that institutional knowledge, as well as the board. Our president, Tom Gallo, and our entire board has been useful and resourceful in helping me to get up to speed as to where we want to get our breeding program to be. At the current state, it’s about the redevelopment of Belmont Park. When that gets going, it secures year-round racing in New York, and the implementation of a synthetic track there and upgrading a world-class facility, that I really think will protect the future of horse racing, and NYRA and the New York Thoroughbred Breeders for us to run and compete all year.

Q: The New York-bred program really leads the nation as far as average purse per state-bred race. Is that always on your radar?

A: Definitely, making sure we have a state-bred program that is competitive, but also graduates to the open company. Thankfully at this meet we’ve had three graded stakes winners, including a Grade I winner on the jumps with Down Royal. It just shows the progression of New York breeders and the quality they’re putting forth. And you’ve seen it throughout the ranks, with Central Banker, the way his progeny have competed and won. And War Dancer. It starts with good stallions in New York that you get at a value, but as well we have a dual program that you can also go out of state and foal here in New York and become a New York-bred, and those horses are competing well at a good level.

Q: And I’d guess you’re always trying to get more mares?

A: Yes, the number one goal is always getting more mares to the state. When you do that, they can breed to the stallions we have here, as well as produce more foals from going out of state and coming back to New York to foal. We’re successfully able to implement a $5,000 owner’s bonus if you own a New York sire, and race at a New York track and win at the maiden or allowance level. It’s a nice little incentive to own a New York sire.

Q: How much time do you spend dealing with legislators, and is it an eye-opener?

A: It certainly is an eye-opener. A significant portion [of my job] is focused on the economic impact of jobs, the protection of green space. We’re able to form a coalition with NYRA and [New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association], and even on the standardbred side, ‘We Are New York Racing.’ What we’re doing is informing the public and not letting our detractors tell the story. We’ve produced some really appealing commercials to show that our industry is wider than just owners, but extends to small businesses in town, unions that provide jobs from electricians to guys who do track maintenance. Of course, backstretch workers and grooms. And on the farm level, all the local commerce, from the purchasing of hay to the harvesting of hay.

Q: You mention the farm level. As we move toward an uncertain economy, how important is that level?

A: Certainly, it all starts there, so we’ve got to work with our legislators and get them to recognize the importance of breeding and what thoroughbred racing brings to New York State. What I try to do with elected officials is bring them out to the breeding farms, so they can see the experience. Just the other day we had [Assemblywoman] Carrie Woerner, of course a big champion [of horse racing], and she was able to visit Old Tavern Farm, and we were able to work with NYRA on breeding farm tours, so you can educate the racing public as well. Here at Saratoga Race Course, you can see the end of the product, but you want to expose people to where it all begins, where mares are foaled and how they’re raised and taken care of in a proper manner. And all that contributes to the state economy.

Q: What’s playing in your car right now?

A: I kind of like upbeat, [and] I think dance music has made a return, so it’s a lot of Afro-beats, the new Beyonce album that just came out, Renaissance, so kind of keeping upbeat. But mostly I’m an NPR listener; “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” or Terry Gross’ interviews on “Fresh Air.”

Q: How do you want to see the NYTB evolve in the future?

A: I’d like to see us finding that next generation of talent that can work in the industry from the breeding level perspective, whether it’s as veterinarians or workers, and of course work legislatively with immigration visas, so that’s a lot of work I’ll be doing a lot of lobbying for; to make it easy for the farm owners to bring in workers. And of course to find new breeding farm owners and new breeders into the sport. Because I think we’ve done a good job at the racetrack of finding new owners and partnerships. We’d like to see those partnerships extend to the breeding farms as well. Why can’t we get people to team up and learn about the breeding farm level?

Q: Who do you feel better about, the Giants or the Knicks?

A: My answer is going to be the Knicks. I like [head coach Tom] Thibodeau, I like what the management is doing. Again, we have a young nucleus I think we can build from. Hopefully we’ll be able to get Donovan Mitchell to improve upon that. That’d be great. You like to see a young team that’s gelling and improving.

Q: As a racing fan, what moment makes you smile?

A: I guess my biggest thrills are seeing the unexpected. When you’re here – and I was lucky enough to be covering when Keen Ice won the Travers at huge odds upsetting American Pharoah – anytime you see an upset, even though it may not be on your ticket, to see small or unknown connections win a great race. It just carries on the belief that we have equine athletes competing at the highest level, and anyone can own a piece of them or breed them and have an opportunity to have their picture taken in the winner’s circle at a place like Saratoga, it’s just special.

Categories: At The Track, Sports, Sports

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