Racing has a void at the top
In most sports, when things go badly, as they often have the last few years in horse racing, they fire the person in charge.
That person is safe in horse racing. He or she doesn’t exist.
It is a sport without a rudder, an asylum run by the inmates.
Not that they haven’t tried.
In January 1994, racing appointed a man named Brian McGrath as head of the Thoroughbred Racing Assn. He was supposed to be the czar of the sport, even though he knew little about it. He was there to market and brand and get more TV exposure.
He lasted 17 months.
Then, coming on the scene in 1998 was Tim Smith, who had worked for the Atlanta Olympic Committee, as well as in politics in the Carter Administration and with the PGA Tour. He was smart and personable and became the head of the NTRA, which had added the word National to its title.
“We even called him the commissioner,” said R.D. Hubbard, former owner of Hollywood Park and current member of the 13-person Breeders’ Cup board of directors.
Smith resigned in 2004.
Hubbard said that that didn’t work because, despite the NTRA’s important-sounding title, it does not have the authority to run a sport whose real authority, because of things such as wagering and rules on medication, comes from the states.
“Having a commissioner just doesn’t work,” Hubbard said. “It’s pie in the sky.”
So, two weeks after Eight Belles broke down at the Kentucky Derby and was immediately euthanized, sparking instant outrage, soul-searching and not a little defensiveness, the sport can agree only that it has no central power and can’t even agree on whether that matters.
Ron Charles, president of Santa Anita and chief operating officer of powerful Magna Entertainment, the track’s owner, said, “Our rules are now all over the place.”
Rick Arthur, equine medical director for the California Horse Racing Board, when asked about the concept of a true commissioner, said: “We need one.”
Trainer Richard Mandella said: “Great idea, but who do you get? It would have to be someone independent of any special interest group. Someone who could bring everybody together.”
Maybe the idea of longtime racing secretary Tom Knust has credence.
“We need a dictator,” he said.
Then there is the plan of Bob Baffert, one of the winningest trainers in the sport.
“I’d make Wayne Lukas commissioner,” he said, referring to another legendary trainer and longtime rival. “He knows the sport, the people. He could get through all the politics and get something done. When the filly went down in the Derby, I would have just hauled Lukas out of the stands and put him in charge, let him handle the press and the doctors.”
Lukas, 72, laughed at the thought of Baffert being his public relations agent, agreed that he too thought the sport needed to put somebody in charge and then respectfully declined.
“I don’t want a desk job,” he said.
Beyond the question of leadership, the industry is wrestling with the issue of synthetics, now the surface of nine tracks in the country, including four in California.
Frank Calabrese, leading owner at Arlington from 2000 to 2007, said: “I feel right now that the safest track is Polytrack.”
Hubbard greets the topic with a grumble.
“One thing that is not the answer is the stuff [synthetic tracks] Richard Shapiro and California are mandating,” he said.
Mostly, much of racing is more than perturbed that all the attention over Eight Belles is detracting from the star quality of Derby winner Big Brown.
Hubbard says he probably will skip the Preakness because, “I don’t like having to bet on something that will go off 1 to 9. But I’ll be there at the Belmont when we crown the next Triple Crown winner.”
While lacking authoritative leadership, racing doesn’t lack vision or a desire to fix what it can.
Hubbard is the head of the site selection committee for the Breeders’ Cup. In an unprecedented move, the Breeders’ Cup has decided to stay in the same place, Santa Anita, for the next two events, starting this fall.
Hubbard said that he can see things turning around for his sport with a Triple Crown winner and a well-marketed Breeders’ Cup in a major media market such as Los Angeles.
“We want to take things to the next level,” he said.
Racing has established commissions, appointed committees, called on its best and brightest to improve things. BloodHorse.com even reported recently that a study done in Southern California has developed a blood test that has a “90% predictability for diagnosing a pre-fracture injury” in a thoroughbred.
That would be a startling breakthrough. So would an announcement from somebody with the authority to demand everybody use it.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.